Sixty Years of Silence: The Story of Günter Grass

By Petra Marquardt-Bigman

Published in Covenant, Volume 1, Issue 2 (April 2007 / Iyar 5767)

Abstract: In August 2006, the German writer and Nobel laureate Günter Grass caused a media-quake of major proportions when he revealed that he had served in the SS. While the ensuing controversy pushed the debate about the war between Israel and Hezbollah into the background, both issues once again brought up the problematic legacy of a past that, reflecting postmodern preferences, is increasingly viewed as a “grand narrative” structured in terms of “victims” and “perpetrators.” Highlighting a casual remark of Grass about his supposedly first encounter with racism as an American POW and his failure to break his silence when he accepted the offer of an honorary doctoral degree from an Israeli college, the article explores how Europe’s “grand narrative” shapes the European discourse about Israel and the Middle East.


At the end of 2006, the Guardian’s Berlin correspondent noted that Germans would remember the year “for just one rather marvelous thing–the World Cup.” [1] Under the title “The War is Over”, the article highlighted some of the World Cup’s aspects that doubtlessly were appreciated even by those (relatively few) Germans who couldn’t care less about football: the country had shown for all the world to see that it had emerged from the shadows of its past–Germans could wave their flag and cheer their national team without projecting anything but a harmless, infectious enthusiasm for a popular sport.

Among the fans watching the World Cup was the famous German author and Nobel laureate Günter Grass. The almost 80-year-old writer had just finished his latest book, an autobiographical work about his youth that was due to be published a few weeks after the World Cup. He had also been offered an honorary doctoral degree from an Israeli college, and in between watching the World Cup matches and reading the proofs for his book, he made time to meet the representatives of Netanya Academic College.

It was reportedly a pleasant meeting that took place at Grass’s home near Lübeck in northern Germany. The Nobel laureate told his guests that he was happy to accept the honor offered to him and that he looked forward to visit Israel for an official ceremony that would be organized by the college. But Günter Grass did not tell his guests what he would tell an interviewer a few weeks later: his forthcoming autobiography Peeling the Onion[2] would reveal a secret that he had kept for more than sixty years. The secret was a most unexpected one from a man like Grass who had spent a lifetime speaking out passionately about the need for Germans to face up to their Nazi past. The secret was that Günter Grass himself had kept silent for more than sixty years about his own service in the SS.

It quickly became clear that the young Grass had been drafted for service in the Waffen-SS towards the end of the war, and that he had not been involved in any of the atrocities committed by Himmler’s notorious organization. Yet, it was unavoidable–and some thought, calculated–that his confession caused a media-quake of major proportions that would reverberate for months throughout Germany and even in the European and international press. The history that during the World Cup had seemed just a faded memory was back in the headlines again.

But it was not just the confession of Nobel laureate Günter Grass that forced Germans in mid-August 2006 to once again confront their past. The summer’s war between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah had already brought back the sensitive question of whether Germans could feel as free as others to criticize Israel’s conduct. Yet, this debate was quickly drowned out by the flood of editorials, commentary and TV programs that covered any conceivable reaction to Grass’s confession and tried to square the rather belated revelation with the writer’s lifelong pose as a righteous leftist.

In the respected Süddeutsche Zeitung, two younger writers soon issued an exasperated “plea for less Grass and more debate on the Middle East.”[3] Protesting that the generation of Grass was dominating the political discourse, they criticized that “all express their understanding, their consternation, their disappointment, even their nausea–none of them is under 75. A class reunion of old German intellectuals who feel chronically inclined or obliged to enlighten us on the same topic: Hitler and me.[…] It’s shameful that within three days, the Grass affair has elicited more statements and morally-grounded positions from German writers and thinkers than the war in northern Israel and southern Lebanon did in the 33 days prior.”

There was another aspect of the frenzy surrounding Grass’s revelation that was perhaps no less “shameful” and certainly no less telling: In the lengthy interview before the publication of his book, Grass had smugly recalled how he, a young SS recruit who was held as a POW by American forces, encountered “direct racism” for the very first time when he witnessed the discrimination of black soldiers in the US Army.[4] It was a rather casual remark, and among German commentators, it went largely unnoticed.

