Thu, Aug 17, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Storm grows over Gunter Grass' late SS confession

THE GUARDIAN AND AFP , BERLIN

The head of Germany's main Jewish organization on Tuesday joined the chorus of criticism whipped up by the belated admission of the Nobel prizewinning novelist Gunter Grass that he served in the Waffen SS during World War II.

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.

"His long years of silence over his own SS past reduce his earlier statements to absurdities," Knobloch was quoted as saying by the Netzeitung online newspaper.

The 78-year-old author, who has long been seen as the moral conscience of Germany, revealed his SS service in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper published on Saturday, in advance of the release of his autobiography, Peeling Onions on Sept. 1.

"My silence through all these years is one of the reasons why I wrote this book," Grass announced. "It had to come out finally."

Grass said he volunteered at age 15 for the submarine service and was refused, only to be called up for military service two years later.

When he reported for duty in Dresden, he found it was with the 10th SS Panzer Division Frunds-berg. He said that under the sway of Nazi indoctrination he did not view the Waffen SS as something repulsive but as an elite force.

Previously Grass had claimed he was a flakhelfer, a youth conscript forced to work on anti-aircraft batteries in 1944. The word gave rise to a generation who claimed they were the unwilling participants in the Nazi war effort.

The weekend revelations have left many questioning his motives.

"It is a disappointment, in a way he has betrayed the whole generation," said his biographer, Michael Jurgs, who said Grass had never spoken of it during their many conversations.

"We adored him not only as a moral icon, but as a figure who was telling the truth even when the truth hurts," Jurgs said.

Despite its grim connotations, nobody is suggesting that Grass' service in the Waffen SS means he was involved in Nazi war crimes.

Although the SS was in charge of administering the Holocaust, the Waffen SS was a military arm.

Some see Grass' revelations as blatantly self-serving. Hellmuth Karasek, the prominent literary critic and author, speculated that if Grass had revealed his service in the Waffen SS a decade ago, he would have been denied the Nobel prize.

"It was a kind of cowardice and opportunism of conscious," Karasek said.

Others had a more generous interpretation.

"He knew that to have made it public many years ago would have diminished his influence in German public affairs," literary critic Walter Jens said.

Grass, meanwhile, spoke of his "shame" in his first TV interview since revealing that he served in the Waffen SS in the final months of World War II.

"What I am experiencing is an attempt to make me a non-person, to cast doubt on everything I did in my life after that. And this later life has been marked by shame," Grass said in the interview with ARD television shown in part on Tuesday night.

The full interview is to be broadcast today.

Asked why he had waited until the twilight of his life to reveal his secret, Grass said that was the central theme of Peeling Onions.

"It is the subject of the book, I worked on it for three years, and everything I have to say on the subject is in it. Whoever wants to judge me, may judge me," he said in the interview given while on holiday in Denmark.

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