“The instability of human knowledge is one of our few certainties. Almost everything we know we know incompletely at best. And almost nothing we are told remains the same when retold.”
- Janet Malcolm, writing about Gertrude Stein’s alleged callousness toward refugee French Jews. The New Yorker, November 13, 2006.
The girls, especially our 13-year-old ballet specialist, love a TV show about models called “America’s Next Top Model.” Our girls are all adolescents. They are investigating exemplars, as it is our American practice to do, and as we do when we vote. We choose as our representatives those who exemplify our best selves. I know this search well: I assist in it. In 1973, not quite twenty, pursuing the adolescent search, working late nights as a student journalist, I saw an exemplar in the person of President Salvador Allende of Chile.
Allende was an educated man who had been elected through a democratic process. In the context of the Cold War, in America’s late Vietnam War days, Allende’s democratic socialism was, for our president, unacceptable. To the world of American college students on college campuses, the perfidy of our government’s opposition to this gentle faraway professor was absolutely obvious, untainted by any ambiguity – so much so that, two years after the Attica prison riot (or “rebellion”), a year after Richard Nixon’s re-election, and in the same year as the American Indian Movement’s fight against the FBI in South Dakota at Wounded Knee, I tried to go to Chile to cover the siege of the Allende government, but had to settle for someone else’s telegrams because of the small, inconvenient detail that I lacked a passport. The crushing of Allende was a profound shock in 1973, like the Arab-Israeli War of the same year. And as the Nixon Resignation was in 1974. And the fiasco of the Saigon embassy rooftop in 1975. And the Carter triumph of 1976, by which time I was a working journalist in Chicago where I met Chilean exiles from the Allende disaster.
These Chileans were modest men, those half-dozen of them. They were gentle people who tended not to interrupt one another as we sat together in an apartment near 18th Street. They were happy, literally happy, to be living in safe Chicago. They worked at some kinds of jobs, one of them at a lamp factory in Pilsen, the Mexican neighborhood that had been Slavic for the first half of the twentieth century. I wrote about them at the time, these copper-miners whose union had been broken by soldiers reporting to General Augusto Pinochet. My translator was a Mexican aristocrat who had studied for the priesthood at the prestigious Collegio de Mexico. He himself had been radicalized by the brutality of Mexican President Echeverria’s repression in 1968 when Echeverria had ordered Mexican soldiers to shoot down unarmed student protesters. The Prague Spring had been in 1968, followed by the Prague summer in which Brezhnev had had his proxy shoot down unarmed protestors. The Paris Riots were in 1968. The Poles rioted that year, too, against the Polish government that Brezhnev commanded to restore order. Tet had started 1968, then in April came King’s assassination, then Bobbie Kennedy’s. Then in 1969 came the landing on the moon, in 1970, the invasion of Cambodia, and in 1971, the Attica riots. Shortly after, my draft notice arrived.
Thus, the story of my coming-of-age years is like a Sioux “winter count.” Those pre-literate horsemen of the Northern Plains noted each year by one significant event: the year of the great eclipse, 1815; the year of blackened lodges, some time in the 1830s, when smallpox decimated as completely as the Black Plague had in 14th century Europe.
The German writer Günter Grass nodded to this tradition of annualizing horrors in his novel My Century, and as I came to manhood in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I, too, noted a calamity a year: Tet; the Lunar Entry Module; Parrot’s Beak; Attica; Nixon’s re-election; Allende/Arab-Israeli War; Nixon’s Resignation; Saigon; Carter asserting that he would not lie. There it is, 1968 through 1976. And in the same month I met the exiled Chilean copper-miners who had fled Pinochet, Jimmy Carter was elected, and old Mayor Richard Daley, whose last press conference I had covered on my first assignment, died.
Grass made some reference to the Allende catastrophe in his 1999 speech in Stockholm at the event where the Swedish Academy awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature. In Grass’s speech, Allende’s Chile of 1973 was just a passing reference. But Allende’s death at the hands of the Chilean military had happened more than a quarter-century before Grass’s 1999 Nobel Prize speech – and still Grass mentioned him. Grass did not mention Budapest 1956, or Prague, or Mexico City, or Paris 1968, or Bobby Kennedy, or the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. And as I read Günter Grass’s speech, this year, seven years on, in the year in which he was revealed to have been a member of the Waffen S.S. during the last days of Hitler’s regime, I thought, My God, how I want to be angry and disgusted with this man, this Günter Grass the novelist, who for all my winters until this one was my exemplar of a literate and historical man, a political man, a moral man, and now, revealed to me, to his adoring fans, and to his wife who like the rest of us didn’t know, as a member of one of Hitler’s most murderous organizations.
My children are uncomprehending of this, so I will grab the clicker, turn the volume down and lecture them. Sixty years ago, before the debut of “America’s Top Model,” the Waffen S.S. was an official entity of the German government, dear ones. The German government was led by a man named Hitler and by his confederates in the National Socialist Party. We called them the Nazis. The Nazis were very, very bad people. They went house-to-house and town-to-town and killed people and took their property. They held huge rallies and burned books. Then they invaded countries like Poland, France, and Russia, and they killed millions of people, and they also made war against our country. The Waffen S.S. was one of the organizations that Hitler and the Nazis used against all those people and against our country, too. The Nobel Prize-winning writer Mr. Günter Grass, who was a favorite of your father’s – just one more minute and then I’ll give you the clicker – this Günter Grass was a member of the Waffen S.S., but he waited all that time from 1945 until 2006 to tell anybody.
