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"How I Spent The War"

June 21, 2007
Gunter Grass’s short story (labeled a personal history), “How I Spent The War[:] A recruit in the Waffen S.S” is fabulously written, very entertaining, enthralling, at times riveting and not once did I feel the knee jerk reaction to demonize the protagonist for being in the Waffen S.S. This is not a Nazi apologist story nor is it the memoir of an aspiring Schindler. It is a story about an adolescent, “rapidly pubescent” who thought life at home was miserable so he initially used the military as an outlet, then a few years later drafted. So often people tend to sanitize the players in history and fabricate all kinds of options that player could have sought in order to avoid being part of an atrocity but, that is not how it happens and we all know this. Thus, the reason the question remains relevant, War! What is it good for? And we all know the answer.The cognitive dissonance necessary to survive an uncontrollable situation such as this is understandable. It seems that on one side we have people who think there should be blind allegiance to everything and on the other in hindsight people act if they would have done something to set themselves apart from the unfolding atrocities, such as suicide, organizing a successful renegade covert subversion Commando and Rambo style or escaping the country. Yeah whatever. Recently I saw a segment on the History Channel discussing how Switzerland was not as neutral during World War II as they would like the world to believe. In fact, trains carrying Jewish people on their way to the gas chambers often stopped in Switzerland for provisions. A Swiss woman recalls how she volunteered nightly to take soup and water to the trains, always feeling sorry for the sad faces peeping out begging for help but at the same time worried what would happen if they managed to get off the train and storm the city. Horrendous times. Unthinkable. Complex. We should not have to deal with war to begin with. War! What is it good for? Nevertheless, I am reminded of the narrator’s attitude in Thomas Hardy’s poem,

The Man He Killed

“Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

“But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

“I shot him dead because—
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although

“He thought he’d ’list perhaps,
Off-hand-like—just as I—
Was out of work—had sold his traps—
No other reason why.

“Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a crown.”

In, “How I Spent the War” Grass utilizes a narrative style, a style I just realize I do not know the name for, it is not a stream of consciousness, it is definitely a casual like story telling, but he moves from first person point of view to third person and back to first person all within one range of thought or incident while also providing the details of the then events with mature understanding. Such as in this passage:


I heard shouting in two languages immediately overlaid by gunfire, until only the Russian submachine guns had their say.
Crawling through the dense pine thicket and slowly increasing my distance from the road, I was shot at from right and left but not hit, which was not necessarily the case with the group around the sergeant. The old man was no longer cursing God or his neighbor or calling for scores to be settled. The only voices I heard were Russian voices, now quite far off. Someone was laughing. He must have been in a good mood.
Because the dry twigs made such a racket, the isolated tank gunner stopped inching forward on his elbows as he had been trained to do, and played dead, as if he could thereby escape the march of history. Not until the enemy tank, which had been followed by others, started moving did he begin to crawl forward again, and he crawled on until the pine covered turned into a mature wood with Prussian-neat rows. No, I had no desire to go back and find only corpses; besides, the pale lights and engine noises coming from the road confirmed the enemy’s advance.
What do I see when I hold up that lone tank gunner by the half-moonlight and view him as an early edition of the man to come?

Grass is the I in the story, then he turns into “the isolated tank gunner” hence the I becomes the he, then the future Grass analyzes the sixty years ago Grass all quite candidly and without the need to romanticize or rewrite the history of the event. Love it.I will not spoil the story and give any more details, but it is a very good story, equipped with hiding in cellars with bicycles and jellies, nursery rhymes, illegally buying marching orders and the misery of a lone conscientious objector, “We don’t do that.”

Lazy readers need not bother, this is a prose that needs undivided attention. The New Yorker has it available right now to read on line or to print. If interested, print it out quick before they change their minds and charge a subscription fee in order to read it.

  1. lilacsnwormwood permalink
    June 22, 2007 12:59 am

    Hey it’s me,

    thought i’d post a comment to let you know yea i do come by and read,

    good post btw, and yes, so true,

    makes me think of that movie, Europa, Europa, have you seen it? older movie, true story, of how this Jewish boy, to survive, joined the Hitler youth, then the Comitern when he was caught on the battlefield, or was it the other way around,

    well anyway, what saved him was he spoke German,

    but one German soldier [because he fought as a German too] found out he wasn’t circumcised, but he didn’t turn him in, when he found out, one of The touching moments in the movie, shows a lot of how war makes people do things they wouldn’t do,

    and yea i saw that about Sweden…and they knew, they knew, that was a good documentary, and what it shows is,

    how it can happen again and so many would just go on their way, ho hum de da and just pretend or justify,

    and it is happening today, when the US came forward and justified use of torture, and there was little outrage,

    something sinister happened, because the US at one time, was the spokesperson against human right abuses, sure, they committed them, no doubt, but never like openly just said, oh this is acceptable, so there was still that


    now its gone, that vocal principle is gone and the light has gone out,

    unless People rise up, and say, NO, to torture and NO to war.

    but like Germany, it isn’t as clean cut as it appears, there tends to be a demonization and ignorance of Germany, that all Germans were like in accord with Hitler, and that isn’t true,

    there were Germans though they may not have openly resisted, they hated the regime and i don’t think we really understand what it is, to live under a regime like that…with police rounding up on every corner, every street…

    ever see Kathy Kollowitz’s work, German Artist, who the Nazi’s didnt like but she survived, but her artwork, shows the horrors of the poverty and misery of the German people, prior to Hitler,

    it sheds a lot of light on the psychology that led up to so much,

    there is another good documentary too about the Autobon [?] highway in Germany and how workers, were complaining to Hitler about the worker conditions and these were men loyal to the Third Reich, and Hitler turned over their names to the SS, and of course they were blacklisted, sure many of them ‘dealt with accordingly’, this was before the war,

    so, shows how terror was in use, before WWII, to work on the citizens,

    and just think, comparisons, to that, and now…the similarities, are astounding, subtle, but astounding all the same. thanks for posting, i shall definately read it…


    Tasha 🙂

  2. E. K.(Kitty) Glendower permalink
    June 22, 2007 2:25 am

    I have not seen Europa, Europa. I will have to look out for it. For the longest, I could not watch anything about WWII or WWI, I seem to feel desperation of the situation too much. I did manage to finish Schindler’s List. Still have not finished The Pianist and, I have the DVD. Too much. I talked about this in another vein with my dear blog brother before, how violence and atrocities are so normalize in movies and films that most people can watch it without second thought. Only now I can handle bits and pieces without getting too entangled in the pain of it, detached I guess one can say.

  3. Professor Zero permalink
    June 22, 2007 5:59 am

    What a great story. And I needed to read a great unexpected story at this moment.

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