Günter Grass’ revelation in Peeling the Onion that at 17 he had served in the Waffen SS came as a bolt from the blue. What stuck in people’s craw was not so much that the German novelist and Nobel Prize winner had served a murderous Nazi instrument and had waited 60 years to come clean, but that for all those years he had posed as Germany’s chief town crier, pillorying the nation for its wartime sins, finger-pointing his way to literary fame and fortune.
The reaction is understandable. It was as though we were to find out that a lifelong foe of capital punishment had all along been throwing the death-dealing switches. Yet too much has been made both of the revelation that Grass had served in the Waffen SS and of his role as postwar gadfly. After all, he was still wet behind the ears when he was conscripted, a clueless youth. As for the praeceptor Germaniae incarnation, we might consider putting an asterisk next to his Nobel Prize for literature similar to what has been suggested for record-breaking athletes suspected of using steroids but no more.
The Waffen SS revelation, and the outcry it provoked, will blow over, as these things tend to do. But the aspect of the book that seems to have been neglected both by Grass’ detractors and champions (for there are those, too) is what the author has to say about complicity. Grass addresses two unresolved issues: What did the Germans know about the atrocities being committed in their name? And: Who was responsible? To his credit, Grass confronts these questions head-on, taking no prisoners and making no allowances for youth. "Claiming ”They seduced us!’ does not excuse the youths who sang them [martial songs] and hence does not excuse me. No, we let ourselves, I let myself, be seduced."
If this can be said of youth, what can we say about the adults? The same, says Grass:
"There were plenty of people like that later on, people ‘who were only obeying orders.’ [T]hey listed the mitigating circumstances that had blinded and misled them, feigning their own ignorance and vouching for another’s. No matter how elaborate their excuses and protestations of newborn babe innocence, these all-too-eloquent anecdotes and human-interest stories are actually meant to divert attention from something intended to be forgotten, something that nevertheless refuses to go away."
Grass himself is the picture of contrition, accepting full responsibility for having been "part of a system which planned, organized, and carried out the destruction of millions of human beings. Even absolved of active guilt, there remains something that doesn’t go away, that all too commonly is called shared responsibility. I will have to live with that for the rest of my years."
We are not told whether Wedontdothat enjoyed the same luxury. Wedontdothat is the tag Grass hangs on a fellow recruit who deflected all attempts to turn him into a trained killer with the phrase "we don’t do that." For not every young person sang from the same songbook. Significantly, Grass devotes an entire chapter to this "oddball." Blond, blue-eyed, and lanky, Wedontdothat was the embodiment of the Nazi Übermensch. Not surprisingly, his peculiar antic spelled trouble for Grass’ unit, and the young Hitlerites began to hate him, beating him and pissing on his straw pallet. But Wedontdothat would not be budged, clinging to his wave-making credo with the same obstinacy Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener clung to the phrase "I would prefer not to" when asked to perform some odious piece of office business. Eventually, Grass writes, his behavior "transformed us." "The insubordinate stood above us, as if on a pedestal." Wedontdothat wound up in a concentration camp, to Günter’s great relief. "Yet out of our sight, he remained palpable as an absence," recalled the author of The Tin Drum. He was "sorely missed. He did not, however, become a role model."
In Ordinary Men, Christopher Browning’s penetrating study of the process by which a reserve police battalion became killers, we are reminded that "human responsibility is ultimately an individual matter." Tzvetan Todorov, in Facing the Extreme, the Franco-Bulgarian philosopher’s study of moral life in the concentration camps, observes: "If an individual’s every action is determined by the orders of those above him and the need to survive, then he has no freedom left at all. And where there is no choice, there is also no place for any kind of moral life whatsoever."
Grass’ memoir of a life well lied demonstrates, among much else, that complicity was widespread, sweeping every layer of society along, from the professional classes to ordinary folk minding their own business and youngsters starved for adventure and independence. We who are currently enmeshed in a quagmire of complicity in the invasion of Iraq and poised to attack Iran would do well to take note of Grass’ musings on complicity, and of the quiet heroism of the lad who said "No," fortified by the codas from Browning and Todorov.