But the Wall Street Journal picked it up for what it was: an editorial noted with some sarcasm that, growing up in Nazi Germany, the young Grass should have had a few opportunities to notice racism prior to his capture by American forces. Describing the Nobel laureate as “a darling of the anti-American and anti-globalization set,” the editorial concluded that SS-recruit Grass “felt morally superior to those damn Yanks, and he still does six decades later”–all of which earned him, in a pun on his most famous novel, the designation “Tin Moralist.”[5]

A Hungarian commentator highlighted another aspect: the public intellectual Grass, who claimed to speak with the authoritative voice of moral indignation on Germany’s past and present, had obviously failed to notice in his youth that Jews were disappearing; sixty years later, he was an outspoken critic of America, but had once again nothing to say about the threats of the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.[6]

There was indeed something very characteristic in the casual and smug way in which Grass had recalled his first encounter with “direct racism,” and the incident–as well as the fact that it was barely noted in the flood of commentary that engulfed Europe’s media in the aftermath of Grass’s belated confession–may well serve as an illustration of a crucial mechanism that shapes the views of Europe’s elites not only about America, but also about Israel.

Europe has come a long way in its approach to the country that was established because of the very direct racism that went unnoticed by the young SS recruit Günter Grass. Guilt-ridden support for the state of the Holocaust’s survivors has given way to sharply critical attitudes that do not always stop short of accusing Israel of crimes as evil as those committed against European Jewry. Neither Israelis nor pro-Israel advocacy groups seem quite to understand what feeds the hostility that they see coming from Europe: the countless calls to boycott Israeli academia, films, exhibitions, companies, and products; the threats to try Israeli army personnel and Israeli politicians for war crimes, and, beyond calls and threats, actual measures like the ban that prohibits refueling stops of El Al planes with military cargo in several European countries, Germany among them. Equally hard to understand is how those who used to fervently endorse the pledge of “Never Again” would remain somewhat aloof when the call to wipe Israel off the map was issued from Teheran. Eyebrows were raised, dismay was expressed, but in the end the response remained muted, and neither the intellectual nor the political debate took much notice of the existential threat that a nuclear Iran poses for Israel.

But perhaps Europe simply sees little reason to worry about existential threats to Israel–after all, in the fall of 2003, a survey in the European Union revealed that 59 percent of Europeans regarded Israel as a greater threat to world peace than Iran. As always in situations like this, Israeli media and international organizations like the Anti-Defamation League blamed latent antisemitism for European hostility towards Israel. But this well-worn explanation fails to grasp the formative forces that are shaping European public opinion. In this context, Grass’s casual remark about his first encounter with “direct racism” may be paradigmatic: Obviously a young man who grew up in Nazi Germany and went through SS training did not encounter “direct racism” for the first time when he witnessed the discrimination of black servicemen in the US Army, but doubtlessly that was the first time Grass noticed racism. His sensitivity to manifestations of racism might have been enhanced by his “demotion” from being a member of what he perceived to be SS elite troops to being a prisoner of war, in other words: from being a potential perpetrator to being a potential victim.

Some sixty years later, Günter Grass seems to have devoted precious little effort to questioning his perceptions or the notions that were formed on the basis of these perceptions. It is the narrative that preoccupies him–and it is narratives that preoccupy the political discourse in postmodern Europe.

