In August of 2006, GŁnter Grass, a Nobel Prize-winning German author, publicly disclosed that he was a member of the Waffen-SS (distinct from the regular SS) in 1944. This caused a miniature shockwave in the lit-crit community, as Grass has been liberally outspoken, and morally "rather smug", as Joachim Fest has it, about Germany's dark past. He has been called a hypocrite by some, and praised by others for his bold, but admittedly ill-timed admission.
I am probably making a mistake to dissect the actions of Herr Grass without knowing much about him. I have not read The Tin Drum, and I don't know why he won the Nobel Prize, and all the moral proselytizing he has apparently done in the last 40 years has passed me by altogether.
But I think Grass's cover-up, his admission, and the repercussions of each are representative of a larger issue, one that has so many reflective facets that it can't help being hard to look at: how to react to people who have done atrocious things in the past. I believe this problem has a huge range, from former Nazi officials all the way down to any kid who went along with his buddies to play a prank when they were 16 and ended up in jail. How do you judge such people correctly, how do you condemn or exonerate them? How can you understand whether a lapse in judgment or a serious moral flaw led to the decision to participate in something unforgivable? How can you determine punishment for this unforgivable thing, which stains the participants so badly that they'll never be clean?
Although it's reductive to place the blame for the Holocaust on Hitler, his strategies can explain a lot of Nazi participation. The Hitler Youth, the Big Lie, his undeniable success at rebuilding Germany—all of these were effective methods by which he shaped himself as a god in the minds of his citizens. How can the vast majority of Germans be blamed for believing, following, trusting?
Our answer has traditionally been, "because it's wrong." Because those townspeople had to have known that it was not a sausage factory. Because Jewish people are not subhuman. Because Gypsies didn't deserve to be nearly wiped out. And because as Americans, we have never known a king (until now), and don't know what it's like not to question our leaders. Even someone with a washed brain should know that it's wrong.
This simple moral answer has sustained the Western world throughout the last sixty years in treating the Holocaust as the ultimate horror and Hitler as the ultimate embodiment of evil. Hence anything connected to the Holocaust, anything at all, is subjected to the same judgment. I am not asking for leniency for Goebbels here, I am just pointing out that "because it's wrong" is not enough to condemn those who lived through the Holocaust with their lives, but not their morals, intact.
Grass is a perfect poster boy for this issue. He was still a teenager when he was called to serve in the Waffen-SS during the last years of the Reich. Let me repeat the salient parts of this sentence: Grass was called to serve. As a teenager. He matured into an adult who explored moral issues well enough in prose to win a Nobel Prize. It seems likely to me that he could have learned so much from his experiences in the war—even from contemplating any guilt he may have had for his near-insignificant part in it—that he dedicated his life to the exploration of morals, especially morals in the German consciousness.
The truth is, we don't know how Grass's own piece of the great German disillusionment after the end of the war affected him. We cannot know, or judge, any person involved (especially at a low level) in an atrocious act. Not definitively. We cannot know if they were coerced into participation, if they went along to try and discover a way to alleviate the situation, or if they truly had evil in their hearts.
I feel it's necessary here to point out that the Holocaust was one of the worst human tragedies in history, and that the Nazi party did terrible, unjustifiable things. I am not denying that. What I'm asking is why we continually whitewash over the actual motivations of these people with the presumption that they were evil, all of them, down to the core. How can we be so sure of that?
An interesting predecessor to the Grass case is that of former United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, whose active participation in Nazi atrocities was discovered after he successfully ran for president of Austria in 1986. Waldheim began his diplomatic service immediately after the war. In his tenure at the United Nations, he seems to have been largely interested in obtaining peace. He denied and covered up the worst parts of his career as a Party intelligence officer during the war, but this should come as no surprise. In all likelihood, Waldheim was like any other military officer during wartime: he did what he was told to do and killed who he was told to kill. He was banned from ever entering the United States in 1987.
Did Waldheim regret his service to the Nazis? Or was he an anti-Semite and Nazi at heart, even during his service to the UN, his visits to Israel, his award from the Pope? Tell me: why is it so hard to dissociate former Nazi associates from the horror that swirls around the Holocaust, and see them as people who made mistakes? More to the point, how can we understand what living in Hitler's Germany, growing up and growing old with it, day in and day out for over a decade, can have been like? It's not just a two-hour documentary on the screen, or a few hours in a museum, or a 1500-word article on the internet.
Plus, of course Grass and Waldheim are going to try and cover up their actions. Not only does Nazism have debatably the largest stigma of the last century attached to it—reason enough to deny any association at all, even once meeting the eyes of someone in the supermarket who was rumored to be in the Party—but these are men who went along for the ride. If their moral fiber told them to lie low and proclaim allegiance with the party in power, surely the same moral fiber will tell them to cover up that allegiance when the party in power is no longer popular.
But is that moral fiber the wrong attitude? Men (and women) who went along with Nazism, even if they knew it was wrong, were attempting to survive in a very particular climate. Why should we fault them for wanting to live? While it would surely have been more noble to protest and be sent to the camps, the urge to survive is also a noble human urge, isn't it?
This is part of the problem with the Nazi issue: it forces us to look at our own moral integrity. Because I'm inclined to think the best of people, the first thing I think when I hear of a former Nazi official who has tried to get on with his life is that he must have gone along with the National Socialists in order to protect himself and his family. Not everyone who did this managed to be a Schindler. Presumably many, if not most, went along and laid low and did what they were told in order to live out the day. When we learn about these people, and compare them to those who died for actively disagreeing with the party in power, we turn the question to ourselves. Would I have been able to stand up and say that I knew Hitler was a bad man, and that what was happening in my country was wrong? Or would I lie low and do what I was told and live out the day?
Avoiding this difficult question in favor of automatically decrying anyone associated with an atrocity like Nazism is a much easier path to take. Indeed, this article has had more questions than answers, and I think that's because there aren't any good answers to questions which cause us to examine the swinging-needle issues of our own moral compasses.
Of course, we could just look at our current situation in the US to see whether we would lie low and live, or stand proud and die. Although no active genocide is taking place within our borders, our leader is a charlatan and our laws are becoming more and more Orwellian, and only a few are standing up and crying foul. Why are we condemning Grass when our own active indifference is fostering American fascism?