Waffen SS Admission Grass Seeks to Cleanse Reputation

In a German TV interview, Nobel Prize-winning author Günter Grass defends admitting so late that he served in the Waffen SS during World War II, but sheds little light on his long silence. Criticism continues to mount, but the ranks of those defending the author are also growing.


Günter Grass: "I was never involved in any crimes."
AP/ NDR/ JOERG GROENITZ

Günter Grass: "I was never involved in any crimes."

Stung by widespread criticism over his late public confession that he was a member of the Waffen SS in the final months of World War II, Günter Grass has gone on the defensive this week, in an interview with Germany's main public broadcaster ARD. Grass made the announcement on the eve of the publication of his memoir covering his war-time youth, "Peeling the Onion."

"Those who want to judge can judge," Grass told German ARD in an interview to be aired on Thursday night. He also accused his critics of conducting a kind of character assassination aimed at throwing everything he had accomplished in his later life into question. Discussing his decades-long silence on the issue, the author said: "This life I led later was characterized, among other things, by this sense of shame."

When asked why he didn't come clean about his past earlier, Grass replied, "I didn't do it and now I have to deal with the consequences." The truth, however, is that the confession made by Grass in an interview last Friday was actually his second. After being captured by the American military and put in a camp for prisoners of war in 1945, Grass told US authorities he had been a member of the Waffen SS.

At the age of 17, Grass was drafted into the "Frundsberg" tank division of Hitler's dreaded elite troops. "I was drafted into the Waffen SS but was never involved in any crimes," the author told ARD. "But I still needed to write about this in a broader context one day."

Grass said he felt the work he had done as an author and an outspoken public citizen was sufficient to compensate for what he did as a youth during the years Germany was controlled by the Nazis.

Despite the growing uproar over his confession, Grass has said he will not retreat from public life. "I will continue to express myself as an author and as a citizen," he said.

Still, Grass said little about his experiences in the Waffen SS in interview, instead calling on people to read his book. "The only thing I can say about this is: It's a theme in this book. I spent three years working on it and it includes everything I have to say about this issue."

Fury at home and abroad

In the meantime, international criticism –- especially in neighboring Poland -- is growing. Born in Gdansk, then the German city of Danzig, Grass has long been an honorary citizen of the city. Former Polish President Lech Walesa, also a honorary citizen himself, said the author should voluntarily give up his citizenship. In an interview published Monday in the Polish newspaper Dziennik, Walesa said: "I have had the luck, as a Nobel winner from Gdansk, that we have never met. That has saved me from having to shake his hand. Today I would not shake his hand."

In addition, a member of Poland's governing Law and Justic Party (PiS), Jacek Kurski, announced he would start an initiative to have Grass stripped of his honorary citizenship. "It is unacceptable that Gdansk, which had been the first city to sacrifice the blood of its people in World War II, have as its honorary citizen a member of the Waffen SS," Kurski said, according to Radio Polonia.

In Germany, the Central Council of Jews has condemned the author's late admission. "The fact that this admission comes so close to the publication of his new book leads one to suspect that this is a PR measure to market his new work," said the group's president, Charlotte Knobloch. That, she suggested, indicated a departure for a writer who had always acted as an "exacting moral watchdog."

But others have stepped up to defend Grass, including British writer Salman Rushdie and American author John Irving. "I feel that the outrage is a little bit manufactured," Rushdie told reporters. "There is no suggestion as far as I can see that he was ever involved in any kind of war crimes." Today, Rushdie argued, "he remains the great writer that he was a couple of days ago."

"Grass remains a hero to me, both as a writer and as a moral compass; his courage, both as a writer and as a citizen of Germany, is exemplary, a courage heightened, not lessened, by his most recent revelation," Irving, long a friend of the author, told the Associated Press. "The fulminating in the German media has been obnoxious."

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