There have been a wave of criticism of novelist Gunter Grass following his recent admission that he served in the Waffen SS during WWII. Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Central Council of Jews has added her voice to these criticisms. "His long years of silence over his own SS past reduce his earlier statements to absurdities."
Grass was long seen as the moral conscience of Germany "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 Frundsberg. He said that under the sway of Nazi indoctrination he did not view the Waffen SS as something repulsive but as an elite force. Grass had claimed he had been forced to work on anti-aircraft batteries. Nobody is suggesting that Grass's 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.
"It is a disappointment, in a way he has betrayed the whole generation," said his biographer, Michael Jürgs "We adored him not only as a moral icon, but as a figure who was telling the truth even when the truth hurts." Former Polish Solidarity leader and president, Lech Walesa, was quoted as saying Grass should hand back the honorary citizenship he was awarded for the Polish city of Gdansk, where he was born. "If it had been known he was in the SS, he never would have been given the honour," Mr Walesa told the German tabloid Bild.
I have been thinking about this issue quite a bit since the story broke. The world rightly looks on the SS as a criminal organisation., The Waffen SS itself was a fighting force. It consisted of around 1 million soldiers ranging from elite troops to out and out butshers (eg the Dirlwanger brigade). While the Waffen SS did not run the death camps it was responsible for numerous atrocities (there was also a lot of movement of men between fighting units and death camps). Only one unit, the Wiking Division, was never officially implicated in war crimes. The Wehrmacht on the other hand has been portraued as honourable but its own record on the Eastern Front is no less vicious as that of the Waffen SS. Once could thus argue that a teenager’s membership of the SS, given that he did not participate in any war crime, is no worse than being in the Wehrmacht especially if facing the Red Army.
The real issue here I think is that the “conscience of Germany” has admitted he was a flawed human being but there is not one of us alive that does not at least have a toe made of clay!