Thursday, August 17, 2006

Günter Grass's Ghosts

Jeanette Winterson has truth down cold. In her appearance on Bill Moyer's Faith and Reason (PBS; I saved that one to my hard drive) she had this to say about our crazy, one-dimensional take on heroes.

“Superman, Spiderman, Tom Cruise, you know, they are meant to be hero figures, but they're all woefully two-dimensional. And they give a false perception of what a hero should be like. So that, when we meet real hero figures in our own world, we're uncomfortable with the fact that they are flawed, that they do have weaknesses, and that they need forgiveness”

So it turns out that Günter Grass, one of our absolutely finest writers, and certainly the most important German writer of the second half of the twentieth century was a member of the Waffen SS. Grass, who has been one of the most outspoken advocates for absolute honesty about Germany’s war years turns out to have a secret of his own. This is heavy stuff. It’s one thing to have been a member of the army or Hitler Youth but the Waffen SS is another matter entirely. There is no getting away from the fact that this is surprising and profoundly upsetting news. And of course it will affect our perception of him, how could it not?

But no so fast. Lets go back to what Winterson said about heroes. The fact is, a real hero is not Superman or Tom Cruise (or Mel Gibson tsk tsk) but more times than not, flawed, sometimes tragically flawed men and women who do things of singular greatness in spite of that flaw. But we are obsessed with the God like hero and when we come across the flawed variety it sparks several things in us, all unpleasant.

This first is good old-fashioned schadenfreude. Or to put it as Shakespeare does: Tis a comfort to the miserable to find companions in misery.” We the tabloid generation love the fall from grace story. Grass, who made quite a few enemies in his almost dogged commitment to Germany not become “Germany” again now faces a storm of criticism from people who now say he is a hypocrite and a liar. Mind you most of these people are conservatives who have been dying to cut the man down a few inches for years. I haven’t seen so many vultures hovering since last year’s Hurricane Katrina footage.

Another thing that falls from grace bring out in us is our nasty desire for self-righteousness. Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Central Council of Jews, said Grass' admission negated the novelist's long-time criticisms of Germany's inability to come to terms with its Nazi past. Sure Charlotte, because not speaking about it at all would have been so much better. Lech Walesa, the founder of Poland’s Solidarity movement and a winner of the
Nobel Peace Prize has called on Grass to relinquish his honorary citizenship of Gdansk, despite the fact that Grass was born there. Make no mistake Germany did some despicable things to Poland during the war but something about Walesa’s, harangue sounds like canned outrage. The fact is, for every Nelson Mandela who survives a monstrous struggle there’s a Winnie Mandela who becomes a monster. I doubt Walesa is a monster, but he has perhaps been a victim in the struggle for so long that he cannot stop playing one, as the self justified often do, even after they become president. One result of that is that he assumes the moral right to speak above everybody else. As Adam Michnik, the editor of the daily Gazeta Wyborcza has pointed out, maybe Walesa wouldn’t have been so shocked! Shocked and outraged! Outraged I tell you! if he had actually read one of Grass’s books.

Far more sensible has been the reactions from the Mayor of Gdansk himself who said, “By his actions, he has already paid for the mistakes of his youth.” That’s the crucial thing to remember here. Grass was SIX when Hitler came to power. OF COURSE he would be a member of the SS, what greater ambition would a child growing up in the very shadow of Hitler have? Grass says he kept silent on his past because he was ashamed. I see nothing shocking in this. I’d be more horrified if he wasn’t so ashamed of his past that he tried to hide it. As for all the people who are calling for him to return his Nobel Prize and whatever honour he has gotten please, spare me. Knut Hamsun never regretted his Nazi sympathies and he still has his. I would think that a man who was in the elite SS going on to become the very conscience of his nation, would speak to the very best of humanity, not the worst. There’s no getting away from the contradiction of a man forcing a nation to confront truth when he could not confront his own. But that again brings us back to the ever-wise Winterson: the man needs forgiveness. Lord knows he has mine.