Dear Günter Grass,
What makes most Germans feel betrayed is not the fact that you were a member of the Waffen SS, a criminal organization, but that you made the fateful decision not to share with anybody the most important single fact about yourself.
Not with your fellow writers in the Gruppe 47, most of whom were, like you, war veterans, who gave you your first breaks; not with the publishers and the book trade that marketed you as the voice of a new, untainted but angry young generation, and above all not with the reading public, which has remained true to you since you broke onto the literary scene in 1959 with your first novel, "The Tin Drum."
It was, and is, a modern classic. It was followed in quick succession by two more war novels, "Cat and Mouse" and "Dog Years." Over the years you have returned again and again to the war years for inspiration. Four years ago you published "Crabwalk," your fictionalized depiction of the tragic sinking of the liner Wilhelm Gustloff, laden with German refugees fleeing the Russians in the last days of the war — a subject dear to the hearts of old Nazis that, had you not been a life-long Leftist, would have cast doubt on where your true sympathies lay. But you did not vouchsafe your readers that essential detail about what you were doing at the time.
Throughout your fiction there are characters in denial, whose bad faith or failure to come clean have terrible consequences. From the first, you invested "the power of silence" with supernatural force. Variations on the theme are repeated over and over again in your work. You urged Germans to break their unhealthy silence about the Holocaust, the "inability to mourn" in the catchphrase of the day. But you did not follow your own advice.
I have before me two of your books. The first, a translation of your speeches and, yes, open letters, is entitled "Speak Out!" Published in 1968, it is introduced by Michael Harrington, a leading American liberal, who praises you for your outspoken courage as a public intellectual. The ironies here are too obvious.
The other volume is your 1960 collection of poems, "Gleisdreieck," as always beautifully illustrated by the author. One of the best is "Nursery Rhyme": "Wer spricht hier, spricht und schweigt?/Wer schweigt, wird angezeigt./Wer hier spricht, hat verschwiegen,/wo seine Gründe liegen." (Who speaks here or keeps mum?/Here we denounce the dumb./To speak here is to hide/deep reasons kept inside.) Yet, strange to say, nobody ever thought to ask whether you, too, might have had something to hide.
Granted: you are not the inmate of a mental hospital. Unlike Oskar Mazerath, the diminutive hero of "The Tin Drum," you do not play the drum incessantly nor utter shrieks so high-pitched they shatter glass. Oskar, your brainchild, disguises himself as a retarded infant with a mental age of three in order to bear witness to the sinister events around him, Germany's descent into the abyss of the Third Reich.
Oskar's unbearable scream is a protest, all the more eloquent for being inarticulate, against that silence in the face of depravity that made Hitler possible. In Oskar, you created one of our most memorable metaphors for the moral insanity of Nazism.
Now, however, you have forced us to read your books again, and in an ambiguous light. In your interview last weekend, you sought to justify your decision to volunteer as a teenage revolt against the narrow confines of your petty bourgeois home. To thus romanticize your youthful Nazi allegiance is, frankly, sickening, but maybe that is how you saw it at the time.
If so, "The Tin Drum" may not be the novel we thought it was. Your harsh social satire is aimed at the people you grew up with, small shopkeepers with a bust of Hitler beside that of Beethoven. In real life, however, your bid for freedom was not directed against the Nazis, but for a more radical version of the ideology: the death or glory paganism of the Waffen SS.
Would the book have been read as it was, would it have won you the Nobel Prize, would Volker Schlöndorff have made it into a no less remarkable movie, if your background had been known?
But you are not a literary character. You are a writer: the most celebrated in Germany, perhaps even in Europe, and winner of every imaginable literary award, including the Nobel Prize.
For nearly half a century you have been recognized by your country's citizens as a moral arbiter, even (absurdly) as the conscience of Germany. In that capacity, you have sat in judgement on your fellow Germans, as indeed on America and just about everybody else.
Like your American counterpart Noam Chomsky, like countless writers and intellectuals of the left from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Harold Pinter, you have worked hard to discredit the political and economic system to which you owed your success: capitalism. You did your best over many years to undermine the Atlantic alliance — the same alliance, incidentally, that liberated Europe from the tyranny of your countrymen.
During the Cold War, and now in the war against Islamist terror, you have frequently made use of your hard-won liberty to make common cause with its enemies. You joined in the mythologizing of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist movement. You are a supporter of the European ideal, but only as a counterweight to America. You were delighted when Chancellor Schröder broke with President Bush over the Iraq issue, and legitimized the tide of anti-Americanism that then swept Germany.
Soon after the liberation of Iraq, I was told by one of your fellow writers that you were so angry with Tony Blair and George Bush that you were boycotting Britain and America. You probably won't know Aurel Kolnai's book "The War Against the West," a study of Nazism published in 1938. But its title sums up Hitler's struggle.
Now that we know how you began your career, with a thorough indoctrination in the Waffen SS, your lifelong loathing of the West takes on a new and sinister significance.
You have always presumed to occupy the moral high ground, condemning the elected leaders of the West on the somewhat dubious authority that Germans have traditionally accorded to intellectuals. I say dubious, because you know as well as anyone how that authority has been abused in the past.
Heaven knows, you had enough fun at the expense of Martin Heidegger in "Dog Years," mercilessly satirizing his "jargon of authenticity," his existential angst and phoney pathos, his pseudoprofundities and oracular orotundities. You know as well as I do how deeply the Nazi bacillus took root in German culture, and how the gullible Germans, stylizing themselves as the nation of "Dichter und Denker," of poets and philosophers, let themselves be manipulated by fanatics and fiends.
