John Walsh: Tales Of The City

'How are parents who were fobbed off with lies to explain what was done in the name of the German people?'
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The Independent Online

"Thirty-five years after Auschwitz, the problem confronting Germans is once more: What shall we tell our children? Or, more precisely: How are parents born after the war, parents who in their childhood were fobbed off with lies, evasions and half-answers to their questions, to explain to their own children what was done 'in the name of the German people' in Auschwitz, Treblinka and Majdanek? What are they to say of the German guilt that has lived on from generation to generation and must remain forever indelible?"

These are Günter Grass's words, from an essay written in 1979 called "What Shall We Tell Our Children?" The answer to his question is slyly ambiguous. On one hand there are the facts: the documentary history of the Holocaust that is broadcast to successive generations of TV-watching Germans in the name of "mass enlightenment" (you can practically hear Grass holding his nose); but TV programmes, he says, "are quite incapable of disclosing the complex modernity of genocide and the many-layered responsibilities at the root of it."

What would his own, more nuanced reply to his children's questions be? That Auschwitz wasn't just an expression of human bestiality, it was the result of "a network of responsibilities so organised and so subdivided that the individual was conscious of no responsibility at all". Each was driven, instead, by "a narrow conception of duty" - which would be all well and good if it didn't sound like a classier version of the words, "I was only obeying orders."

He admits that he was a Hitler Youth, "aged 17 at the end of the war and called up with the last draft, too young to acquire guilt". Rather daringly, he wonders how he might have fared if he had joined the party years earlier. In pained, self-flagellating tones, he asks: "How can I know for sure what I would have done? I could not swear that, if I had been six or seven years older, I would not have participated in the great crime." As it was, he had "doubts" about his actions, and apparently became more and more plagued by "nightmares in which I felt myself to be guilty".

At the end of the essay, remarkably, he swerves away from Nazism to turn the spotlight of blame squarely on to organised religions "who allowed this crime to happen" and were more responsible than Eichmann. About the time that the Jews in his native Danzig were being terrorised and the synagogues being set on fire, "I was 11 years old and both Hitler Youth and a practising Catholic. In the Langfuhr church of the Sacred Heart, I never, up to the beginning of the war, heard a single prayer on behalf of the persecuted Jews, but I joined in babbling a good many prayers for the victory of the German armies and the health of the Führer Adolf Hitler. ... The cowardice of the Catholic and Protestant churches in Germany made them tacit accomplices."

Now that Herr Grass has finally come clean about his joining the Waffen SS Panzer Division at the end of the war, it's interesting to revisit these suave pronouncements from a quarter-century ago, and see what a cat's cradle of (what did he call them?) "lies, evasions and half-answers" he gave in his putative replies to his children's questions about what Daddy did in the war. He is, frankly, a genius at Orwellian doublethink. He was involved, he wasn't involved. He didn't have blood on his hands, but, ooh, he might have had blood on his hands. He was drafted into the army, no, hang on, he applied to join the submarine service. He wasn't guilty about joining the Hitlerjugend but he had "doubts" which led to dreams of guilt. He was an innocent Catholic kid, but the churches were to blame. When the synagogues were burning, it was appalling that the church did nothing. But six years later, the sympathetic young Günter joined the party that burned them... He called the churches "tacit accomplices". Whereas he has, for 60 years, been what? A mendacious accomplice? A half-truth accomplice?

***

Here's a remarkable discovery - a restaurant which listens to what its critics say. A couple of weeks ago, in my capacity as stand-in gastro-aesthete while Tracey MacLeod is on maternity leave, I dined at Hawksmoor, a new bar 'n' grill in London's howlingly trendy Spitalfields district.

I liked the cocktails, the atmosphere, the staff, the steak, the fries and the cherry sundae while noting, in that whiny, carping tone that food critics have to adopt, that not everything was tickety-boo. The starters were boringly salady and prawny, while the steaks were simply too big to finish (only one size was on offer, namely 600g, which is, let me see, around 1lb 4oz of seared meat). Furthermore, I said I didn't like beetroot, and I frankly despised coleslaw, so I was sorry to see them on the menu. Imagine my amazement when, two weeks later, I received an e-mail saying, "I wanted to let you know there have been changes to the menu at Hawksmoor. A couple of the points you made in your review have been addressed..." Blow me down if they hadn't thrown out the beetroot, ditched the coleslaw, re-thought the starters and were now offering steaks in more manageable sizes.

One has to admire a restaurant which so charmingly accommodates a diner's whim. But such treatment has a shocking effect on the critical ego. I feel suddenly enlarged, empowered, Nero-like. I can make things happen with a flick of my keyboard.

Henceforth, if I review a new musical, and complain that there aren't enough songs in F-sharp in the second act, I expect to see some F-sharp songs introduced pronto the next evening. If I determine that Snakes on a Plane would be improved by a car chase, I expect the whole movie to be re-shot. If it seems to me that David Mitchell's new novel would be better if it were set in Moscow in 1890, then Mr Mitchell's publishers will just have to have a little word with him, won't they?

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