In the spring of 1945, as a humiliated Germany was being defeated by the Allies, two of the finest German intellectuals of the postwar era – Günter Grass and Joseph Ratzinger – apparently met in an Allied POW camp in Bad Aibling. While at a superficial level the two men shared many similarities, their postwar trajectories could not be more different. One became a leader of the Catholic Church unafraid to preach unpopular truths despite hostile headlines, while the other was a perfect embodiment of the West’s quixotic search for justice after rejecting God.
The literary world in shock
In 2006, Günter Grass astonished the literary world by publishing his memoir Peeling the Onion, in which he confessed that during the Second World War he had volunteered for the Third Reich’s navy. Although rejected, he was drafted into a tank division of the Waffen-SS.
The then-teenaged Grass never engaged in hostilities and did not fire a single shot during the war. Yet this revelation was shocking because since the publication of his best-known novel, the grotesque magical realist anti-Nazi satire The Tin Drum, in 1959, Grass had been a gadfly, his nation’s conscience, constantly rebuking his countrymen for failing to come to a proper reckoning with their wartime past. Yet it turned out that Grass himself had bones in his closet.
Aged seventy-nine upon publication of the memoir, Günter Grass had received every major literary award, including the Nobel Prize for Literature, while his books had been translated into dozens of languages. The Tin Drum had become a classic of modern literature, while its film adaptation won the 1979 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and shared the Palm d’Or with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now at Cannes.
Was this Ratzinger?
As the Allies were beginning their occupation of Germany, Grass was interned in a lice-infested American POW camp in the Upper Palatinate, eventually being transferred to the Bavarian spa town of Bad Aibling. There, Grass recalls in Peeling the Onion, he played dice with a boy his age,
the friend I had so longed to have in the dark pine wood, who now actually had a name, Joseph, and spoke a bookish, Bavarian-tinted German. We talked about God and the world, about our experiences as altar boys – his permanent, mine very much auxiliary. He believed I thought nothing was holy.
Grass returns to the topic of his conversations with this Joseph from Bavaria later:
Once, while still at the Bad Aibling camp, I got a bag of caraway seeds in exchange for three Camels and chewed them in memory of the caraway sauerkraut recipe of my missing master, though I saved some from the friend I’d made during those endless rains under the tarp, when we told each other’s fortunes with the three dice. I can still see him – Joseph – and hear his unfailingly soft, even gentle voice. I can’t get him out of my mind.
I wanted to be this, he that.
I said, There are many truths.
He said, There is only one.
I said, I don’t believe in anything anymore.
He saddled one dogma onto the next.
Joseph, I cried, you sound like an inquisitor. Or are you aiming higher?
He always beat me at dice, quoting Saint Augustine when he threw them, as if he had the Confessions in Latin at his side.
Towards the end of his memoir, Grass writes about telling his sister Waltraud about this upon learning that their countryman Joseph Ratzinger had been elected Pope Benedict XVI. The Nobel laureate was absolutely convinced that his friend from the POW camp was the new pope. While Waltraud was convinced this was another of her brother’s tall tales and pointed out that there were thousands of German soldiers in American captivity at Bad Aisling, the coincidences are too compelling to be dismissed.
Indeed, this boy was named Joseph, hailed from Bavaria, was the same age as Grass (both were born in 1927), and in his career as a theologian Ratzinger would be more indebted to St. Augustine than to any other thinker. And the young Joseph Ratzinger – conscripted into the Hitler Youth and trained in the German infantry – was held in the same American POW camp in Bad Aibling in 1945, from which he would eventually desert. (Grass’s calling his interlocutor an inquisitor was oddly prophetic, as Ratzinger would head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, successor to the Roman Inquisition, for almost a quarter-century.)
Today, both Günter Grass and Pope Benedict XVI are deceased; there is no way of completely verifying the veracity of their wartime acquaintance. While Peter Seewald does ask Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI about his time in American captivity in the book Last Testament, the journalist unfortunately missed an opportunity to ask him if he recalled his friendship with his peer from Danzig.
Grass, Ratzinger, and Nazism
Joseph Ratzinger and Günter Grass were both born in 1927. Ratzinger came from rural Bavaria on the Main River near the Austrian border, while Grass was a native of the Danzig Free City. After Poland had regained her independence in 1918, Danzig (Gdansk in Polish) became a semi-autonomous statelet under the administration of the League of Nations but represented by Poland diplomatically. More than eighty percent of Danzig’s population was German, and when the Nazi Party gained control of the free city’s senate, it began to persecute its Polish and Jewish minorities. In 1939, Danzig’s authorities demolished the city’s Great Synagogue, while shortly after invading Poland Germany established the Stutthof concentration camp in the Danzig Free City, where more than sixty thousand people – half of whom were Polish intellectuals and resistance fighters, while the rest were Jews – were killed.
The young intellectuals had both lost relatives to Nazism. Joseph Ratzinger’s cousin, who had Down syndrome, was killed in Aktion T4, the Reich’s campaign of involuntary euthanasia for people with disabilities, while Günter Grass’s Polish uncle was shot after participating in the heroic defense of the Polish Post Office in Danzig, one of World War II’s first battles.