In the prosperous and largely peaceful environment that Europe has provided for its citizens in the past few decades, the horrors of the 1930s and 1940s have receded into history. While the Holocaust is obviously still widely regarded as part of a traumatic and formative past, prevailing postmodern preferences have shaped the discourse about this past. On the one hand, the Holocaust has given rise to a “grand narrative” that structures European perceptions of the past and present in terms of “victims” and “perpetrators.” On the other hand, the postmodern perspective which views the legacy of the Holocaust as a narrative construct has diminished the acceptance of interpretations that tied European, and particularly German, guilt for the destruction of European Jewry to the establishment of Israel and required a basically positive view of the Jewish state. After decades of diligent Vergangenheitsbewältigung–that quintessentially German construct describing the process of coming to terms with the past–Germans and Europeans alike feel that they have graduated beyond the constraints of “political correctness” in the discourse about Israel. At the same time, this discourse reflects Europe’s grand narrative and is thus generally still conducted within the coordinates set by the categories of the “victim” and the “perpetrator.” The perception that, in the case of Israel, the state and the people that had been accorded unquestioning victim status have become perpetrators makes this discourse particularly resistant to voices that speak for a country that wants to be neither victim nor perpetrator.

Europe’s tendency to now overcompensate for the previous “political correctness” towards Israel also has to be understood in the context of the current challenges that are posed by the radicalization of Muslim minorities in Europe and the related threats to social peace and public security. Faced with these problems, Europe has, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, experienced a sense of being threatened. In a somewhat paradoxical switch of roles, the political right tends to interpret that threat within a conceptual framework that conjures the specter of the rise of a new fascism; by contrast, the political center and left resolutely reject any attempts to look for parallels in the past and insist that the present policies of the US and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories are the major factors that cause the radicalization of Muslim populations. What seems to be rarely noted in the European discourse is that this view echoes quite uncritically the narrative that has been instrumentalized for decades in the Muslim world to channel popular dissatisfaction with repressive and stagnant regimes.

Thus, the publication of a statement of support for Günter Grass by 46 Arab intellectuals, who dismissed criticism against the writer as a ploy to divert attention from the crimes of Israeli “neo-Nazis,” may have been an embarrassing show of solidarity, but it was not necessarily a completely undeserved one.[7] The Neue Zürcher Zeitung that carried the report noted critically that the statement reflected an intellectual discourse divorced from reality, feeding on slogans, empty rhetoric, and conspiracy theories. This criticism may not only apply to the intellectual discourse in the Arab world.

The dichotomy between the role of the victim and the perpetrator that dominates the discourse about Israel in Europe and elsewhere reflects perhaps a deep-seated human longing for morality and justice. However, as the example of Günter Grass might illustrate, the human experience is more ambiguous: what would have happened if he had been just one year older, and had been drafted earlier in the war? Would his misguided youthful idealism have made him a willing perpetrator, or would he have refused participation in murderous SS commandos, and have become a victim? And what would have happened to a Jewish US soldier taken prisoner by Grass and his comrades? Futile questions perhaps, and Grass himself seems either never to have wondered about them, or is simply all too sure of the answers.

Against this background, it is interesting to note that Tom Segev, in an article in Haaretz,[8] still thought that Israelis should appreciate the positive response of Grass to the offer by Netanya Academic College, because “Israel these days is not a major source of attraction for people who stand for the values of justice and human rights, even if they’re German.” After the interview in which Grass revealed that he had served in the SS, the college requested and received from Grass a letter of explanation–which clearly was formulated with German public opinion in mind–but eventually it was decided to “defer” the granting of the honorary degree to Grass. However, Segev suggested that Grass should perhaps still be invited at some point to Netanya, so that Israelis would have a chance to hear “what a person like him ought to say about the occupation and the oppression in the territories.”

Just a few days after Segev’s article appeared, Israelis actually did get a chance to hear something that was probably not far from what Grass would say: considering what is known about the views held by Grass, it is safe to assume that he would largely agree with the positions expressed by a group of mostly German academics who, in mid-November 2006, published a “manifesto” demanding a re-evaluation of the “special” relationship between Germany and Israel.[9] Under the title “Friendship and Criticism”, the authors devote considerable room to assuring readers of their friendship for Israel, but they reject the notion that Germany’s past requires them to uncritically support Israel; at the same time, the manifesto repeatedly invokes the need, even the duty, for “special sensitivity.”