You didn't only lecture Nazi intellectuals, either. One of your many open letters reprimanded the East German writer Anna Seghers for lending her authority to the Berlin Wall in 1961. By the time the Wall came down in 1989, you seemed to have had a change of heart. You embarked on a quixotic campaign to persuade Germans that they would really be better off living in two states.
The only people who agreed with you were the old communist intellectuals who had done well out of the division of Germany.Yet even they, apologists for a totalitarian regime in which they no longer believed, were not as disingenuous as you.
It was part of your disguise to adopt as a badge of honor the old anti-Semitic insult "rootless cosmopolitan." Your friend Stefan Heym, communist time-server that he was, was the genuine article. As a Jew, he had been driven out of Germany in 1933, and returned in 1945 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army. He might even have interrogated you. Luckily for you, he did not. The East Germans would have had no hesitation in blackening your name, despite the fact that your anti-Americanism and your lifelong campaign to detach West Germany from NATO were quite useful to them.
Why did you lie? For your 60-year silence was a lie, an unspoken reproach that forced you to lie again every time you sat down to write. Perhaps you no longer know why you did it. I have a theory, which may be mistaken, but which takes us back to your own "zero hour" at the end of the war.
When you started your life again after your release from POW camp, you decided to be an artist. That was your first love, and you were talented. You have never ceased to draw and print. Your collected graphic art, "In Kupfer, auf Stein" (In Copper, on Stone), documents an impressive body of work. But you were not content to be a humble printmaker. You wanted to be a great writer.
In literature, unlike art, you were a late developer. You did not get your first poem published until you were 28, and you were 32 by the time your first novel appeared. But you were determined to make your name as a writer. It was only when you became a literary celebrity that your secret became a huge liability. If you had grasped the nettle then, your new career, which meant so much to you, might have been stillborn. You chose silence.
And so you made your pen your accomplice, in one of the shabbiest deceits ever practised on a reading public — a German public that desperately needed you to be the person you presented yourself as. In the annals of European literature, I cannot recall a similar case. Literary hoaxes, even those in which the author has pretended to be an eyewitness to the Holocaust, are innocent by comparison.
You are often compared to Thomas Mann, but you are no more a Mann than you are a man. The only Mann character with whom you have much in common is Felix Krull, the confidence trickster. Your rise and fall recalls the greatest of all German myths, that of Faust, which Mann explicitly connected with Nazism.
Your fate, though, is not tragic, but comic. Your reputation, which was already in decline, now lies in ruins. It is no consolation that you may acquire a new following among the Germans you most affected to despise, those who think the Waffen SS has been much misunderstood.
I saw you once. I have only a dim memory of it, because it was well over 30 years ago, when I was a schoolboy of about the age at which you volunteered. You came to give a reading in London, together with two other German writers: your friend the novelist Siegfried Lenz and the East German poet Peter Huchel.
The other two were men of integrity, neither of whom concealed his conduct in the Third Reich. But you were the star turn, reading from your play about Brecht's role in the 1953 workers' revolt in East Berlin, "The Plebians Rehearse the Uprising." You were sympathetic to Brecht and his grubby compromises — praising Stalin and Ulbricht in public, writing bitter verses in private ("Would it not be easier for the government/ To dissolve the people/ And elect another?").
I should have seen then and there what kind of man you were. I remember warming to Huchel, by then a broken, disillusioned figure living in exile and waiting to die. But my German teacher had eyes only for you: the hero of the West German Left, the very model of a modern intellectual. I suppose I was impressed, too. I subsequently devoted much of my life to writing about German politics, history, and culture. You touched my life, as you touched countless others.
What, though, if we had known you for what you really were? Now that we do know your secret, the least most people might expect would be an act of contrition. But I, for one, do not expect it from you. You are not sorry, neither for what you did nor for what you did not do.
To apologize now would merely compound your insincerity. We want no more pilgrimages to Auschwitz. No, Mr. Grass, it is too late for that. You have lived and will die a fraud, a coward, and a hypocrite. One day you may be forgotten, but you will never be forgiven.
As I suspected, the East German communist secret police, the Stasi, knew all about your Waffen SS membership. The truth would have come out anyway when your Stasi file is published next year. Your decision to keep quiet actually exposed you to blackmail by the Stasi. It seems that the facts were also contained in American military archives. Your file might have surfaced at any time over the past 60 years, if anybody had cared to look.
I see, too, that your publishers are rushing out your memoirs early, to cash in on the worldwide publicity generated by your admission. They have also released brief extracts to tempt us. They disclose that you remained an unrepentant anti-Semite even after the war.
While working as a prisoner of war in the kitchens at a U.S. air base, you found yourself — almost certainly for the first time in your life — having to treat Jews as equals. Your co-workers were Jewish refugees, recently released from German concentration camps, who must have endured unimaginable suffering and humiliation at the hands of your comrades in the SS.
Not surprisingly, when a row broke out in the kitchen, they shouted: "Nazis, you Nazis!" Well, that was no more than the truth. You admit that you were proud to serve in the Waffen SS. So how did you respond? "We retorted: ‘Just go away to Palestine!'"
For you, it seems, the war wasn't over. You still wanted a Europe, and especially a Germany, that was Judenrein, ethnically cleansed of Jews. Given your hostility to Israel today, some 60 years later, we are entitled to ask whether your "denazification" went far enough.
From what we have seen of your memoirs, I do not expect to learn much from them. The extracts so far published do not explain the mystery of your silence. "I kept silent about it after the war out of a growing shame," you write.You still do not seem to understand that your silence was itself shameful.
Now that you are under intense though belated scrutiny, you are full of self-pity and self-justification. On German TV on Thursday night, you complained: "What I am experiencing is an attempt to make me a persona non grata, to cast doubt on everything I did in my life after that."
No, Mr. Grass: It was you who did that to yourself.
Read the first part of this two-part series: An Open Letter to Günter Grass