Dear Günter Grass,
First: why an open letter? I have never written one before, whereas you have written dozens. You are, so to speak, Europe's leading man of open letters. I admit that the idea of turning the tables on you did appeal to me.
But there is another, more personal reason for my decision to address you in this way. In a newspaper interview about your autobiography, "Peeling the Onion," you have admitted after 60 years, that you belonged to the Waffen SS. I want to make you aware of my feeling of betrayal — a feeling I believe I share with most of your countrymen. And I want to show solidarity with the victims, living and dead, of the regime you tried so hard to prolong.
A public intellectual like yourself is, of course, entitled to preserve a private sphere. But there are certain biographical facts about which it is necessary to be open, as I am sure you would agree. You do not need me to tell you that, for a German of your generation, frankness about your activities during the Third Reich is not merely a moral imperative, but a sine qua non for any kind of public role.
Let me first recall a memorable scene in 1970: Willy Brandt falling on his knees at the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto. It was the most moving and powerful image of German repentance of the whole postwar era. You were there at his side, representing German culture, as the German chancellor went to sign his historic treaty with Poland and made his spontaneous gesture of atonement for the Holocaust.
Afterward, you wrote to thank Brandt effusively for the privilege of "being allowed to be moved." What strikes me now is the artificiality, not only of the language but also the emotion. For how could a man living a lie respond adequately on such an occasion?
You were his friend and ally; you campaigned for him. What would this great German statesman, an émigré who risked his life for the anti-Nazi resistance, have said if he had known about your past and your deceit? Would he have tolerated your presence? He is dead, but we know how a great Polish leader, Lech Walesa, feels about you. He says that Gdansk, your native Danzig, would never have given you the freedom of the city if the Poles had known about your past. Do you not see the damage you have done to Germany's good name?
Another memorable scene: Bitburg cemetery in 1985. President Reagan and Chancellor Kohl commemorated the 40th anniversary of the end of the war, at the height of anti-American agitation. In the snow-covered military cemetery, graves of Waffen SS soldiers were discovered. Americans were scandalized, Germans embarrassed, but the ceremony went ahead.
You joined in the denunciation of Reagan and Kohl for appearing to pay tribute to the dead of the SS. Somehow, though, it didn't occur to you to say that you could easily have been one of them.
Do I need to remind you of the many public figures who have been disgraced over the discovery of a disreputable past? Do you recall Germany's best-loved chat show host, Werner Hofer? Aged 74, he was ignominiously sacked after it emerged that he had written Nazi propaganda during the war.
Or perhaps you heard the great opera singer, the late Elizabeth Schwarzkopf? She kept her Nazi activities quiet until after she retired, and she took to the grave the secret of which senior Nazi's casting couch launched her career.
But the most celebrated case was, of course, Kurt Waldheim. As a staff officer in the Balkans he was a small cog in the Nazi war machine that was committing terrible crimes there — and yet as U.N. Secretary General he conveniently omitted to mention any details about his wartime record.
Waldheim's silence changed the history of Austria, for better and worse. But the curious thing was — as I discovered when I interviewed him in the Hofburg Palace — that he refused to believe that he had done anything wrong. He never apologized, never explained. Nor, by the way, have you.
Despite this, it must be difficult for you to see anything in common between Waldheim's case and your own. What has an ambitious bureaucrat, an unscrupulous mediocrity like him to do with a great writer like you? Let me tell you: Waldheim was a classic example of a phenomenon, which Nazi Germany created and for which the German language promptly created the perfect expression: der Schreibtischtäter, the "desk criminal."
You relished using that neologism back in the 1960s, denouncing the conservative government of Konrad Adenauer for its Atlanticism, its Cold War rhetoric, its eagerness to rearm and join NATO, because Adenauer, though his own record was impeccable — he had been sacked as Mayor of Cologne and later imprisoned by the Nazis — did not scruple to promote former Nazis whom he found useful.
There was Hans Globke, who had written a legal commentary on the anti-Semitic Nuremberg laws, and became the chancellor's right-hand man. There was General Gehlen, the intelligence chief, who did not mind whether he spied for Hitler or Adenauer. And there was Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, who had merely been a Nazi Party member throughout the Third Reich, an ordinary opportunist, but who later rose to become Chancellor of West Germany.
That was a scandal in your eyes, and in one of your open letters you called on him to resign — for the crime of having been a Nazi. You never let the German right forget its shady past for one second. But you must have prayed that nobody remembered your own.
Oh yes, you made the most of your moral superiority over those Schreibtischtäter.You pissed on them from a very great height indeed. Except that it now seems that you were one of them. You were a desk criminal, too, only your crimes were committed in the front line and concealed at the desk for the next six decades.
You spent your life signing books, not death warrants. But you were in a different league of culpability from the Kiesingers and Globkes and Waldheims. You, unlike them, were a member of the Waffen SS. The Waffen SS was declared a criminal organization by the Nuremberg tribunal just after the war.
You knew this, I assume, because you have often said that you were one of the millions of Germans who did not believe the Holocaust could have been perpetrated by the nation of Goethe, until you were convinced by the evidence at the Nuremberg trials.
