After Auschwitz, There Can Be No Poetry: Guilt, Germany and Gunter Grass

Content warning: discussions of the Holocaust, mentions of suicide.

After Auschwitz writes Adorno: “to write poetry would be barbaric”. For how can the language of burning books, extermination camps and final solutions be used to create beauty once more?

German author Gunter Grass, awarded the 1990 Nobel Prize in Literature for his portrayal of the “forgotten face of history”, attempted to answer this question. In a 1979 speech he implored: “what shall we tell our children … what are we to say of the German guilt that has lived on from generation to generation?”

This German guilt, according to Grass, was a necessity for a country that had allowed Hitler to rise to power through its own democratic institutions.  Whose ordinary men and women had supported his ideals. Indeed, in his 1963 novel Dog Years, he writes about magic spectacles that allowed German children to become privy to just what their parents had been up to in the years between 1939 and 1945.

He stripped the mythology away from the Nazis, rendering them as someone’s father, neighbour, brother, son. Creating a working German identity was predictably difficult – when Hitler ordered the destruction of the Third Reich moments before his suicide, nihilism essentially triumphed. What Grass wanted was to drag the dark years out from under the rug and openly speak about them. To try to create a working German identity, post-Auschwitz.

The atrocities committed during the Second World War in the name of the German people contaminated, according to Grass, the very German language itself.  The only way to cleanse this was to drag it through ‘literary’ muck. Grass’ 1959 The Tin Drum embodied this muck, as well as its author’s mission, to awaken the German conscience to the horrors in which ordinary people had partaken.

The images that rest with the reader long after the final page has been turned are disturbing. An attempted sexual encounter between a dwarf and a nun, sex being allegorised through fizz powder, eels eating a horse’s head from the inside and a girl pissing in a pot of soup, all narrated by a precocious three-year-old dwarf born with the brain of an adult and the ability to shatter glass with his screams. The only appropriate response is violent recoil. And is there any response more apt?

Yet, much as the novel was blasted as an “exercise in blasphemy and pornography”, it does attempt to move beyond such literal readings. Grass’ magical realist text cannot avoid its place in history. Indeed, when the Nazi atrocities became public, people had little choice but to admit ‘collective guilt’, and Grass mocks this very notion. He essentially sought, with The Tin Drum, Dog Years and Cat and Mouse which together make up the Danzig trilogy, to blast a hole into the collective amnesia of a German generation which wanted instead to focus on economic growth and progress.

But what Grass seemed to fail to mention, whilst encouraging others’ responsibilities, was his own individual guilt. In 2006, almost 60 years after the fact, he admitted that he himself had been a voluntary member of the Waffen-SS. Before this, he had largely been assumed to be one of the generation too young to have been active in the war. And why had he joined?

He cannot put his finger on a response to this question. In a piece for The New Yorker he cites his animosity towards his stuffy, cramped and Catholic home. In the end, however, he seems to lead inevitably to the conclusion that what drew him to enlist were dreams of glory.  The allure of black and white newsreels which advertised black and white truth to his seventeen-year-old self. Nobody ever lost wars in the news. Even up until the very end of the war, Grass has been quoted as saying he still believed they would win.

Of course, his confession was immensely critiqued. Many called for his works to be –, if not banned – at least ignored. He was seen as a moral hypocrite who had encouraged others to examine their individual responsibility in the war effort, whilst ignoring his own. One notable hypocrisy was his denunciation of Raegan and Kohl’s 1985 visit to a cemetery where Waffen-SS members were buried, even though he himself had been a member of the SS.

The man once described himself as “inexorably attuned to contradiction” and there is perhaps no better way to describe him than as inherently contradictory. Born 1929, Danzig, to a German father and a Kashubian mother, he came of age in a continent torn apart by hatred.  Danzig, now the Polish city of Gdansk, was the first territory to be captured by the Nazis.

His political views are interesting, to say the least. Politically left-leaning, he denounced revolutions, whilst defending Castro’s Cuba, and encouraged a slow move towards progress. He called Catholic and Lutheran ideologies moral accomplices of Nazism. Intensely anti-nationalist, he argued against German unification on the grounds that people responsible for the Holocaust had forfeited the very right to self-determination.  That Germany was better weakened so that it did not attempt to become belligerent once more. He denounced repression in the Soviet-bloc and fundamentalist religious governments. Then simultaneously criticised Western capitalism and was especially angered by Germany arming Hussein. Furthermore, he got himself declared persona non-grata by Israel after publishing a poem in which he declared that Germany must not continue to aid arming the country.,

Grass ends up tainted by the brush which tainted all of the twentieth century.  Depending on the way you look at it, this either make his works and words completely senseless and false, or, even more so the conscience of the nation and humanity itself. Or, does his denial of his own truth speak to a deeper level about the very ambiguity of truth and memory itself? He analogised memory to being like an onion. How many layers must we peel back before we arrive at any semblance of meaning?