Grass hits back as criticism grows of wartime past in SS

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The Independent Online

The German author Günter Grass has spoken out for the first time since the storm over his Waffen SS past led to calls for him to be stripped of his Nobel Prize for literature.

"Let those who want to judge, pass judgement," he said in a television interview due to be broadcast tonight. "I can only say that my entire later life has been marked by shame because of this."

The author said his recently completed autobiography Peeling the Onion had finally provided him with a literary vehicle in which to face up to his Nazi past in one of Hitler's elite military units. "Everything I have to say about this subject is in this book," he said.

He has faced a growing public backlash over his former membership of the SS and insisted that, for more than 60 years, he had been ashamed to admit he had belonged to the organisation.

The writer, 78, shocked Germany 10 days ago by disclosing for the first time that he had joined the infamous military unit during the final stages of the Second World War when he was 17. He said he had never fired a shot.

His belated confession provoked an unprecedented storm of criticism, not least because the author was regarded as one of the country's leading moral authorities and an outspoken anti-Nazi since the late 1950s.

Several of his critics, including members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's government, said Grass had discredited himself through his failure to come clean much earlier. They demanded he renounce the Nobel Prize awarded to him six years ago for his landmark novel The Tin Drum, published in 1959.

However, several factors emerged yesterday that suggested there may have been a number of motives for the author's sudden decision to come clean about his SS past.

The Göttingen-based Steidl publisher, which was due to bring out Grass's autobiography on 1 September, announced that it was putting 150,000 copies of the book on the market with immediate effect to meet a growing demand that had been stirred by the author's admissions.

The announcement coincided with suggestions from Charlotte Knobloch, the president of Germany's Central Council of Jews that Grass's "confession" was part of a publicity campaign for his autobiography. "There are strong indications that all this is part of a public relations drive which is designed to sell the work," she said.

There has also been speculation that Grass was forced to come clean because historians were allegedly on the brink of exposing him as a former SS member. Without naming its sources, Cologne's Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper reported that a group of historians had studied former East German historical archives and found proof that Grass had been in the organisation.

Several German newspapers claimed that, at the end of the Second World War, Grass admitted to US military authorities he had been an SS member. In post-war Germany, he maintained that his only military service was as an anti-aircraft auxiliary.

Joachim Fest, the celebrated Hitler biographer, said that, because of the time it had taken Grass to come clean, the author had completely discredited himself as a moral authority. " I wouldn't buy a second-hand car from this man now," he said.

Few of Grass's contemporaries have rallied to the writer's defence. But the Nobel Foundation has rejected demands that Grass renounce his literature prize and insisted that its awards were irreversible.

In the interview that sparked the controversy, Grass said that at the age of 15, when he was a member of the Hitler Youth, he applied to join the submarine service. He said when he was finally called up at 17, he found himself drafted into the SS instead.