In August, 2006, Grass aroused emotions across the literary world when he revealed in his memoir Peeling the Onion that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS as a teenager. Reaction to the news was swift, with many calling for him to return the Nobel Prize he received in 1999. Others were more supportive of Grass, pointing out that he had already paid the price of his youthful actions by living all those years with his guilt over having served in the SS.
In Peeling the Onion, Grass recalls his involvement with the Waffen-SS. He admits that as a teenager he became a part of this military operation, and he offers a quite stark portrait of life in the Nazi youth movement. He also admits honestly and poignantly, though, that he never fired a shot and that the guilt and shame of his involvement have gnawed ceaselessly at him since then.
Peeling the Onion does not stop with his youthful military involvement. Grass recalls the tortures of his youthful life: his flirtations with religion, his lustful hunger for various young women, his consuming desire for art, and his earliest forays into the writing life. Peeling the Onion records Grass’s life from his birth up until the publication of The Tin Drum (1959).
In Peeling the Onion, Grass uses the image of hunger to describe the stages of his life. Literally, after the war he could not get enough to eat. Another hunger—the lustful desire of a young man for a young woman—soon began to compete with his physical hunger. The hunger that most motivated his life, however, was his hunger for art. As a young boy, he had collected coupons from cigarette boxes that reproduced classic works of art. He also read voraciously, seeing books as his entry into other worlds. In the late 1940’s, he apprenticed himself to a tombstone maker in order to become a sculptor. During those years he began writing poetry and discovered the way that words could satisfy this new hunger. From then on, Grass lived in the world of his characters and from the writing of one book until the next.