Nobel Prize-Winning Novelist Admits Nazi Past

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Biographer Michael Juergs talks about the admission of Nobel prize-winner novelist Gunter Grass that he served in the Waffen SS during World War II.

NEAL CONAN, host:

In 1959, writer Gunter Grass rode to literary stardom with the publication of The Tin Drum. Ever since, Grass has been Germany's leading public intellectual and the voice of morality for a country struggling to come to terms with its dark past, which is why it came as such a surprise when Grass announced a few days ago that the Nazi army drafted him into the Waffen SS - the military branch of the Nazi Party - in the last months of the Second World War. Not so much that it happened, but that he'd kept it secret all these years.

Michael Juergs is Grass' biographer, and he joins us now by phone from his home in Hamburg, Germany. And thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. MICHAEL JUERGS (Author): Hi, good evening, or good afternoon for you.

CONAN: Good afternoon. Gunter Grass had half a century to decide to tell people about this. Why now?

Mr. JUERGS: I think he told everybody that it was a burden for him, a burden he has on his shoulders for nearly 62 years, but nobody's really believing that. There are two answers for those questions. The first is not very nice because his book has been in pre-order about 150,000 copies even it's not at the bookstores until tomorrow. So that's one point.

But the other point could be that he is 79 years old. He gets 80 next year, and perhaps he wants to go - to go means a little more than to go - to leave this guilt behind. That's two explanations. But everybody is listening to the German television this night, what he was telling us by himself. In his book he told everything, of course, but why. And that's the only question, the only question for us. Why didn't he talk to us in the last 62 years?

CONAN: Now that new book of his, Peeling Onions is the English translation.

Mr. JUERGS: Yup.

CONAN: They've moved up the publication date, partly after all this controversy erupted.

Mr. JUERGS: Yeah. I think - I guess it's number one in the next two weeks of the bestseller list in Germany. But anyway, it's a publication - yeah, it's -on the one way it's a wonderful idea from the marketing idea, but Grass it's just not only a wonderful writer - as you told before, in Tin Drum and all these other books - but he was a moral icon for Germany in the last 50 or 60 years. And this moral icon has got damage now, and that's the big debate in Germany, you know? Yes or no if it's okay because he told us by himself, or should he have told us before, and all his friends are going live on broadcasts on television saying no, he's a good guy. And the other one, the other part, says no, he's not anymore our moral icon.

And from my point of view, because I've done the biography Gunter Grass only three or four years ago. Of course, I asked him everything about his life. That's the duty of a biographer. And I've spoken to more than 50 people, more than 50 people - his friends and family and writers and authors - from John Irving to Ann Speltz(ph) - heritage, key people, everybody. I've been in Danzig, and I've spoken to him of course, too. But never, never he gave me any hint that he has been in the Waffen SS, which was a criminal gang. Everybody knows that, of course.

CONAN: Do you feel personally betrayed by him?

Mr. JUERGS: Not betrayed. Disappointed, and betrayed is a little too much. I think betrayed means if he has lied to me, then I would be betrayed. But he never told me because I have no little single idea to ask Gunter Grass - who the heck, Gunter Grass - to ask him did you ever join the Waffen SS? Nobody would have had such an idea to ask an author like him.

If you ask John Updike have you been My Lai of the massacre in the Vietnam War? Nobody would have - of course he was not, I know that of course quite well, but…

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. JUERGS: …it's the same, you know. Yeah. I can give the - you can compare it with that. He's an icon. He's known as a writer, he's like John Updike or Philip Roth or Saul Bellow or whatsoever. But it's a moral voice of Germany, and he always, always - he was fighting and talking and speaking against Nazis and the revelation of the past and that we have the duty to name our guilt, to name our guilt. And he was part of our democracy, of our feeling that everything is - not everything, but - mostly it's a good, wonderful country to live in, a little democracy.

And if you look what he has said about America and the Iraq War and Bush and so on - okay, I am - most people in Germany say okay you are right, Mr. Grass, but now you can't judge about the morality of other people if you forget your own.

