I've been silent thus far about the passing of Günter Grass earlier this year. I love his early works: Die Blechtrommel is on my list of the 10 greatest German novels. I admire Grass as a novelist; as a public figure - not so much. I met him once at the Goethe Institute in Boston where he gave a reading from his novel Der Butt. After he finished reading he took some questions from the audience. The young woman I was with asked a question in unsteady German about the author's depiction of women in his novels. Grass ridiculed the young woman for asking the question and proceeded to make disparaging comments about "feminists" in general - much to the delight of his adoring fans who roared with laughter. My friend was totally humiliated and from that moment I had little patience for Grass and his constant moralizing, his fake persona as the "Conscience of Post-War Germany."
So I guess I was one of the few who wasn't shocked when Günter Grass revealed in 2006 that he had been a member of the notorious Waffen-SS in his youth. For half a century he had concealed this basic fact about his life while he lectured the German nation about facing up to its Nazi past. When, in 2012, he came out with that awful poem attacking the state of Israel, unleashing a firestorm of anti-Semitisim in Germany, whatever moral authority he thought he still had was gone.
What motivates me to write this is the fact that last month Beate and Serge Klarsfeld - "the Nazi Hunters - received Germany's highest honor - The Order of Merit (das Bundesverdienstkreuz) for their lifetime work of seeking justice for the victims of the Holocaust. The Web site Publikative.org reminds us of a controversy that took place in 1968 between Germany's best-known writers at the time, Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll,
Beate Klarsfeld is probably best-remembered in Germany for something she did in 1968. Klarsfeld was outraged that Kurt Geog Kiesinger - a former member of the Nazi Party - had become Chancellor of Germany and decided she needed to draw the attention of the world to Kiesinger's Nazi past:
The first attack on Kurt Georg Kiesinger backfired: Beate Klarsfeld published an article in France in 1967 in which she denounced the Nazi past of the then German chancellor. It had no noticeable effect - except that her employer, the Franco-German youth organization, summarily fired her. The second attempt also fell flat: When Klarsfeld shouted down Kiesinger from the public gallery of parliament in April 1968, ushers rushed in and led her out.
Spectacular actions were needed, the then 29-year-old Klarsfeld decided. At the CDU party congress in West Berlin, half a year later, she made her grand entrance: Just as Kiesinger prepared to begin his keynote address, she climbed onto the stage and slapped the chancellor in the face, shouting "Nazi! Nazi! Nazi!"
The next day Heinrich Böll sent the young woman 50 red roses in gratitude for her brave act. But Böll's gesture did not sit well with Günter Grass, the former Waffen-SS member and "Moral Conscience of the German Nation." In a speech which was later published in Die Zeit, Grass publicly chastised his colleague:
„Da kam eine junge Frau aus Paris gereist und ohrfeigte den Bundeskanzler öffentlich. Nein, es bestehe kein Anlass, Beate Klarsfeld rote Rosen zu schicken.”
("A young woman traveled from Paris and slapped the chancellor in public. No, there isn't and reason to send 50 red roses to Beate Klarsfeld.")
Heinrich Böll was quick to respond to Grass's criticism:
In recht schulmeisterlicher Weise hat Günter Grass in einer Rede, die die ZEIT abdruckte (…), festgestellt, es habe kein „Anlaß bestanden, Beate Klarsfeld Rosen zu schicken“. Nun, mir erscheint diese Feststellung ziemlich anmaßend, peinlich und, da öffentlich getan, ganz und gar fehl am Platze. Ich frage mich mit der mir zustehenden Bescheidenheit, ob es Günter Grass zusteht, festzustellen, ob und wann ich Anlass habe, einer Dame Blumen zu schicken. Ich hatte Anlaß und bin bereit, den Anlaß allen Schulmeistern unter meinen Kollegen öffentlich kundzutun. Ich war diese Blumen Beate Klarsfeld schuldig. Meiner ´Generation´ wegen, den Toten und den Überlebenden,
(Like a stern schoolmaster, Günter Grass pointed out in a speech that was printed in Die Zeit that there was no reason for sending roses to Beate Klarsfeld. Well, I find this comment rather arrogant, embarrassing, and, since it was done in public, highly inappropriate. With some modesty I ask what business it is of Günter Grass if I have any reason for sending flowers to a lady. I did have a reason, and I'm prepared to openly announce my reason to all my schoolmaster colleagues. I owed these flowers to Beate Klarsfeld - because of my generation, those who died and those who survived.)
So who was the true "Moral Conscience of the German Nation" -Günter Grass or Heinrich Böll?
Read Jochen Bittner's New York Times Op/Ed piece: Günter Grass’s Germany, and Mine