A sad but unsurprising revelation

A great German author, outspokenly anti-Nazi, has something he’s long wanted to get off his chest. Let’s hear him out:

Nobel Prize-winning German writer Guenther Grass, author of the great anti-Nazi novel The Tin Drum, has admitted serving in the Waffen-SS.

He told a German newspaper he had been recruited at the age of 17 into an SS tank division and served in Dresden.

Previously it was only known he had served as a soldier and was wounded and taken prisoner by US forces.

Speaking before the publication of his war memoirs, he said his silence over the years had “weighed” upon him.


“My silence over all these years is one of the reasons I wrote this book [Peeling Onions],” he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in an interview.

“It had to come out, finally.”

Grass, who was born in 1927, is widely admired as a novelist whose books frequently revisit the war years and is also known as an outspoken peace activist.

Few details of the author’s service were given other than that he had served in the Waffen SS Frundsberg Panzer Division after failing to get a posting in the submarine service.

The SS, which began as a private bodyguard for Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, grew into a force nearly 1m strong and both acted as an elite fighting force and ran death camps in which millions of people were murdered.

The Waffen-SS was the combat section of the organization and extended to 38 divisions. It was declared part of a criminal organisation at the Nuremberg Nazi trials after the war.

“At the time” he had not felt ashamed to be a member, he said but he added: “Later this feeling of shame burdened me.”

“For me… the Waffen-SS was nothing frightful but rather an elite unit that they sent where things were hot and which, as people said about it, had the heaviest losses,” he said.

“It happened as it did to many of my age. We were in the labour service and all at once, a year later, the call-up notice lay on the table. And only when I got to Dresden did I learn it was the Waffen-SS.”

Grass’ memoir of his wartime youth is due to be released in September.

I will be looking for it, because in a way I can strongly relate. My maternal grandfather, Jakob Welker, was another SS conscript. He was born in the Vojvodina province of northern Yugoslavia, in an ethnic German enclave in a town whose name the Germans spelled Tscherwenka. (It is now known as Crvenka.) He got the call-up because he was tall and imposing-looking, a “foreign German” who spoke three languages (German, Hungarian and some Serbo-Croatian).

Just as with Grass, he had no choice in the matter. The call-up was made out to him as an “Auszeichnung”, a special honor for the outland German, but it was not. It was either go, or watch his wife and three small daughters shot before it was his turn.

As it is, the youngest, Gerda, a baby of 11 months, developed malnutrition and died from dysentery; my grandmother’s milk ran dry as a result of the poor food and extreme stress of fleeing the Russian invasion of Yugoslavia in 1944. What little my mother’s family had, they tried to feed the baby, but the unsanitary water proved too much for her weakened immune system to bear.

By that time, my grandfather had been pressed into service as a guard at a prison camp. The prisoners were not Jews; they were mostly Hungarian POWs, and that’s where his knowledge of their language came in handy. One time, a prisoner asked, in German, if he could spare a cigarette; Opa, who like all soldiers was issued them whether he smoked or not (he didn’t, as he had asthma), handed the whole pack over. The prisoner thanked him in German; he said “don’t mention it” in Hungarian. That was his quiet way of letting the prisoners know that he had no intention of harming them, ever; that though they were on opposite sides of the fence, so to speak, they were still in the same boat.

In a way, both were prisoners.

A very meek man, my grandfather never shouted, abused or pointed his gun at anyone. He had served in the Yugoslavian army before he married my grandmother (it was mandatory) and was just an ordinary soldier, albeit an unwilling and deeply unhappy one. It must have been a silent torment to be placed in charge of prisoners when he, like they, wanted nothing but to be free, reunited with his family, and living in a peaceful world where no tyrants or dictators held sway. He did what he could to try to hang on to some small vestige of ordinary humanity and not let fascism and war take his soul. Hence the gesture with the cigarettes. In those days, the least little thing was fraught with meanings it would not ordinarily carry.

His torment was deepened by the news that Gerda was sick and dying. The prison camp commandant told him he couldn’t be spared, so he had to wait till she was dead; then he was allowed to go. And he was even generously “offered” a “choice”: either let the Lutheran chaplain perform the burial service, or the camp director. Guess which he “chose”.

Gerda was buried in a tiny casket covered with the swastika flag. We still have pictures of that. It seems insane to bury a baby not one year old that way, under a flag as if she were some kind of war hero, but such were the times. It was sheer madness, and flag-mania was one of the symptoms.

The war was going badly by then; everything was bristling with flags, as though that would conceal the truth. Boys barely old enough to know how to handle a gun were being sent to the front. An uncle-by-marriage told us once that his older brother was one of those, or would have been, had his parents not cunningly torn up the attic floorboards, hidden him in the crawl-space, and, when the soldiers came for him, told them he’d already left with an earlier troop. The brother was all of 14 years old when he cheated certain death. Crazy times!