CONAN: We're speaking with Michael Juergs, the biographer of Gunter Grass. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Mr. JUERGS: Okay?

CONAN: Yes. Now we're - just a few more questions, if you would. One of the comments that has come out since Mr. Grass' revelation is in fact - I forget who it was - but somebody said that for all these years, Gunter Grass had been speaking from the comfort of the moral high ground, and now that has to be called into question.

Mr. JUERGS: Yes. That's right. If I think there are three more questions again, not only moral thing - what you just mentioned - but somebody was even asking to give back his Nobel Prize.

CONAN: Yes, it was mentioned also that he should return - he'd been made a…

Mr. JUERGS: No, of course. You know, even Kissinger got a Nobel Prize. Should he return it because we all know his history and his past? And it's not everything is (unintelligible). I won't discuss that because I don't think it's serious. He has earned the Nobel Prize for his literary work, and Tin Drum and everything like that are great novels or poems - whatever he did. That's okay.

CONAN: Yes, but he was also made an honorary citizen of the city of Gdansk, in…

Mr. JUERGS: Now that's a problem for the people in Gdansk, because you know the story. Just in Gdansk, the Waffen SS burned down the Polish post office in Gdansk. It's a great story there, and for the people, still a hurting memory. And you can see an exhibition of all the things about Waffen SS. And Grass was there, of course. He has seen that. Why didn't he talk?

Just a second point, why didn't talk when he came - in the prisoner in this camp of - prisoner's war camp for the Americans. Why didn't he talk? It's not the question of 17 years old or being in the Waffen SS. That could be of course, but for my generation - the post-war generation, Germany - he is now part of our father generation and never told us the truth until he was 68 or 69. Willy Brandt get cancellor(ph) in Germany, chancellor in (unintelligible). And really Brandt was fighting for - Gunter Grass was fighting for Willy Brandt to be chancellor. He was an émigré, he has left this Nazi country. So and the very important point for me too is just for the United States, for you.

Because Helen and Kurt Wolff - the famous publisher in New York who did Tin Drum in '59, who has to flee the Nazi Germany - he did not even tell them that he was in the Waffen SS for three or four months. That is just nothing, for three of four months. He was 17 years old, but why didn't he talk about that?

CONAN: There is one particularly uncharitable suggestion, which was that he feared that this would be made public when the Stasi records from East Germany…

Mr. JUERGS: Yeah, okay. I've seen that. I've heard that, too, and everybody knows that's nonsense because he was also not only fighting against Nazis, he was fighting at the communists - not fighting but speaking against the communists - and they hated him. They hated him.

CONAN: So if they'd known this, they would've published it a long time ago?

Mr. JUERGS: Of course. If they had had one thing in the hand, they would've done it. That's nonsense. Stasi you can forget.

CONAN: Finally, this - will this reduce Gunter Grass in German eyes, do you think?

Mr. JUERGS: Of course. It is - you see, today you see the biggest magazines like Stern Magazine, with a cover of Gunter Grass with a soldier of Waffen SS and the line is the downfall of a moralist, the downfall of a moralist. Next week Der Spiegel will do the same, so everybody's talking about that. That's quite clear. But there's a lot of people who don't care, of course, because we are not an intellectual country at all. That's not the point, but in the literary scene and the political scene and in the scene of my generation - and they say okay Gunter Grass, we will read your books. Everything is okay, you can write and so on and so on, but please don't talk about moral anymore.

CONAN: Thank you very much for being with us today. We appreciate your time.

Mr. JUERGS: Okay, thank you.

CONAN: Michael Juergs is the author of Citizen Grass, a biography of the German author and Nobel prizewinner Gunter Grass. And Michael Juergs joined us today by phone from his home in Hamburg. As he mentioned, Gunter Grass was - even as he spoke, a tape of his interview with German television was playing in Germany. And Gunter Grass' new biography, autobiography, is just out in Germany. It's called Peeling Onions. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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