The confession of Gunter Grass

"A lie is a straight untruth," Sir Robert Armstrong, the United Kingdom's former Cabinet Secretary, famously remarked in response to a question during a trial in 1986. To give a misleading impression is only to be "economical with the truth," he suggested in defence of what was then perceived as his government's duplicity. Did Gunter Grass's shocking admission that he was a member of the infamous Waffen SS, the elite combat arm of Hitler's paramilitary forces, imply he lied about his childhood? Not quite. Some facts about the Nobel Prize-winning novelist's role during World War II were public knowledge. For instance, he had made no secret of his membership of the Hitler Youth. He had also disclosed that, like many young men during his period, he was drafted by the military, first in a support unit of the German air force and later as a soldier. What Grass suppressed was that in the final year of World War II, he was assigned to the Heinrich Himmler-led Waffen SS, which was labelled a criminal organisation during the Nuremberg trials. As far as we know, Grass did not fire a gun or commit a crime. His brief stint in the SS would hardly have been an issue had Gunter Grass not been well Gunter Grass. This is a man who spent a lifetime poring over and analysing his country's Nazi heritage a moral beacon for post-War Germany and a crusader for pacifism and social justice. His best-known novel, The Tin Drum, a piece of magic realism that draws heavily from childhood, is about a three-year-old German boy who wills himself not to grow up in protest against the Nazi regime.

It is not what Grass did during the War but what he stood for that makes the six decades that preceded his confession seem like a conspiracy of silence. It is an economy with the truth that is impossible to justify. However, it is important to see the admission for what it is the confession of someone who could just as well have taken his secret to the grave. Cynics who see this as a marketing ploy for his new memoir Peeling the Onion do injustice to both the writer and the man. The belated confession should not lead to demonisation or vilification of the writer. Those who call for the return of the Nobel Prize forget that the prize is supposed to be given for outstanding literary achievement, not for spotless character or lifelong politically correct behaviour.

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