At war’s end, my grandfather didn’t know where to report for demobilization. There was no office anymore; everything was a shambles. So he turned himself over, by mistake, to the British, who took him off to POW camp in Scotland. The food was poor and the work was hard, but other than that, he wasn’t mistreated. Loneliness, isolation and captivity, not to mention memories of things he would sooner have forgotten, all ate at him. He was painfully thin when he finally returned home. He spent three years there and came back with the preternaturally sad face that he had until the day he died. Before then, he had looked young; after that, he was an old man at the ripe age of 37.

He rarely spoke of the war, and what he did say wasn’t very revealing; only that he had been a soldier. He took almost everything that was weighing on him to the grave at 78, after a long battle with cancer. I was 19 when he died. I never did get to ask him all the questions I’m dying to ask him now.

So no, nothing Herr Grass has to say would surprise me. I believe him when he says he had no idea at the time what it all was really about. My grandfather didn’t, either. And he told as much to the Simon Wiesenthal people when they came around to question him. The fact that they recognized him as not being a war criminal means a lot to me. Back then, the Wiesenthalers were looking for the real butchers, not the lowly soldiers; it was important to make the distinction between the great white sharks and the small fry.

My grandfather was definitely small fry. So, I’m sure, was Herr Grass, whom history will absolve; after all, he has already come out on the side of the angels with his other works, which have taken Nazism to task in no uncertain terms. One day, to honor my Opa, I hope to write a novel that does the same.

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4 Responses to A sad but unsurprising revelation

  1. Slave Revolt says:

    This is all good, Bina.
    There are no powerful indigenous groups around to lay the wreath of guilt around my family’s neck for the tens of thousands that our people surely killed in the crazed terror of the ‘settling’ of the US.
    My thought is this: “why are the Germans so silent to the way that Arabs are being slaughtered?
    The racism is deep. Even for Germans that ‘had no choice’ you should be honest enough to conceed that the deep racism in our cultures entails that a collective onus of guilt exists.
    So much of the game that is played is called, “who has the guilt”. For this there are scape-goats, criminals, and ‘terrorists’. It is never ‘good society’ that have this burden.
    From the silence that has enveloped my nation as hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East have died due directly to the Wests oppressive policies, it is hard for me to play this game, to act as if I don’t have blood on my own hands.
    The point is not to wallow in guilt or, retroactively, ‘excuse’ or apologize for our anscestor’s past crimes–the point is not to repeat in the present.
    I refuse to play the game that its ‘those guys’ who are the ‘terrorists’ when my own government drops bombs on women and children and I am too fearful to say anything.
    Indeed, I do speak out, and I am economically punished and frightened of government oppression. But I don’t speak out enough–loud enough and with enough regularity.

  2. Bina says:

    Well, yes–there’s a cultural problem there, no question about that. What really gets me is that Germany was not as bad with anti-Semitism before Hitler came along; Jews were integrated, not ghettoized as in Eastern Europe, and “mixed” marriages with Gentiles were very common, with children and grandchildren of such unions often completely unaware of their background because they were so secularized. Not only that, but Germany was a fledgling liberal democracy when that bastard weaseled his way into the Reichstag and then persuaded the conservatives to throw their support behind him and make him Chancellor…
    If anyone ever wonders why I think the difference between a conservative and a fascist is one of degree but not kind, there it is. German Nazism was a direct upshot of conservative attitudes and upbringing; those most likely to be gung-ho, convinced Nazis were those with a very abusive, authoritarian upbringing. And in the era of Kaiser Wilhelm (which ended with his overthrow and Germany becoming a republic in 1918), child-rearing practices were downright brutal. You were not only allowed to beat a child into submission, it was practically EXPECTED. Couple that with Bismarck’s contention that the peasants didn’t need schools, but rather CHURCHES, and you can see where a lot of that authoritarian boorishness came from. Hitler was a child of that era himself, and Austria was probably just as bad if not worse in that regard. (Especially with the clerical antisemitism prevalent in the RC church in Austria…which was very well documented. I’m sure young Adolf had plenty of opportunities to take in one of those fire-‘n’-brimstone sermons, considering how much of his anti-Jewish propaganda later drew Christianity into the fray.)
    One thing that’s heartening, though, about Germany today: Schoolkids are no longer being sheltered from the history of the Holocaust. They’re hungry to learn about it, and they don’t shy away from pain and truth. They simply grasp it, without wallowing or defensiveness. They’re bright and empathetic, and if there’s any hope for the future, it lies in them. I hope that their impulse to truth doesn’t get beaten out of them, whether by bullies or by corporations.
    (Did I repeat myself there? Probably–corporations are just bullies that the law allows to get away with it. There’s a reason big bidness was so happy to hop into bed with fascism while small businesses suffered…)
    Anyhow. It’s important to remember that Germany got denigrated right along with France in the march-up to the war on Iraq. And that’s doubly despicable in light of how German intelligence faithfully sent information on the 9-11 suspects to the FBI before it happened. It makes me wonder who really is committed to fighting terrorism. The current chancellor is still too keen to crawl into Bush’s butthole, alas, but at least Schroeder had his head on straight. And, considering that Merkel doesn’t have a majority and is forced to settle for a grand coalition with her SPD rivals, that means there are at least parliamentary checks and balances to keep her from flouting the current strong anti-war sentiment of the people. So there’s hope there, too…
    Funny how, in just 70 years, there’s been such a complete flip.
    BTW, here’s a little something from Deutsche Welle:
    http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,2144,2130644,00.html
    No more League of Nations smashing for Germany. Nowadays, it’s BushCo that wants to wreck the UN, while Germany is behind it solidly. Hope springs…

