Germans Shocked by Guenter Grass's SS Past

Germany's Nobel prize-winning author Grass has spent his career dissecting his country's Nazi heritage. So his countrymen are shocked by an interview in which Grass says he served in the Waffen SS — Adolf Hitler's elite Nazi troops. He says he is making this information public because it has weighed on him over the years. But a mystery remains: What did Grass do as a Waffen SS member? Germans are digging to find that out.

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German writer and Nobel Prize Laureate Guenter Grass has shocked his country. Last Friday he revealed that during World War II he served in the Waffen SS, considered Adolf Hitler's elite Nazi troops. Grass has spent his career dissecting the human experience of World War II and Germany's Nazi heritage.

From Berlin, NPR's Emily Harris reports.

EMILY HARRIS reporting:

Anyone who cared to already new that writer Guenter Grass fought for Germany during the final months of World War II. But it had been thought that he helped out on an anti-aircraft brigade, considered a relatively innocent job often assigned to teenagers. Grass was 17 at the end of the war. Because his novels explore the difficult heritage of Nazi Germany, Frank Schirrmacher said Grass soon became prominent as more than a writer.

Mr. FRANK SCHIRRMACHER (Allgemeine Zeitung): In this newborn German society, he had something like really a job and this job was the good conscious of this country.

HARRIS: Schirrmacher is chief cultural editor for the Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung, which published the interview in which Grass shares his long time secret. The interview was about his new autobiography, which is due out this fall. Schirrmacher knew the revelation would cause a stir, as it has. Columnist for the popular Bild on Sontag newspaper Helmut Berger says Grass is still the most important contemporary German writer but nothing more.

Mr. HELMUT BERGER (Bild on Sontag): (Through translator): He is not wanted as a moral authority anymore. Please excuse my macabre word, but it's like the Catholic priest who had a secret love affair and once the public learns this, he cannot claim he is celibate.

HARRIS: But Grass never sought to be Germany's conscience says long time friend Johano Strasser, the president of the P.E.N. Writers Organization in Germany. Grass did take strong political stand supporting the left, using Germany's past to criticize conservatives. But Strasser says the fact the Grass served in the Waffen SS is just a small detail compared to what the author had already shared about his past.

Mr. JOHANO STRASSER (P.E.N. Germany): (Through translator): It's important to know that he always said in private and openly that he was a blind Nazi as a young man. He said, I believed in the final victory. I thought the news after the war of Nazi crimes was propaganda.

HARRIS: Grass told the newspaper he volunteered for submarine duty to get away from his family. He was drafted instead to a newly formed SS division. He says he shot a weapon once during that service. He told the paper he was making this public now because it had weighed on him in the years after the war.

Mr. GUENTER GRASS: (Nobel Prize Laureate): (Speaking foreign language).

HARRIS: In a 1999 interview stored on the Nobel Foundation's Web site Grass said it's impossible to master the future without taking the past into consideration. The past looms large in Germany and Grass's revelation has ordinary Germans chewing over again how to evaluate individual Germans during Hitler's time. In a bookshop in central Berlin, Inga Roda(ph) says she's glad she wasn't alive then. She doesn't judge Grass harshly.

Ms. INGA RODA (German citizen): (Through translator) It's hard to see the things he wrote in the same way as before, she says. But I think that we can be arrogant in our judgment. It was different growing up then. I'm speaking carefully, she says.

HARRIS: Guenter Grass often says he writes about multiple truths to challenge the picture of official history. He described once how many different truths build into a reasonably logical picture, yet a mystery still remains. It's still not clear exactly what Grass did in the Waffen SS or his unit's specific assignment. People here in Germany are already digging to find that out.

Emily Harris, NPR News, Berlin.

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