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.