This 2007 roundtable discussion, featured on C-Span, is quite unusual as far as Grass interviews go. This two-hour video discussion features Grass and the American novelist, New Journalist and author of The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer engaged in discussion on the question of Grass’ membership in the Waffen-SS as a teenagers, both their writings, and Grass’ experience with Nazism in his childhood and adolescence.
The occasion for this discussion is the publication of Grass’ 2007 memoir, Peeling the Onion, wherein Grass disclosed his involvement with the SS as a teenager. Meanwhile, Mailer discusses his first novel since 1997, The Castle in the Forrest, a fictionalized account of Adolf Hitler’s childhood. Such a discussion is fascinating for Grass scholarship, primarily because Mailer’s work is not explicitly political, unlike Grass’; and Grass’ work being discussed here is a rare work of non-fiction in Grass’ oeuvre.
Furthermore, Grass’ experience with Nazism as a child is one that he does not wish to diminish. He considers it here and in other public appearances and writings to be of considerable personal and public import. Indeed, Grass’ writings, particularly his early writings (The Danzig Trilogy), are widely considered to be semi-autobiographical in nature.
Yet, the elephant in the room, as it were, is why did Grass wait so late into his career to reveal his involvement in the notorious Nazi organization? In this interview, as well as a few others, Grass refuses to give a clear answer. In the interview linked, Grass claims that he told a number of fellow students and writers about his involvement, which was met with indifference. In other interviews (his appearance on Charlie Rose, for instance) , Grass describes the reluctance of his disclosure as a pragmatic political decision – after dedicating part of his career and life to purging the German government of Nazis, Grass seemingly felt the end of his life was an opportune time to get rid of one more.
Despite Grass’ unwillingness to disclose a consistent reason for his reticence on the issue of his involvement in the SS, the enormity of the confession cannot be understated and this interview is a rare and candid engagement with a famous American author on the issue of his youthful Nazism.