Gunter Grass, 78, a Nobel laureate for literature, has been widely viewed as the postwar moral conscience of Germany. Starting with his 1959 novel The Tin Drum, he told the truth and forced others to confront suppressed memories of the fascism that ruled Germany and devastated its neighbours. But all that time, he never came clean about his own past -- until now.
In a newspaper interview on the eve of the publication of his autobiography Peeling the Onion, Mr. Grass revealed that when he was 17 he was drafted by the infamous Waffen SS and served in the 10th Panzer Division from the middle of 1944 until the end of the war. Until that interview, he had led everyone to believe he had served as a mere conscripted soldier in an anti-aircraft unit and that he was captured by American troops.
The confession has stunned many Germans and others, particularly those who have come to see him as a moral icon and who now see him as a hypocrite. "It is a disappointment," said his biographer Michael Jurgs. "In a way, he has betrayed the whole generation." Some have called on him to renounce his Nobel Prize or have demanded that it be taken from him. (The Swedish Academy says laureates cannot be stripped of their prizes.)
Mr. Grass had not hidden that as a child he fell headlong for Nazi propaganda, and he had previously acknowledged membership in the Hitler Youth. What is new is that this youthful enthusiasm carried over to the feared Waffen SS, which he understood simply to be an elite corps but which was in fact a Nazi combat unit known for fierce fighting and brutality. (Mr. Grass says he never fired a shot.) In his new book, he writes that he came to realize the truth of Hitler's genocidal policies only after the war's end, during the Nuremberg trials.
Mr. Grass's long denial of his past is particularly galling since he continually demanded what he regarded as righteousness in others. For example, he was harshly critical of German chancellor Helmut Kohl and U.S. president Ronald Reagan for visiting a cemetery in 1985 that contained the remains of Waffen SS as well as other war dead.
In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Mr. Grass was asked why, after keeping his secret so long, he had now confessed. "It weighed on me," he said. "My silence during all these years is one reason that led me to write this book. It had to come out." Yes, it did. His admission would have been better heard before, but it's better late than never.
While the acknowledgment brings him painful embarrassment and shame, it does not wipe out Mr. Grass's contributions to society and to the arts. As Deutsche Welle commentator Toma Tasovac wrote, "His monumental literary achievement will not be shaken one bit by the revelation of his weakness as a human being. . . . The fall of the moralist is not the fall of the writer." If it colours the feelings of those who read the writer's work in future, that is out of Mr. Grass's hands.