You were fortunate to escape retribution at the time, and even more fortunate to have done so for 60 years. Why did you finally come clean? You say yourself: "It had to come out." But why? Were there incriminating documents? Had you confided in your family or friends? Was some young historian finally on your trail? Or did your conscience prompt you to come clean before you died – better late than never? I should like to think so.
But the absence of contrition — indeed, of any self-awareness beyond self-justification — in your interview excludes that possibility. I am afraid that the most cynical motive is also the most plausible: You had an autobiography to sell. The media spectacle, the national soul-searching that you must have known would be unleashed, had one overriding purpose: to make sure that your latest — very possibly your last — book would be a best seller.
There is a studied vagueness about your references to your past, but about one thing you were quite clear: you were not personally responsible for the Nazi crimes. In your speech "Writing After Auschwitz," given 16 years ago, for instance, you recall the young poets of the 1950s: "All of us … were aware, some clearly, some vaguely, that we belonged to the Auschwitz generation — not as criminals, to be sure, but in the camp of the criminals."
Even more tellingly, in a speech you gave before Israeli audiences in 1967, you stated: "You can tell by the date of my birth that I was too young to have been a Nazi but old enough to have been moulded by [the Nazi] system … The man who is speaking to you, then, is neither a proven antifascist nor an ex-National Socialist, but rather the accidental product of a crop of young men who were either born too early or infected too late. Innocent through no merit of my own, I became part of a postwar period that was never to be a period of real peace."
How ingeniously you deflected the suspicions of your listeners, many of whom must have been Holocaust survivors, by disclaiming any pretense of opposition. You were merely innocent through no merit of your own. In what sense innocent? Too young to have been a Nazi party member, but not too young to have volunteered at age 15 to fight for Hitler's Reich!
You tell us that you did not ask to join the Waffen SS, but rather the U-boats — whose recruits were also notoriously hard-line Nazis, by the way. The historian Joachim Fest does not believe this story, and neither do I. (He says he would not buy a used car from you now, and who can blame him?)
By the time you volunteered in 1943, it was clear to all but those blinded by ideology that Germany was losing the war. By joining up in the Waffen SS, you were joining the Nazi elite, a band of bloody brothers who believed they were destined to rule Europe. They did not take just anyone.
You tell us in your interview that you wrote your first, unpublished novel around this time, now conveniently lost. It was set in the idealized medieval world of Teutonic knights that, as you omit to mention, was a favorite of Goebbels's propaganda films. You never finished it, you tell us, because after the first chapter all the characters were dead.
You make light of it, but it is further proof that you, along with many German teenagers, were steeped in the Nazi death cult. You and your comrades were careless of how many people you killed, for to you they were scarcely human. Your mentality was not unlike that of the Islamist suicide bombers of today.
The last photograph of Hitler shows him decorating lads like you. All the evidence points to you having been not only a fanatical Nazi but a dangerous one too, eager to wear the death's head insignia of the SS.
The truth that now emerges, Mr. Grass, is that you were one of the last-ditch defenders of the Third Reich. You were a soldier in the 10th SS Panzer Division Frundberg. Let us be clear: The Waffen SS did not run the death camps, but its troops — some 900,000 of them by the end — were deeply implicated in the Holocaust and responsible for many of the worst atrocities of the war.
We await with interest your account of your own part in these war crimes, but your memoirs will be treated by historians with suspicion, as no more reliable than those of other SS men — Adolf Eichmann's, for instance, which he wrote while awaiting his trial and execution.
No doubt the comparison shocks you. But Eichmann, like you, was an imposter. He, too, reinvented himself after the war rather than face up to his past. True: He was a senior officer, responsible for rounding up millions of Jews to be sent to death camps, while you were a young soldier. But you both tried to exculpate yourselves by pleading that you were only obeying orders.
The most striking difference is that he was found out 45 years ago, and paid for his crimes with his life. You got away with it.
What we do know is that your panzer division saw action on both the Eastern and Western fronts in 1944-45, notably during the Allied airborne landings at Arnhem. Your bitter, bloody and ruthless resistance there and elsewhere postponed Germany's inevitable defeat. While you were making your heroic last stand, Jews and other helpless "enemies of the Reich" were still being murdered in the camps and, later, on the death marches — thousands of them every day.
In the last weeks of the war, you were wounded in a battle near Cottbuss. Apparently your unit was under orders to rescue Adolf Hitler from the bunker in Berlin, in order to let him complete his self-appointed mission to exterminate the European Jews. As it turned out, Hitler preferred to die by his own hand in Berlin.
At the time, did you regret your failure to the Führer to whom you had solemnly sworn allegiance? You, once considered the greatest post-war German writer, nearly died trying to save Hitler!
Unlike most of your comrades, you survived. Even after his death, you and your comrades were to continue the war as terrorist "werewolves." But you were hospitalized and managed to surrender to the Americans. You spent a year in a prisoner of war camp — far less than many of your comrades. After your release, you were able to reinvent yourself.
Thereafter you kept silent about your part in the greatest crime in history for more than 60 years. You kept silent about your past when other intellectuals were discredited for membership in the same Waffen SS.
You kept silent about your past when debates raged about whether Germans were collectively guilty, about whether the Nazi genocide was unique, about the appropriate way to commemorate the war and the Holocaust.