Unfortunately, the manifesto shows little evidence of “special sensitivity”; indeed, it would rather seem that there is “special insensitivity” when the manifesto echoes some of the favorite lines of such “friends” of Israel as the Iranian president. Just like Ahmadinejad, the manifesto’s authors seem to regard the establishment of the State of Israel as a historic injustice against the Arabs: “It is the Holocaust that has, for six decades, caused the continuous, and currently even unbearable, suffering of the Palestinians.[…] countless dead, families torn apart, expulsion, and life in make-shift housing up to today have been the consequence.” The text continues to argue that, without the Holocaust, Israel would not feel justified to ignore so intransigently the human rights of Palestinians and Lebanese, and without the Holocaust, Israel would not be backed in this–materially and politically–by the US.

By arguing that Israel owes its existence exclusively or primarily to the Holocaust, the authors of the manifesto seem to deny that Zionism was a legitimate quest for a Jewish homeland. Indeed, the manifesto emphasizes that the UN decision to “accept” the establishment of the State of Israel was taken still under the “shock” of the Holocaust and “against the Arab states.” According to the manifesto, the Middle East conflict has German and European roots, and it was no fault of the Palestinians that “a part of the European problems was transferred to the Middle East.” Obviously, this has been said before in Farsi and in Arabic.

There is equally little “special sensitivity” when the manifesto’s authors declare that they are “convinced” that Jewish intellectuals like Adorno, Einstein, Freud, Marx and Zweig–“of whom we are so proud and without whom German culture and the German contribution to the sciences would be so much poorer”–would subscribe to the principle that only respect for equality, human rights and international law can guarantee peace and the continued existence and security of Israel, Jews in the Diaspora, and the future Palestinian state.

It is indeed likely that these German-Jewish intellectuals would have agreed with this principle, but the problem that is overlooked by the professors who authored the manifesto is that there has been historically a severe shortage of Arab-Muslim intellectuals who agree with this principle. In fact, not long before the publication of the manifesto, the Berliner Zeitung carried an article by an Iraqi-born writer who discussed the “Two faces of Arab Intellectuals” and criticized that Arab intellectuals would routinely condemn terrorist attacks in English, German, or French, and praise them in Arabic.[10]

However, the authors of the manifesto clearly prefer to focus on what can be criticized about Israel. While there are unequivocal condemnations of suicide attacks and the launching of Qassam rockets, the manifesto leaves little doubt that it is the suffering inflicted by Israel on Palestinians and Lebanese that is “unbearable.” Notwithstanding all the reaffirmations of friendship for Israel, the nine pages of the manifesto paint Israel as the victims’ state that has become a cruel perpetrator, cynically trampling human rights and dignity in its lust for land, a mighty militaristic monster, propped up by 20 percent of America’s foreign aid budget, oppressing, terrorizing and killing Palestinians and Lebanese at will.

It is simply remarkable with how much righteousness European intellectuals feel entitled to criticize Israel based on a simplistic view of the Middle East conflict that ultimately reflects Europe’s “grand narrative” of victims and perpetrators. Europe’s image of Israel is central for European perceptions of the Middle East: torn between feelings of obligation from their historic guilt and resentment arising from the often unacknowledged notion that the Jewish state has to prove that it is indeed a worthy guardian of whatever might be defined as the “legacy” of the Holocaust, Europeans feel increasingly justified in condemning Israel as racist, militaristic, oppressive, and generally malevolent. Perhaps one should also not underestimate the power of the associations triggered whenever the issue of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories comes up: when the French hear “occupation”, they think of the Nazi occupation of France, not of their own colonial rule in North Africa and elsewhere; and when the Germans hear “occupation”, they think of the Allied occupation of Germany, not of the Nazi occupation of much of Europe. Thus, Israel becomes the greatest threat to world peace, and the Star of David somehow gets distorted into a swastika. And since Europe’s grand narrative assigns the role of the perpetrator to Israel, the role that remains for the rest of the Middle East is that of the victim.

