Oh Gunter

If I could focus more maybe this could be an editorial for Der Spiegel.

When the news broke that Günter Grass had recently admitted being in the Schutzstaffel, or better known to the world as the SS, I asked the following question:

Why now?

Why now is this coming out? This has been in public records for years. Is there something to gain as a writer, as a publisher, by doing this now? But my questions were hurled away from me by a supernatural force that I experienced that same night at a German wine festival.

Gunter Grass is probably one of the 20th centurys greatest novelists. What perhaps many people do not know is that he is also western Germany’s greatest post WW2 moralists. Of course, in todays context, great and moral and ”German” are superbly confusing.

Speaking of the confused.

Living as an American ex-pat in Germany is not easy. To me this country is a very confused place. One of the main reasons for this, in my humble opinion, is that Germans are overly pacified, as a whole they have created a kind of collective spoiled-society and, to a certain extent, none of them can get over a past that ultimately had nothing to do with who and what they are today. Of course, there are at least two generations, post world-war, that have productively utilized compulsive labour and the achievements speak for themselves. Life in Germany is so good that from the outside and compared to other western nation-states one would think Germany might be close to utopia. Well, at least that’s how things looked prior to, let say, the nineties.

But what way has it come?

Germany has come a long way but not half as far as it could have. The other night, at a wine festival in Hessen, three young, sporty, good looking men – and obviously from well-off German families, with lovely fräuleins at their sides and lots of empty bottles of Riesling on their table – called me a fascist. This isn’t the first time I face criticism as an American living abroad and sometimes taking a political point-of-view regarding what I deem to be a pretty screwed up American’t foreign policy and an even more screwed up European political circus. Having said that, I will admit that I deserved criticism from these young people but I did not deserve such a label. My voice can be loud and my thoughts at times, when expressed, a bit provoking. Yet, this came unprovoked and with a bitter smile and intellectualized self-indulgence that earned my usual response…

Would you little pansy-asses like a piece of me?

I immediately told the German with the wine-laden mouth to apologize or explain himself or else I was gonna set him straight, or at least take his fräulein. The smile left his face, his girlfriend fell silent and his friends tried to say how much he didn’t mean it. For me this was one of those beautiful and rare moments where the adage…

Its better to shut your mouth and make people think youre smart then to open it and show how stupid you are. And now it’s time to buck-up, son.

Calling me a fascist can’t go without a reaction. I am a US ex-patriot citizen and in the context of American politics I am profoundly against the Iraq war and the Bush administration. I am also aware of what US foreign policy is doing and has done to the world. Calling America fascist has almost become common place these days – and I don’t like it. In fact, I don’t agree with the use of the word – no matter what your political orientation or nationality and it is especially hard to swallow from a young klugscheisser.

Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.

As the young people were fumbling for an explanation, their fräuleins holding their beaus tighter, I started thinking if it really was – as a few have said regarding Mel Gibson – the alcohol. Or was it my fault because I didn’t feel like speaking German that night which ultimately caught their attention and perhaps provoked them with some of the stuff I was saying? Was it because of my short hair and all the military bases near-by that housed American soldiers — who do not have the best reputation for mingling among the locals in area?

I didn’t volunteer to tell them that I was nothing more than a failed writer living off of German hospitality. Eventually their explanation became venting about Bush, the war, and the 9/11 conspiracy of how the twin towers were intentionally demolished; they continuously asked me if I had seen the Google video about the conspiracy.

But those fräuleins were gettin’ hotter with each glass of wine.

I was quickly bored with their conspiracy krapp when something hit me, something recent in the news. Gunter Grass and his recent admittance to being in the SS took over my thoughts. What the hell is going on with Germany’s greatest living writer? I won’t go the route of saying that just because Grass was 17 he could be forgiven for doing stupid stuff. But then again, I was sitting across the table from three young Germans, they were obviously well educated, they were dressed in nice designer clothes, they were twenty-something, and they were doing some really stupid stuff. As the young men continued to apologetically explain themselves and continuously fail to define fascism, I thought: do you guys know Gunter Grass?

All Germans read Grass as part of the compulsive learning that is the origin of their collective success in the world; but did they really read him?

Suddenly Germany’s past became a Frisbee flying right over my head. I ducked and continued drinking wine, listening to young Germans eject nonsense about politics or a youth that was simply dumbfounding. But eventually an inebriated ghost popped in and caught the frisbee. It stood in the rain, it danced in the mud, it dirtied my shoes, and it laughed at me. The it turned everything a colorless green and inquired if we would like to sleep furiously. There was no response. The ghost wore a long, dark Ausgeheanzug, tall leather boots, it had a horse whip and a monocle. I laughed back at the ghost at which time it took my original question regarding the timing of Grass’s recent admittance and stuffed it in one of its pockets, along with the frisbee. I broke from my trance as the ghost was leaving and I said to him:

Was willst du von mir, schwuchtel?

Back to reality. Instead of questioning Grass timing I now thought ofVergangenheitsbewältigung and morality. I’ve tried to understand religious doctrine and its ugly-cousin morality in the hopes of understanding Germany’s past. But that didn’t work. Morality is simply too confusing. Today, as in the past, people use morality just as much as in the past as a cover-up for wrong. Morality does nothing more than leave people hanging or it arms them to the teeth. Yet it is part of life today and people don’t question it as it should be questioned. Except, perhaps, Günter Grass. And so, young Germans, drunk on sour wine, equate my nationality with fascism because I spoke thus…

“Someone needs to do something about extremism and Europeans, especially since the break up of Yugoslavia, have only shown that they are capable of doing nothing.”

Oh, where is Oskar Matzerath when you need him?

It was/is Gunter Grass that helped me understand morality; he helped me see the duel edged sword that is even now tearing the West apart. When he criticized the US response to 9/11 for example, I thought he was right. We should have looked more deeply at not a response in the form of war but how the US and the west treat the rest of the world. In his book Crabwalk it was as if he is trying to make morality tangible, in the form of a ship or at least a picture of it, that questions the necessity of killing 9000 people with a Russian torpedo.* Add to that his public appearances during and after the fall of the Berlin wall, I quickly learned, as sometimes confusing as he may be, I’d rather him tell me about what’s right and wrong then, say, a politician or a preacher. I owe Grass the following line:

Morality should be replaced by ART or at least some kind of creative process that seeks truth.

Yes, I am naive. And a German wine festival is an odd awakening. I have been living in Germany for almost 17 years and I have once again been shown that this is not my home. To go out into the blindness of German Gemütlichkeit, of which I have become so cynical, and drink wine and have a 20 year-old German call me a fascist…

Being lost is not as bad as being without direction.

What America is currently doing to the middle east, Iraq, Afghanistan is wrong but America is not fascist. Even though I heard it lowed an clear: the cynics out there (especially in America) who say: indeed, we beat them Germans in 1945 but Fascism didn’t lose. I can only hope that future generations, in whatever country, will be given a voice as brilliant as Gunter Grass to help it see through all its confusion. I also hope that Grass’s attempt to deal with his own – and even Germany’s – past won’t have a tarnishing effect on his work.

Too much hope is never enough.

I also hope that some people, no matter what their age, do not assume the worst of other people or places just because of something that defines their own past.

Now, how ’bout another drink…



Rant on.


*That may be a far-fetched interpretation but Im gonna stick with it.