Peeling the Onion

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

In August, 2006, Günter Grass aroused emotions across the literary world when he revealed in his memoir, Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (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 hand back the Nobel Prize in Literature 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 these years with his guilt over having served in the SS. By the time the English translation appeared one year later, the controversy had died down considerably, but critics continued to raise questions about the nature of art and the artist’s role in politics. Critics also raised questions about the nature of memoir, since Grass’s book possesses a fictional quality, often alternating between a first-person telling of the story and a third-person narration of the story of a young man’s life. More than any other quality, these shifting points of view raised serious questions about Grass’s ability either to tell the truth about his past or to recall with any degree of clarity the events of his young life. Michael Henry Heim’s elegant translation of Grass’s memoir now allows English-language readers to see what all the fuss was about. Reading Peeling the Onion shows the controversy over Grass’s involvement with the Waffen-SS to have been so much media puffery.

Many readers and critics have read Grass’s first novel, Die Blechtrommel (1959; The Tin Drum, 1961), as an autobiography. In that story, young Oskar Matzerath decides to stop growing and talking when he reaches the age of three. Oskar is both attracted and repelled by the Nazi Party but eventually straps on a military drum and communicates by means of high-pitched screams and the beat of his drum. The novel captures not only the pervasive sense of German guilt over the loss of World War II but also the ambivalence that many Germans felt about Nazism and its programs toexterminate Jews. Like Oskar in the novel, Grass’s childhood did come to an end with the beginning of the Nazi occupation of Danzig, and, like Oskar, Grass begins to ponder the meaning of these events and his involvement in them, but The Tin Drum is not autobiography. Grass writes Peeling the Onion in order that critics who mistake The Tin Drum for memoir cannot have this last word.

As the title indicates, Grass uses the metaphor of peeling an onion to write about the richly layered experiences of his life. As he slowly removes the dry, crackly skin of his present life, a moister layer appears, the removal of which reveals yet another moist layer ripe for the picking. If he were to chop the onion, it would produce tears, but his peeling produces a sober examination of the many layers of his life. However, Peeling the Onion resembles as well an impressionistic painting in which the uncovering of one layer on the canvas not only reveals another but also reveals how intricately the layers overlap. These are moments in the painting of a life, moments that touch all aspects of Grass’s life and his readers.

In Peeling the Onion, Grass does recall his involvement with the Waffen-SS. As a teenager, he became a part of this military operation, and he offers a quite stark portrait of life in the young Nazis. When he was ten, he joined a kind of young boy’s cadet organization, the Jungvolk. He recalls that as a member of the Hitler Youth, he was a believer to the end. Part of the rank and file, Grass did not question the speeches of Adolf Hitler or Hermann Göring but took to heart the message that his fatherland was surrounded by and threatened by enemies. At fourteen, Grass participated as a volunteer in the Luftwaffe artillery, more as a diversion from his schoolwork than as a path to a military career. He recalls that he and his classmates spent long hours at their posts, scaring more rabbits than airplanes. However, Grass points out, he often spent these hours scribbling poems. By the age of sixteen, Grass...

(The entire section is 1679 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

The Atlantic Monthly 300, no. 3 (October, 2007): 139.

Booklist 103, no. 18 (May 15, 2007): 4.

Harper’s Magazine 315 (July, 2007): 89.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 11 (June 1, 2007): 540.

Library Journal 132, no. 12 (July 1, 2007): 92-93.

The Nation 285, no. 5 (August 13, 2007): 25-28.

The New York Review of Books 54, no. 13 (August 16, 2007): 21-23.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (July 8, 2007): 1-10.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 19 (May 7, 2007): 55.