George Jonas

Portrait of the artist as a big jerk

by George Jonas
National Post

Last week, Germany's respected Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper published the poetic ruminations of a former member of the Waffen-SS, Hitler's elite fighting force. The 84-year-old author called his poem something that "needed to be said."

"Tomorrow could be too late," he wrote. The Jewish state "could wipe out the people of Iran" using a "first strike." As for his country, Germany, by selling another Dolphin-class submarine to Israel, it could become "accomplice to a crime."

Excuse me, Nurse, who is this guy? Is he taking his pills?

Here's a hint: He can't be some rightwing knuckle-dragger. It's 2012, not 1932. Anyone who wants his poem about Jews plotting the annihilation of Iran's population published in a mainstream Munich newspaper had better have impeccable left-wing credentials and a Nobel Prize in Literature.

Next, novelist Gunter Grass (congratulations, you guessed) poses a rhetorical question: What took him so long? Why not years ago? Why was he saying only now, "in his old age, using his last ink," that Israel's atomic power was "endangering the fragile peace of the world?"

Good question, Herr Grass. Why? Well, first, because of Nazi Germany's "matchless" crimes against the Jews (please note that Grass, unlike his protégés in Tehran, is no Holocaust-denier) and second, his fear of being accused of anti-Semitism.

Nobel laureate Gunter Grass an anti-Semite? Perish the thought! But then what actually has changed? Does Grass no longer consider Nazi crimes to have been matchless? Or is he no longer afraid of being accused of anti-Semitism?

What made him lose his fear? Could the winds of political fashion have shifted? Has anti-Semitism stopped being a career-breaker or even a social handicap, especially when disguised as anti-Zionism? Is it because Grass, who has always been attuned to nuances, senses that it's becoming prudent to flaunt what would have been imprudent to admit only a few years ago?

Is it because the great author is a jerk? More than half a century has passed since the native of the Free City of Danzig, today Gdansk, made a literary splash by publishing a remarkable novel. Called The Tin Drum, it was the first of three evocative tales that became known as The Danzig Trilogy. Released in 1959, when Grass was 31, The Tin Drum, along with two subsequent volumes, Cat and Mouse (1961) and Dog Years (1963), contributed to a philosophical movement aimed at Germans "coming to terms" with their history -- a movement some described as exercises in self-forgiveness under the guise of atonement.

Can jerks or fools paint magnificent landscapes or write remarkable books? They certainly can; it isn't even rare. And if there's something even easier than for jerks or fools to create great art occasionally, it's for great artists to be occasional jerks or fools.

Stop right there, someone might say. Fool, yes; jerk, maybe, but great? Insofar as people know of Grass outside Germany, they know of him only as the author of a book about the Nazi era, published 53 years ago. A phenomenon rather than a novel, it made a stir in the 1960s, but couldn't be described as having had a lasting impact on the culture.

I suggest it did, though. True, the 84-year-old icon made his mark as a political activist for left-wing causes, rather than a writer, after his 1959 debut; as a type of Lenin's "useful idiot," a sucker for sinistral doctrines and dictators. It's also true that winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, as Grass did in 1999, isn't like winning it for chemistry. The literary Nobel Prize has the same modest nexus with literature as the Nobel Peace Prize has with peace. As often as not, both are lifetime achievement awards, issued by the Social-Democratic International, a.k.a., the gnomes of Scandinavia, to senior apologists of leftwing aesthetics and ideas.

Grass used to have a certain moral authority in Germany (if this isn't a contradiction in terms), but elsewhere most people wouldn't have known whether to mow him or smoke him. Even in Germany, his authority was shaken to the core in 2006, when he belatedly revealed having been a member of the Waffen-SS.

It wasn't being conscripted into an SS Panzer division at 17 that hurt Grass; it was not admitting it until his seventies. Many Germans remembered that in the 1980s, it was Grass who took it upon himself to castigate U.S. president Ronald Reagan for saying a few conciliatory words over Germany's war dead in a cemetery that included some Waffen-SS graves.

A bit thick, yes. Jews would call it chutzpa.

What has changed in 80 years? The players, mainly; the plot, very little. In 1932 it was Hitler laying the groundwork for the Holocaust. As the curtain rises in Munich in 2012, it's a remorseful participant in the Nazi Holocaust, former SS-Schütze Grass, who at the risk of being mistaken for an anti-Semite uses his last ink to assist the Holocaust-deniers of Tehran to develop, without Israeli interruption, the nuclear technology needed for an Islamist Holocaust. Full circle. This is where we came in.