Bang the Tin Drum Slowly

Günter Grass has died, at the age of 87.

Not quite 30 years ago I read The Tin Drum (in the original).  Haven’t read it since, but the ol’ boy’s death suggests I might ought to re-read it.  I also saw the film version a number of years ago, but in all honesty I can’t say I recall much about the movie.

The Tin Drum is set in and around Danzig (as it then was), a city whose 20th Century past was, to put it mildly, troublous.  That part of Europe — where what had been Poland for centuries was finally partitioned out of existence in 1795 — had long been a mish-mash of ethnicities, and Danzig was no exception.  The novel begins before the war and ends after the war, in an insane asylum in what had by that time become West Germany.

Grass’ own life arc mirrored the turbulent history of his home town.  Born too late to serve in the Wehrmacht during its triumphant years, by the time he was subject to compulsory service the war had irretrievably turned against Germany.  His first, unsuccessful brush, with military service was when he attempted to volunteer for the U-boat service in 1944.  He was turned down, most likely because of his age (he’d just turned 17), thereby setting himself up to survive the war.  Had he been accepted for U-boat service there is a strong likelihood he would not have lived; of the 40,000-odd men who served aboard the boats, almost exactly 30,000 never came home.  By 1943 Germany had lost the Battle of the Atlantic.  In March, 1943, the Allies sunk over 40 U-boats in one month.  Doenitz withdrew them from the North Atlantic patrol after that and from then through the end they were hunted beasts; many boats didn’t even complete a single patrol before their destruction.

Shortly after being turned down for the U-boat service he was drafted into the Waffen-SS, where he served in an armored unit from February, 1945 until his wounding on April 20.  He was captured by the Americans (again a fortuitous circumstance: most of the Germans captured by the Soviets were sent to their deaths in the Gulag) and eventually released a year or so after the war.  By then Danzig had become Gdansk and the Poles, to whom it was turned over, had ejected all ethnic Germans (in fairness, the Soviets had ejected the Poles from the 150 or so miles of Poland that Stalin took as part of the post-war Great Carve-Up).  Grass fetched up in the Ruhr district, where for a time he worked in a mine and later did an apprentice as a stonemason.  He began writing in the 1950s; The Tin Drum was published in 1959.

For years he was a reliably left-wing voice, although he did speak against the most radical elements, at least in terms of their aim of immediate socialist revolution.

In 2006 the facts about his service in the Waffen-SS came to light.  In all his prior and very public statements he’d never mentioned it.  Not a few people took him to task for it, precisely because he had been such a prominent critic of Germany’s engagement with its Nazi past.  In truth he ought to have known better than to let something like that lie fallow for so long.  If he actually was drafted, and unless he did things in uniform he’d just as leave we didn’t know about, then there was no reason to have buried his past.  If anything you’d think it would have made him a more credible, more effective advocate for his public positions.

Was Grass a volunteer or a draftee?  I have no way of knowing whether any draft papers or other illuminating documents would have survived this long.  What did his unit do while he was on active service with it?  If it was on the Eastern Front it most likely spent most of its time getting shot to pieces by overwhelming Soviet forces.  But was it involved in massacring a few civilians on its way out of town?  I haven’t seen anything one way or the other.  You’d think that, given how Grass suppressed a biographical phase that the ordinary viewer would see as highly significant — one way or the other — someone would have taken the time to dig up the facts.  That is, after all, how Kurt Waldheim came to grief.  His unit was known to have been in the Balkans during his service and it was easily discovered what it had been up to during that period.  It didn’t bear the light of day very well.  [Aside: I still remember seeing Waldheim’s campaign posters from 1986 in Vienna, when he was running for president:  “An Austrian the World Trusts”.  Cue Inspector Clouseau:  Not any more.]  I may be entirely wrong:  That investigation may already have been undertaken and discovered that there’s a whole lot of absolutely nothing at all to see.  If that’s the case, however, then why did he bury his past so long?