Joseph Ratzinger’s father strongly opposed Nazism, which led him to frequently lose jobs. Like all German boys aged fourteen and above, Ratzinger was conscripted into the Hitler Youth. Yet at the war’s twilight he deserted, something for which he could have been killed. By contrast, Grass’s vicinity to the horrors of Stutthof and the killing of his uncle did not make him repulsed by Nazism.
Two postwar trajectories
Both Joseph Ratzinger and Günter Grass will be remembered as two of Germany’s greatest thinkers of the twentieth century. Yet their postwar trajectories could not be any more different.
Although Germany’s Catholic Church has long been a hotspot of progressivism and has frequently clashed with the Vatican on doctrinal issues, Pope Benedict XVI was a consistent defender of tradition. Whereas Grass told his Bavarian interlocutor that he believed in nothing and that there were many truths, Pope Benedict XVI was a defender of the truth, and in his first homily after being elected, proclaimed, “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”
It is not true, however, that Grass did not believe in anything. Certainly, he abandoned belief in the transcendent. One of the most bizarre passages of Peeling the Onion involves Grass’s sister joining a Franciscan convent in Aachen, hoping to do charity work. However, she quickly becomes disillusioned and begs her brother to rescue her. Despite Waltraud’s expectations, she did not work with the poor. Instead, she had to adopt a very strict regime of prayer and work.
Certainly, there are many well-publicized cases of emotional, physical, or sexual abuses in religious orders, but Grass gives no indication that the Aachen Franciscan sisters mistreated his sister. Yet he refers to her “convent captivity” and “convent prison.” Apparently without a sense of the transcendent, work and discipline appear torturous.
Whereas Grass lost his faith in God, regardless of how adamantly he would deny this, his Catholic desire for justice and order was not quelled. For many years, Grass was an artist publicly committed to left-wing causes, firmly supporting the Social Democratic Party (SDP) of Germany and a personal friend of Chancellor Willy Brandt. However, in his 1982 novel Headbirths: Or the Germans Are Dying Out, Grass, a father of four, sounds conservative, criticizing the selfishness of his society, as evidenced by its low birth rate, depicting a German couple who prefer petting their cat and basking in the sun on Thai beaches to having children.
Yet Grass’s loss of faith made him blind to many injustices, and his thirst for justice was often misplaced. He formally left the Church years after the war, claiming to have been offended by his country’s bishops’ comparison of abortion to Nazi crimes when West Germany debated the legalization of killing unborn children.
Meanwhile, in the 1980s, Grass wrote a letter to Pope St. John Paul II, imploring him to publicly support the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, responsible for many human rights abuses such as the genocide of the Miskito Indians. That same decade, he traveled to Gdansk, where he met with Solidarity activists, who fought against communist dictatorship through peaceful means, comparing them to the Sandinistas. While Grass intended this as a compliment, the Poles were horrified.
When discussing the election of Joseph Ratzinger, likely his former friend from the POW camp, in Peeling the Onion, Grass along with his sister “condemned the public death of the previous, the Polish, pope as shameless histrionics, I calling it ‘repellant,’ she ‘impertinent,’ though I could have come up with worse adjectives, and she swallowed a few that might well have trumped mine.”
Arguably, it was Grass’s reaction that was “repellant.” As the West worships the ephemera of youth and physical beauty, St. John Paul II heroically exercised his ministry despite great disability. For those of us who remember those days, we will never forget heartbreaking moments such as a mute John Paul II’s failed attempt to give an Easter blessing to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square six days before dying. Grass’s lack of compassion for the frailty of a man just seven years older than himself recalls the mentality behind Aktion T4 and Nietzsche’s nihilistic disdain for the weak.
The Eighth Commandment and the past
Neither Günter Grass nor Joseph Ratzinger had any influence on the fact that they were adolescents eligible for military service in Nazi Germany. Whereas the former chose to serve the absolutely evil pagan ideology of Nazism, the latter was compelled.
More important, however, is the fact that both men’s relationship to truth was not solely limited to abstract philosophical categories. For almost fifty years of his successful literary career, Grass was living a lie. Criticizing his nation’s historical amnesia, he himself had not been true to himself until doing so was convenient.
Pope Benedict XVI, however, was always self-critical and examined his inner life. While, despite media accusations, there is no evidence that the pope emeritus covered up sexual abuse cases as Archbishop of Munich and Freising, he nonetheless expressed sorrow and regret for possible failings on this issue last year. During his 2006 pilgrimage to Poland, the German pope visited Auschwitz-Birkenau and displayed remorse for his nation’s crimes, while four years later, in London, he expressed gratitude for the Royal Air Force for having defeated his own countrymen at the Battle of Britain.
In many ways, Pope Benedict XVI and Günter Grass symbolize two major intellectual currents in the West. The former, born to a traditional family in historically arch-Catholic Bavaria, was a defender of the Judeo-Christian legacy that has shaped our civilization for two thousand years but is now being rejected by thinkers like Grass, who have unsuccessfully tried to create a secular sense of justice. If we want our civilization to flourish, we must follow the example of Benedict XVI, who defended the consistent Christian ethics and applied them in his own life.
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