German Nobel Laureate’s morality askew

By Tibor Machan: Syndicated Columnist

The Nobel Laureate in literature, Gunter Grass, whose book “The Tin Drum” made him world renowned as Germany’s most prominent postwar novelist, had one major obsession: How all of Germany must be held guilty for the Holocaust.

“The Tin Drum” itself harps on that theme and he has continued to focus his attention on morally castigating all Germans — not only those who had a hand in the atrocities and murder of millions of Jews and others during the brief history of The Third Reich.

The other day however, it came to light from the horse’s mouth that Grass was somewhat complicit in sustaining The Third Reich.
In his late teens he joined the Waffen SS, the combat wing of Hitler’s elite force. He had hidden this fact and indeed had lied about it, claiming that he had done something far less menacing during this time of his life. But in his forthcoming autobiography he fesses up to his past and admits his guilt.

Several European intellectuals and political figures have come down hard on Grass, demanding he return some of the honors he had received including the Nobel Prize.

But others have come to his defense. Among those are Salmon Rushdie and John Irving, both novelists.

Rushdie, whose book “The Satanic Verses” had prompted a contract on his life by some Islamic leaders, said Grass’ work was “not undone” by the new revelation and what he had done was but a “youthful mistake.”
Rushdie told BBC Radio 4’s Today program that while he was disappointed in Grass, “We don’t not read the work of Ezra Pound, a Nazi sympathizer as an adult,” suggesting that the Gunter Grass case is even less morally objectionable than Pound’s.

This incidence brings to mind Kurt Waldheim, the Austrian politician whose past also included, in his very early 20s, cooperation with the Nazis. But there is, I submit, a difference in Grass’ case, mainly because of his insistence through most of his life in the collective guilt of Germans as far as the Holocaust is concerned.

Grass has put himself forth all along as a severe moralizer concerning Germany and the Third Reich. And given that he has been insisting on this theme of collective guilt, questions can naturally be raised about the role that theme has had in his way of dealing with his own complicity.
One thing the thesis of collective guilt can help with is to obscure individual responsibility. If we were all guilty, it makes no difference how involved one has been in the crime. The wrong is “our fault,” not anyone’s in particular.

Of course, if one has been complicit, one will have to bear an appropriate measure of guilt. This will likely seep through all the muddled notions of collective guilt.

Arguably — one would have to know the case more intimately than most of us will ever know this one — Grass’ decades long harping on the guilt of the German people served to lighten his own feeling of guilt.
Rushdie may be right that an artist’s work can continue to have merit despite that artist’s moral flaws.

In any case, there is something morally amiss about someone who has been denying individual guilt and stressing the collective variety who then turns out to be morally responsible and admits it to boot.

Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at
Machan@chapman.edu