Grass expressed some trepidation about German reunification, a sentiment in which he was hardly alone, either in the world at large or even within Germany itself.  Konrad Adenauer was far from the last German not entirely to trust his countrymen with their own power.  Among Americans, I still recall a professor of mine, who’d fought in the U.S. Army during the war, laconically observing that he got “a very peaceful feeling” when he contemplated the existence of a forcibly divided Germany.

Nonetheless, the collapse of the international communist experiment and the unwinding even of large aspects of the European social democracy model left Grass, like many on the left, casting about for some point of relevance.  In the U.S. we see the left-extremists clustering around two overall approaches to the problem:  The first is to embrace the descent into irrelevance, as with the “social justice,” “micro-aggression” would-be thought police.  The other is doubling down on the 1930s-vintage neo-communist expansion of the state, as with the EPA’s nascent attempt to regulate your back-yard hamburger grill.  In Europe it’s taken, and is taking, the form of collaborating in the Islamization of the continent, and its hand-maiden, hatred of Israel.

In April, 2012, Grass published “Was gesagt warden muß,” (“What must be said”) a so-called “prose poem” in which he takes issue with Germany’s delivery of a nuclear-capable submarine to Israel.  He claims to fear that Israel may assert a right to an alpha strike on Iran, in order to prevent its development of nuclear capability.  He asserts that a nuclear-capable Israel endangers a fragile world peace.  He claims to speak now, because he is tired of the hypocrisy of the West.  And so forth.  The piece is short; here’s a translation of it in The Guardian.  Read it all.

Left unsaid by Grass is any mention that of the two states he specifically names, one — Iran — has adopted for its formal policy the extermination of the other, its “wiping from the map,” and the killing of as many of its citizens as possible; the other — Israel —  for whom Iran has such sanguinary and explicit intentions, has adopted no such policy in respect of any other nation or people.  One of the two nations — Iran — at that time was, and remains today, a known sponsor of some of the most bloodthirsty islamo-fascist terror groups in the world, almost all of whom expressly address their violence against the United States and its interests.  The other is not a sponsor of international terrorist groups.  One of the two nations — Iran — hangs homosexuals from construction cranes, stones adulteresses to death, and regularly practices torture on its own population.  The other — Israel — does not.  One of the two nations — Iran — sentences Christians to prison or death for practicing or preaching their faith.  The other — Israel — has in its parliament political parties representing its minority ethnic populations.  One of the two states Grass mentions gives every reason to fear its possession of any weapon of mass destruction.  The other has never.  One state — Iran — has never been the object of an attack by its united neighbors with the intent of eradicating it.  The other — Israel — has repeatedly weathered these attacks.

There is no other way to characterize Grass’ point:  Iran and Israel are morally equivalent quantities.  The attack of either on the other would be equally worthy of condemnation.  The attack of either on the other is equally to be feared (although, you know, Israel has, you know, never actually, you know . . . attacked Iran).  The world, presumably, would be equally injured by the extinction of either.  The attack on Iran by an Israel fearful that the mullahs mean precisely what they say about wiping Israel from the map, and Germany’s having enabled any of that attack, would splash a further taint of guilt on an already guilty-ridden land which could never be washed clean.

At the risk of understatement:  I am profoundly uninterested in any person, in any ideology, in any theology which cannot tell any material difference between the Iran of the mullahs and Israel, the only functioning democracy in that entire area of the globe.

Maybe his poem was nothing more than a desperate grasp for relevance in a world in which his chosen politics has been refuted pretty thoroughly by the march of time.  Certainly his later bleat in favor of Greece, and how awful it is that the rest of Europe, and Germany in particular, are just being such meanie-pokers to decline to shovel sand down a rat hole indefinitely, argues in favor of that hypothesis.  Or maybe it could be something more sinister.  Maybe it has something to do with why Grass chose for some 60 years to cover up his service in the SS.

In any event, we have lost another anti-Western voice from the world’s babble.  Whatever his talents as a writer may have once been, he won’t be missed.

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