Since the war's end, Germans have tried in various ways to come to terms with the Nazi past. Some have turned guilt into a national virtue and performed "the labour of mourning" (trauerarbeit); others have sought to renovate themselves through undertaking pilgrimages to Israel or Auschwitz. Günter Grass has declared that whoever thinks about Germany today must also think about Auschwitz. The novelist used the existence of the death camp as an argument against a unified Germany (a Fatherland reborn might become belligerent and dangerous).
Given his left-leaning political credentials, it was the more shocking when Grass announced in 2006 that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS. Not surprisingly, the confession provoked outrage. Joachim Fest, the biographer of Adolf Hitler, demanded to know why Grass had to wait until his eighties to admit to his "guilty" past.
However, Grass and his books are not one and the same. His most celebrated novel, The Tin Drum, would remain a trenchant enquiry into the depredations of Nazism and Hitler's war against the Jews regardless of the author's involvement in the Hitler war. As Grass related it, his youth was anyway not untypical of many young Germans at the war's end. He was young enough, at 17, to have been enrolled in the Waffen SS without being held responsible for its activities.
Like its predecessor, Peeling the Onion, The Box is a semi-fictionalised autobiography replete with trademark images of decapitated eels, rats, cowpats, tapeworms and other Grass-like grotesqueries. Though it alludes to the author's infamous confession, it does not harp on it. Instead the book narrates the life of the author from the perspective of his eight children. In the opening pages, the children come together to celebrate their father's 80th birthday and share their childhood reminiscences.
Consciously King Lear-like, Grass invites each of his offspring to talk in turn into a microphone. As the narrative unfolds, it is shadowed by the turbulent, alcohol-ridden life of the Grass family friend, muse and confidante Marie Rama, to whom The Box is dedicated. Marie's beloved Agfa Box – the camera of the book's title – is an "all-seeing" device which preserves the Grass family past like a prototype computer hard drive. No doubt she functions here as a cipher for the novelist's own earthy, fantastical imagination.
By his own admission, Grass has been an elusive and neglectful father, but with The Box it seems he hopes to set the record straight and demonstrate an enduring paternal love. The book is replete with tender memories and the dark secrets held in Marie's darkroom. The Hitler period is not dilated on much here. The book is piquant enough without talk of the Waffen SS.
Ian Thomson's biography of Primo Levi is published by VintageReuse content