Yet, when Europeans, and certainly Germans, look at themselves, the dichotomy between the victim and the perpetrator all but dissolves. The story of Günter Grass is paradigmatic: as we learn from his autobiography, the young SS recruit “somehow” managed before his capture to strip off his SS uniform and change into a more innocuous Army uniform; with equal ease, he managed to strip off his role as a potential perpetrator and change into a potential victim by taking offense at the discrimination of black US soldiers. And while it would be just a strange historical coincidence if–as Grass has implied–the German Nobel laureate and the German Pope really came to know each other as POWs in an allied camp, it may be less of a coincidence that the Pope suggested in a speech in May 2006 at Auschwitz that the Nazis had been “a ring of criminals” that “used and abused” the Germans, and that the Shoah was “ultimately” directed against the sources of the Christian faith.[11]

Coming to terms with the past for many meant not only acknowledging guilt, repenting, paying reparations, and building memorials, but also working up the courage to say: “we were victims, too”–because the perpetrators were “a ring of criminals” that victimized the rest of Germany and Europe. Not surprisingly, one literary critic commented that Grass narrated his memories in a way that made it “comfortable” to recall life in the former Reich territories: “West and East Prussia re-emerge from the fog of the Cold War, reflections about expulsion can take place under his watchful eye and it’s even acceptable for the Germans to be victims too.”[12]

Like the Guardian’s Berlin correspondent, many Germans seem to feel that “the war is over”, that it is time to see Germany untainted by its past. Having graduated from a lengthy, though not always entirely voluntary process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, many also seem to feel that they can claim a moral superiority that entitles them to judge the Middle East conflict all the more harshly. A decidedly nonconformist German voice–the author and songwriter Wolf Biermann–summed it all up in his characteristically polemic way:

“Three decades after the Holocaust, the Germans had just about forgiven the Jews for what they’d done to them. But now the perpetrators are becoming increasingly ungracious towards this hopeless ongoing conflict of their victims. Again and again I hear the cold-hearted argument: these Jews must have learnt what oppression is at the Nazi school of hard knocks. Precisely! Which is why I cold-heartedly counter, having learnt their Shoah lesson, the survivors have no desire to get slaughtered all over again.[13]



[1] Luke Harding, “The War is Over,” December 26, 2006, at:

[2] Günter Grass, Beim Häuten der Zwiebel [Peeling the Onion], Steidl 2006. The projected publication date of Grass’s book in English, by Harcourt, is Fall 2007.

[3] Eva Menasse and Michael Kumpfmüller, “This Endless Moral Flutter,” originally in German in Süddeutsche Zeitung, August 17, 2006; English at:

[4]An English summary of the extensive debate in the German and international press about Grass’s revelation can be found at; Grass’s remark about his first encounter with “direct racism” was addressed mainly by non-German commentators, e.g.: Neue Zürcher Zeitung: “The Staged Confession,” by Roman Bucheli, August 14, 2006, available in English at:

[5] Wall Street Journal editorial: “Tin Moralist,” August 16, 2006; Page A10.

[6]Rudolf Ungvary, Elet es Irodalom(August 25, 2006), English summary at:

[7] Neue Zürcher Zeitung, “Peinliche Solidarität”, September 14, 2006, at: English at:

[8] Tom Segev, “I was Young and Stupid,” Haaretz Magazine, November 10, 2006,

[9] Text in German at:; a documentation of the ensuing debate in Germany is at:; a news report in English is at,7340,L-3328858,00.html; see also this author’s comments at,7340,L-3331319,00.html.

[10] Khalid al-Maaly, “Two Faces of Arab Intellectuals,” originally in German,  Berliner Zeitung,  September 14, 2006; English translation at:

[11] Address by the Holy Father, “Visit to the Auschwitz Camp,”  Auschwitz-Birkenau, 28 May 2006, at:

[12] Ina Hartwig, August 22, 2006, quoted in English at:

[13] Wolf Biermann, “Germany Betrays Israel,” October 26, 2006, English at:



3 responses to “Sixty Years of Silence: The Story of Günter Grass

  1. Pingback: Europe’s failing elites | The Warped Mirror

  2. Pingback: What ‘never again’ means for Günter Grass | The Warped Mirror

  3. Pingback: EXCLUSIVE!!! New GraSS poem: Not Peeling the Onion in Iran | The Warped Mirror

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