Sunday, August 20, 2006

Grass Alas

A few thoughts on a "story" that has been exhaustively covered elsewhere:

1. In April 1945 German civilians were being hanged for insufficient zeal in resisting Allied forces. What would have been the penalty for a 17-year-old draftee who refused induction into the Waffen-SS? Most likely it would have involved not getting to be 18.

2. Let's say a clerk had transposed two names, drafting Gunter Grass into the Wehrmacht and Joseph Ratzinger into the SS. How would we perceive them today? On the basis of their brief military service or their subsequent careers?

3. Self-righteousness is all very well, but we're not going to start vetting Nobel Prize winners for political correctness, are we? Because Yeats and Shaw made some startlingly pro-fascist statements, Eliot and Solzhenitsyn have been accused of anti-Semitism, and Knut Hamsun was practically a collaborator while the Germans occupied Norway. At the other end of the spectrum, Harold Pinter may have given up writing plays, but he can still be counted upon for incendiary opinions. And how about this view of the Danish newspaper that published those notorious cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad:

I recommend that everyone have a look at the drawings: they remind one of those published in a famous German newspaper during the time of the Nazis, Der Sturmer. It published anti-Semitic caricatures of the same style.

That was Gunter Grass failing to defend free speech several months ago. Never mind that Jyllens-Posten is hardly Der Sturmer, never mind that the Danish government is decidedly not rounding up Muslims and sending them to death camps. It's not surprising a lot of people were delighted to proclaim him a victim of Waldheimer's Disease (the inability to remember what you were doing in the 1940s).

The Thousand-Year Reich only lasted twelve years as a political entity, but its shadow may well be as long as its name promised. No obituary of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf failed to mention her membership in the Nazi party, although she died a British citizen and Dame Commander of the Empire. Tony Palmer's new documentary about the Salzburg Festival has been criticized for devoting too much space to Hitler's single visit. An exhibit of Holocaust cartoons described as being from 60 countries including the United States, has just opened in Tehran, where the official position is that it never happened, but if it did, it still doesn't entitle the Jews to a state in the Middle East. (I think that's what President Ahmadinejad was trying to express. Between the translator and Mike Wallace's hostile interruptions, he wasn't easy to follow.) During last year's struggle over Terri Schiavo, anyone who supported her husband's decision to have her feeding tube removed was sure to find himself compared with the Nazis and their killing of the mentally and physically disabled. A recent play and a flurry of newspaper articles alerted us that three of Hitler's great-half-nephews actually live on Long Island. Hollywood isn't letting go of the subject any time soon, and for those who need more information between feature films there's the History Channel, which might as well be called the Hitlery Channel. As the participants in that time age and die, the subject remains captivating and unavoidable. For now, it has reached out and seized another victim, the writer who tried harder than anyone to analyze and dissect it, Gunter Grass.


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