Grass 'should give up Nobel Prize over SS past'

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The Independent Culture

Germany's most celebrated living author, Günter Grass faces growing public outrage and demands that he should hand back his Nobel Prize for Literature after his admission he once served in Adolf Hitler's notorious Waffen SS force.

But the 78-year-old writer, who has been hailed as a moral authority and an outspoken anti-Nazi for decades, responded angrily to the criticism last night insisting: "This is definitely an attempt by some to turn me into a persona non grata."

Grass shocked Germany at the weekend by disclosing for the first time he had been recruited to the infamous Nazi unit at the age of 17 during the closing stages of the Second World War.

"It had to come out finally," Grass said in an attempt to explain why he had kept silent for more than 60 years about his membership of an organisation that played a central role in the Holocaust. "It will stain me forever," he added.

The author of the internationally acclaimed work The Tin Drum which won him the Nobel Prize in 2000, had previously insisted that his wartime activities had been limited to service as an anti-aircraft auxiliary.

Last night, Grass sought to explain his reasons for remaining silent. He said that his autobiography, Peeling the Onion, due to be published next month, had finally given him an opportunity to face up to his Nazi past.

"Only after I had decided to write about my early years, did I find the literary form in which to express myself. I had to ask myself how I was able to follow this ideology in such a naive way and why I asked no questions," the author said. But Lech Walesa, the former Polish president, as well as senior figures in Chancellor Angela Merkel's government, joined a growing chorus of criticism aimed at the writer yesterday, some demanding he renounce his many awards.

Wolfgang Boernsen, a cultural spokesman for Mrs Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats said: "Günter Grass has spent his whole life setting high moral standards for politicians. It's about time he applied those standards to himself and renounced all his awards - including the Nobel Prize."

Mr Walesa, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, demanded Grass renounce his honorary citizenship of the Polish seaport Gdansk, (formerly Danzig) where the author grew up and where his award winning Tin Drum is set. Mr Walesa, who is himself an honorary Gdansk citizen, said: " I don't feel good in this kind of company. If it had been known that he was in the SS, he would never have been given the award. The best thing would be for him to hand it back himself."

In Gdansk, the city authorities said they would decide over the coming days whether to withdraw the author's honorary citizenship. Jacek Kurski, a conservative Polish MP said it was "not acceptable" to have a former Waffen SS member as an honorary citizen of a city in which the first shots of the war were fired by Nazi aggressors .

Franz Muentefering, Germany's Social Democrat Vice-Chancellor and a long time admirer of Grass, also criticised the writer for remaining silent for so long: "It would have been better if he had come clean earlier," he said.

But the author's most savage critics were his German contemporaries: Joachim Fest, a renowned Hitler biographer, described Grass's sudden disclosure as "completely incomprehensible".

He added: "I simply don't understand how someone can elevate himself to the position of moral conscience of the nation on Nazi issues and then admit that he was himself deeply involved. I wouldn't even buy a secondhand car from this man now."

The playwright Rolf Hochhuth said that he found it "disgusting" that Grass had once bitterly criticised the former German chancellor Helmut Kohl for visiting a French cemetery where 49 SS soldiers lay buried beside hundreds of American and regular German wartime troops.

"He has morally discredited himself," he said. However, some German authors rallied to Grass's defence. The writer Walter Jens said: "I think it is very noble and worthy to say that I have not faced up to this issue during my life - I will now do so. It is very impressive and moving to see an old man finally coming to terms with his past."

Grass said at the weekend that he had volunteered for service in German submarines but had been rejected and found himself recruited into the SS in the winter of 1944-45.

He insisted that he had never fired a shot. The author claimed that his failure to reveal his former SS membership had weighed heavily on his conscience. "My silence over all these years is one of the reasons why I decided to write this book. I forced myself to do it," he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.

"I can only hope that these commentators read my book closely," he said.

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