Gunter Grass and Collective Guilt
Tibor R. Machan
The famous Nobel Laureate in literature, Gunter Grass, whose book The Tin Drum made him world renown as Germany’s most prominent postwar novelist, had one major obsession: How all of Germany must be held guilty for the Holocaust. The Tin Drum itself harps on that theme and he has continued to focus his attention on morally castigating all Germans, not only those
who had a hand in the atrocities and murder of millions of Jews and others during the brief history of The Third Reich.
The other day, however it came to light, from the horses mouth itself, that Grass was actually somewhat complicit in sustaining The Third Reich. In his late teens he joined the Waffen SS, the combat wing of Hitler’s elite force. He had hidden this fact and indeed had lied about it, claiming that he had done something far less menacing during this time of his life. But in his forthcoming autobiography he fesses up to his past and admits his guilt.
Several European intellectuals and political figures
have come down hard on Grass, including demanding that he return some of the honors he had received over the year, even the Nobel Prize, but others have come to his defense. Among those are Salmon Rushdie and John Irving, both novelists. Rushdie, whose book The Satanic Verses had prompted a contract on his life by some Islamic leaders, claming that it contained blasphemous materials, said that Grass’s work was “not undone” by the new revelation and what he had done was but a “youthful mistake.” Rushdie told BBC Radio 4’s Today program that while he was disappointed in Grass, “We don’t not read the work of Ezra Pound, a Nazi sympathizer as an adult,” suggesting that Gunter Grass case is even less morally objectionable that Pound’s given his age at the time he joined the Waffen SS.
This incidence brings to mind Kurt Waldheim, the Austrian politician, whose past also included, in his very early 20s, cooperation with the Nazis. But there is, I submit, a difference in Grass’s case, mainly because of his insistence through most of his life in the collective guilt of Germans as far as the Holocaust is concerned. Grass has put himself forth all along as a severe moralizer concerning Germany and the Third Reich. And
given that he has been insisting on this theme of collective guilt, questions can naturally be raised about the role that theme has had in his way of dealing with his own complicity.
One thing that the thesis of collective guilt can help with is to obscure individual responsibility. If we were all guilty, it makes no difference how involved one has been in the crime, how much of a role one has had in perpetrating wrongs. The wrong is “our fault,” not anyone’s in particular.
Of course, in fact if one has been complicit, one will have to bear an appropriate measure of guilt and this will likely seep through all the muddled notions of collective guilt despite one’s efforts to submerge oneself within the collective and thereby escape personal responsibility. Arguably—although one would have to know the case more intimately than most of us will ever know this one—Grass’s decades long harping on the guilt of the German people served, in part, to lighten his own feeling of
Rushdie may be right that an artist’s work can continue to have merit despite that artist’s moral flaws. It does, of course, depend upon the nature of the art itself. A novelist who dwells mainly on moral topics could lose his or her moral authority by being a hypocrite and the works may have to be read with this in mind. So what applies to Pound, a poet, may not apply equally to Grass, the novelist.
In any case, there is something morally amiss about someone who has been denying individual guilt and stressing the collective variety who then turns out to be morally responsible and admits it to boot, thus testifying against his own previous theory that it was all a matter of the blameworthiness of the German people, not of the individual Germans and others who brought about the mass murders and genocide.
It would be instructive for Grass to enter into this
discussion in some detail, to work through just what role his focus on collective guilt may have had in hiding his own.