Here’s a brilliant and moving essay by Grass about his days as a tank gunner in the Waffen SS during the Second World War, “How I Spent the War” (The New Yorker, 4 June 2007, transl. Michael Henry Heim). There’s no specific bibliographical information, but I suspect that the essay is part of his war memoirs, Peeling the Onion (September 2006), and now translated into English.
The short of the story is that Grass volunteered as a fifteen-year-old for the Lufwaffe auxiliary, a compulsory service. Part of his explanation or, more cynically (some commentators might say), his rationalisation, is that he sought an escape from home and from school routine. He was interested in the U-boat arm of the Kriegsmarine, but was too young. Eventually in 1944, he is conscripted into the SS, which had formerly been a volunteer service.
There have, of course, been several responses to Günter Grass’s admission last year – just before the release of Peeling the Onion – to serving in the SS. Here’s a furiously indignant open letter to Grass. The Nation published a more nuanced piece, Norman Birbaum being more open to the circumstances – youth, conscription, and so on – in which this takes place.
Given the uproar that has occurred, the likelihood of which must have been obvious to Grass as he was writing the memoirs, the essay is more moving for its almost unerring, pressurised focus on the sometimes graphic details of his experiences as a young conscript. This focus is what makes the essay moving – knowing the moral dilemma he most surely faces, Grass focusses on the experiences instead of trying too hard to exculpate himself from accusations of ‘shared responsibility’ for Nazi crimes. Not that he is unaware, in the essay itself, of his moral dilemma; but it is as a strong undercurrent, providing the essay with more force.