Weg, du verdammter Fleken; weg, sag ich!

Like Lady Macbeth, Germany once again is trying — mechanistically, naturally — to deal with its criminal past. This time it turns out that a famous author signed up for the Waffen-SS. And just like it ever was, Germany’s celebrated Günter Grass turns out to have the same damn’d spot Lady Macbeth tried hard to, but couldn’t, wash away.

This review of Grass’s autobiography by a UK author comes closest — at least for a while — to assessing the contradictions of an old man whose memory is claimed to be failing, who refers to the nasty, racist Grass as “he” and the kinder, gentler, purged-of-his-guilt older Grass as “I.”

But to call the autobiography of a closet criminal “entertaining” and to ponder uncritically the impact of the new German cultural lie “we were victims, too” misses the fundamental point: this culture was and remains deeply disingenuous.

Europeans like to think they know all about Americans and American culture. I’ve had cabbies in Amsterdam describe Southern fundamentalists to me. I’ve had French from Corsica tell me everything I wanted to know about my home town, New York City. The rest of the world “knows” us because they purchase our popular culture.

But they don’t know us. Ours is a society deeply divided over things like the war in Iraq and domestic social policies. But do our authors hide their war service? Do they spend a lifetime covering up their complicity, only to minimize it when it’s revealed? Not a chance.

Only in Europe, in the heart of the beast, in Germany, could a cultural icon turn out to be so guilty.

This new demonstration of an old German flaw coincides with a book I am reading. As part of her summer’s reading, my younger daughter read Dry Tears. She asked me to read it as well. Herr Grass and your fellow countrymen: the truth is right there in the words of an 11-year-old girl. Stop washing your hands till they bleed. The skin rubs off, but the guilt remains.






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