Gunter Grass: How I Spent the War
Gunter Grass’s autobiography appears in English soon. Lengthy excerpts appear in both the New Yorker and the Friday Guardian. The Americans concentrate on the juicy scandal, young Grass’ wartime service as a member of the Todt Organization and a recruit in the Waffen SS. The two pieces cover some of the same ground, and only the Guardian article is explicitly identified as “from Peeling the Onion by Günter Grass, translated by Michael Henry Heim.”
The Guardian is more concerned with the formation of a productive artist. The New Yorker is interested in conformity under dictatorships.
Though I make a point of using “we” here, there was an exception to that rank-and-file, somewhat facile plural. This exception was a lanky boy who was so blond and blue-eyed, and whose profile revealed a skull so elongated that the likes of him could be found only in propaganda promoting the Nordic race. Chin, mouth, nose, forehead—each was the epitome of “racial purity.” He was untainted: no trace of a wart on neck or temple. He neither lisped nor stuttered when ordered to report. No one could beat him in long-distance running; no one could match his daring when leaping over musty ditches or his agility when clambering over a wall. He could do fifty knee bends without getting tired. There was nothing, no flaw, to sully the picture. But what made him an exception was that he—his name eludes my memory—was an insubordinate: he refused to take part in rifle drill; worse still, he refused to take butt or barrel in hand; and, worst of all, when our dead-earnest drill instructor pressed the carbine on him, he would drop it. Which made him or his fingers criminal.
With the spade, a basic utensil for everyone in the Labor Service, he did all that he was ordered to do. He would also have received top marks in camaraderie. He was the friendly, good-natured type, always ready to help, and he never complained. Upon request, he would give his comrades’ boots such a regulation shine that they would be a feast for sore eyes, even the eyes of the strictest N.C.O. during roll call. He had no trouble with brushes or dustcloths; it was only the firearm he refused to wield.
Every possible sort of punitive labor was imposed upon him, but nothing helped. He would work conscientiously for hours without a peep, emptying the latrine with a worm-infested bucket on a long stick—a punishment known as “honey-slinging” in soldiers’ slang—only to appear, freshly showered, at rifle drill shortly thereafter and refuse to wield the weapon once again. I can see it falling to the ground as if in slow motion.
At first we merely asked him questions and tried to talk him out of it. We actually liked the fellow, this oddball, this knucklehead: “Take it! Just hold it!” But when they took to punishing us on his account and tormented us in the hot sun until we collapsed, we all began to hate him. I, too, worked up my ire against him. We were expected to give him a hard time, and so we did. He had put us under pressure; we would return the favor. He was beaten in his barracks by the very boys whose boots he had polished mirror-bright. All against one. Through the boards that divided room from room, I could hear his whimper, the snap of the leather belt, the loud counting. These sounds are ingrained in my memory. But neither the hazing nor the beatings, nor anything else, could force him to carry arms.
Morning after morning, when we gathered for roll call and the drill instructor started passing out the weapons, the incorrigible insubordinate would let the one meant for him fall to the ground like the proverbial hot potato and immediately return to his ramrod position, hands pressed to trouser seams, eyes fixed on a distant point.
I cannot count the number of times he repeated his mantra, a catchphrase that has never left me: “We don’t do that.” He stuck to the plural. In a voice neither loud nor soft, he pronounced what he and his refused to do. Four words fusing into one: Wedontdothat.
When he was asked what he meant, he repeated the indefinite “that” and refused to call the object he would not take in his hands by its name.
I had been attached to. My new marching orders made it clear where the recruit with my name was to undergo basic training: on a drill ground of the Waffen S.S., as a panzer gunner, somewhere far off in the Bohemian Woods.
Pro forma excuse making is followed by this:
So there were plenty of excuses. Yet for decades I refused to admit to the word, to the double letters. What I accepted with the stupid pride of youth I wanted to conceal after the war out of a recurrent sense of shame. But the burden remained, and no one could alleviate it.
True, during the tank-gunner training, which kept me numb throughout the autumn and winter, there was no mention of the war crimes that later came to light. But the ignorance I claim cannot blind me to the fact that I had been incorporated into a system that had planned, organized, and carried out the extermination of millions of people. Even if I could not be accused of active complicity, there remains to this day a residue that is all too commonly called joint responsibility. I will have to live with it for the rest of my life.