Now then. By failing to tell anybody about this, was Günter Grass
While I await their answer, let us do the math. Born in 1927, drafted in 1944, captured in 1945, Günter Grass was seventeen when he became a member of the Waffen S.S.
The girl practicing the piano in the other room, the one playing movements two and three of the “Pathetique” - the movements that require touch and sensitivity and not just the brute muscle and speed of the first movement - is sixteen. Her sister who is so strong in her dancing, who most loves the show about models, is as old as Grass was during his Hitlerjugend days in Danzig before his city became Gdansk. The sister in the middle, the fifteen-year-old, survivor of school dramas, is as old as Günter Grass was in the occupied Baltic port city when he was drafted into military service by the Reich.
In his Nobel Prize speech to the Swedish Academy in 1999, Grass did not fail to mention his military service. In the Swedish Academy’s official biography of Grass, there is also no failure to mention his military service from the age of fifteen until his capture by the Allies in 1945 when he was, if arithmetic serves, eighteen.
The sixteen-year-old in the next room has moved on to Bach’s Prelude in C Minor, a piece that is more mechanical than the first prelude. She plays, not as Glenn Gould very precisely did, with each note enunciated definitively like an individually-cited text, but like the kid she is, with lots of sostenuto, and quite fast, like a velocity exercise in a Czerny book. In the other room, the girls are hooting at the models on TV. Elsewhere, just a few blocks from here, other kids are pursuing the drug trade as enthusiastic mules and runners. And just five miles from there, in the calm suburbs that are like the Danzig suburbs in which Grass grew up - except that we are American and he was a German-speaking Pole with a mom from an ethnic enclave called Kashubia - there are children of fifteen who at this very moment wish they were the drug-running, gun-toting, rapping ghetto kids they see on TV, just a click of the clicker away from “America’s Next Top Model.”
So Grass was a minor conscripted into a hideous entity. And now this is revealed, six or seven years after his Nobel Prize.
Ruthlessness is a characteristic that one associates with narcissism. In politics, the playground of narcissists, there is a small demonstration of ruthlessness that I have seen much of. It is the lie. Small politicians who wish to appear ruthless, who wish to demonstrate their strength, tend to lie. It’s not sophisticated – indeed, the chief difference between small-time provincial politics and big-time national politics is that small-timers lie and believe that lying proves their sophistication, while in Washington (does any other political place qualify as “big”?) there is no need to lie, only to assert forthrightly, in a nuanced manner wherever necessary, but to assert nonetheless, and to do so no matter which personalities, constituencies, interests or countries get crushed along the way.
I am making this too complicated. Rubes and provincials lie and betray, while Presidents and Members of Congress make alliances that simply, brutally, but quite decisively, assert.
Grass was both small-ruthless and big-ruthless, and he got away with it for a lifetime. What he got was fame, regard, the Nobel Prize, lots of money, and a place in the news everyday. Lots of girls, too.
In his Nobel speech, Grass says: I come from the country that burned books. He quotes a poet who said that to write a poem after Auschwitz would be obscene. German life, literature, thought, is divided into life and works before and after Auschwitz, Grass says in his speech.
I grew up knowing survivors of the camps. It’s my privilege to know two Righteous Gentiles who hid away and otherwise prevented Hungarian Jews from disappearing in the Auschwitz deportations in the spring and summer of 1944, when, up in Danzig, young Günter Grass was a seventeen-year-old conscript in the Waffen S.S. That was precisely the year when my uncle was at Parris Island training to kill Japanese, and when my father was in Italy killing Germans. But then, Dad was older, 24, and Uncle Bruce, when he went to Iwo Jima, was 21, both of them old enough to vote and to sign contracts as adults.
Günter Grass, a boy of seventeen, was not an adult.
He was, however, an adult when he began his career as a published author. He was an adult through the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s, and in this, the first decade of the twenty-first century, now thirty years on from the day when Salvador Allende was killed by men in the military uniform of his country.
The forceful and energetic new national politician Barack Obama addresses the ambiguity of political morality, as all our older children learn to, when he describes his mature acceptance of Thomas Jefferson as a hero, statesman, and theorist of democracy – as a Founding Father – despite Jefferson’s practice of holding slaves. Obama writes that he himself had to make a choice: whether to work to understand, or to succumb to anger, and thereby diminish himself. There is something important about telling the truth. Truth empowers. Truth frees.
Most of what I have read of Günter Grass’s lying is written as if the subject is fully formed – a solid object for all time, finished, like a sculpture, or a mountain. As an old man, Grass is more certainly that - completed - than is any adolescent, especially one under the duress of a dictatorship.
I have not finished with Grass, this adolescent who with his truth-avoidance remains for me an insightful boy. His work is yet work for me. Nor is my eye finished learning how to see.