  3. Slave Revolt says:

    Bina, you are much more informed on that era than I am. What I am pointing out is something of a truism: that this impulse that undergirds fascism is in our of our cultures, all of our psyche’s.
    Yes, of course it more healthy and necessary to repress the one side–but it is even better to transcend it.
    Germany today is a virtual colony of the US. Despite it’s differences with the US, they still, as a whole, cooperate with and apologize for the empire’s crimes. This goes for Canada as well.
    Certainly Europe needs a Chavez-type to help direct the region in a more independent direction.
    Much of the problem is rooted in the masculinist barbarity, the Neanderthal ideology of our world leaders.
    Certainly the Jews were made scape-goats by Hitler and the ruling classes. I imagine that this served myriad functions. Suffice it to say that this was a form of collective barbarity lead-on by the elites–but which a good many of the citizens took part in.
    i think it is lame when we folks in the US point to the ‘barbarity’ of the German people of that era–while we do to great lengths to hide our equally hidious actions.
    Eugenics was a big hit here in the US during that era–and will ‘progressive’ , ‘liberal’ supporters.
    Forgive me if these thoughts are a bit disjointed (didn’t sleep much last night).
    You are a great writer. Keep up the good work. Someday you will write that novel. Make it sooner rather than later.

  4. Wren says:

    I understand the dilemma of being a citizen of a country that is committing crimes against humanity. I know the fear of reprisals from apologists of this administration. I choose to speak out anonymously using signs in the mold of the Freewayblogger. It’s very effective. My last sign stayed up for weeks. I also keep a selection of articles that tell stories that haven’t seen much mainstream coverage to paper vehicles with those annoying, “support the Troops” magnets. Those are the people that obviously support the mass death of civilians for if you know our troops are killing thousands at checkpoints alone, support of them being there means support of the deaths IMO. The only way to support the troops that are fighting in an illegal war is to support the effort to bring them home.
    As far as feeling guilt over the atrocities of the past, you have to do your best to inform yourself of what happened and try to understand what helped lead to those atrocities. Then take that and try to help stop similar events from happening by spreading that information. Without turning to violence, which would be counterproductive, that is all we can do. Some do it by joining others to form groups, others do it by writing like Guenther Grass did, but some find that hard to do. Then you need to understand that you didn’t commit these crimes in the past and you don’t condone or apologize for them either. I have come to understand that a good person doesn’t have to feel personally responsible for what others do or have done; just understand what was done was wrong and try to let others know it as well.
    Many Germans felt shame after the loss of WWI and thought their treatment afterwards by the allies was unjust and thus thought military power was the only way to restore honor. They are not the only ones to blame though. The British, French and America must share in the blame. Their agreement to punish all of Germany with reparations for the decisions of their leaders made it easier for demagogues like the Nazis to come to power by blaming the Jews. That kind of collective punishment is no less devastating than the killing of civilians.
    There is a difference from those that joined the SS only because they had no choice and those that volunteered in support of their cause. Just as there is a difference from those in the National Guard that had no say in their deployment to Iraq and people like Mr. Green that joined up to get the chance to kill people.
    I agree that we hide our past from our present at our future’s peril. Look how long it took for pictures of the devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to reach Americans. Most still believe that the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians by nuclear attack ended the war with Japan even though it is documented that Truman knew Japan was looking for a way to surrender that allowed them to keep their Emperor. The threat of Russian occupation had more to do with Japan’s surrender than the bombings did. The Japanese also took a long time to acknowledge the atrocities of Nanjing. We continue to hide atrocities to this day. America’s involvement in the slaughter of civilians by our support of the Contras is still little known by the masses. Many still think the Domino Theory was a legitimate reason for our involvement in Vietnam to this day even though Vietnam never invaded another country since we left. The recruitment of Nazi war criminals into the OSS (forerunner of the CIA) is documented as well but little known.
    All we can do is continue to fight to get the truth out to the masses and be open to learn the truth. That is the only way for everyone to learn from our ancestor’s misdeeds. That is why I admire ‘Bina so much. She speaks truth to power.

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