Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Saturday, August 19, 2006

A British Schreibtischtäter

The basic thesis of Daniel Johnson's open letter to Günter Grass is that the latter's silence over his past has emerged as the noise of his opposition to Western imperialism (link via KR blog). "Now that we know how you began your career, with a thorough indoctrination in the Waffen SS" he says "your lifelong loathing of the West takes on a new and sinister significance."

It's a curious loathing. Grass takes part in debate. He puts over his opinion. Sometimes it seems (I don't follow his pronouncements), he challenges governments if he believes they are wrong. Isn't this what the West stands for? Isn't this what participants in a democracy are meant to do? Not according to Johnson:
Like your American counterpart Noam Chomsky, like countless writers and intellectuals of the left from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Harold Pinter, you have worked hard to discredit the political and economic system to which you owed your success: capitalism.
So there we have it. They should all shut up. What's more, the 'success' of Chomsky's theory of generative grammar, Garcia Marquez's fiction and Pinter's plays is down, not to talent and particular application, but to capitalism. Perhaps Johnson means financial success instead. I suspect he does. Yet his article proves that a lack of intellect and talent isn't a drawback.

The logic of Johnson's comment is that anyone who dares to speak out against the actions of the political and economic system to which they "owe their success" is immediately a hypocrite. Curiously, this is the same logic used by Nazis and Stalinists on their own dissidents. Barring the rest of Johnson's 4800-word tirade, this alone is enough evidence to suggest democracy is only a veneer over the distressing logic of capitalism.

Johnson has history as a blowtorch to that the veneer. In April 2003, the TLS published his sickening 4000-word review of three books about the Allied bombing raids on Germany during World War II. I wrote about it soon after in an essay on WG Sebald. At that time, the invasion of Iraq had just taken place. Johnson picked out a certain novelist for contempt then too:
Grass has no doubt that the Allied bombing [of Germany] was a war crime because it lacked military objectives. "The Allies tried to break the resistance of the German people by killing hundreds of thousands, but the resistance grew." Speaking before the collapse of Saddam's regime, he was equally sure that the Iraqis would defend their country "because of the bombing". Grass evidently identifies with "the German people" in their "resistance" to the Allies; as a young soldier, he was after all one of them.
Before anything else, this reveals that Johnson already knew three years before this letter that Grass was Nazi soldier, so why does the particular branch make any difference now? Yes, the Waffen SS had been made up of ideologically driven Nazis, but that late in the war everyone knows that such elitism had long been abandoned. And anyway, isn't Grass saying rather that the bombing put in jeopardy liberation from tyranny by increasing the resistance? His "identification" is more like understanding beyond ideological constraints, an intellectual openness that Johnson, like his father, cannot abide.

An aside: Johnson would no doubt dismiss anything Grass says as suspect. For instance, he doesn't believe that Grass, as he claims, tried to join the U-boat service instead. These recruits, Johnson says, "were also notoriously hard-line Nazis" anyway. This is false. A late friend of mine was drafted into U-boats also as a teenager. He might have gone into the Waffen SS instead. That would have been more fortunate as few submariners survived. But he did survive and soon after the war emigrated to the UK. Later he joined the Civil Service and at retirement received a medal from the government; an achievement he cherished and one hardly likely from a hard-line opponent of the West. All these were actions of someone who wished merely to belong and do good, which he did.

The letter format enables Johnson to tell Grass that "you [as a Nazi soldier] were careless of how many people you killed, for to you they were scarcely human. Your mentality was not unlike that of the Islamist suicide bombers of today". (There's another clue as to Johnson's real concerns). As Grass claims he committed no crimes as a soldier, one wonders what deaths he is talking about. If Grass did take part in lethal actions, it has to be proven, yet Johnson offers no evidence. The whole letter is full of such assumptions and contortions. The giveaway example: as suicide bombers tend to be fanatical converts in small cells rather than teenage boys filling the space left by fallen adults in one of the largests armies the world has ever seen, the more appropriate comparison is with US soldiers in Haditha, Fallujah, et al.

Of course, Grass has been proved right in his prediction of resistance from the Iraqi people, though it is probably down less to Shock & Awe than the subsequent tyrannical occupation. This is what upsets Johnson more than anything, for he has more in common with Grass of old than he can possibly admit. Johnson has (as far as I know) yet to apologise for his outspoken support for an illegal invasion and occupation that has caused the deaths of a quarter of a million people. At least Grass has tried to atone in his writing life. Johnson reckons his silence over an ultimately irrelevant detail still makes him a Schreibtischtäter, a desk-criminal. But one has to recognise what one has done before atonement can take place.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:21 pm

    Excellent write up. Thank you for posting this much needed review/response.

    ReplyDelete

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