Beim Häuten der Zwiebel; Peeling the Onion

Beim Häuten der Zwiebel; Peeling the Onion (2006)This first volume of Grass’s autobiography contains the revelation that he served in a Waffen SS tank division as a teenager from late 1944 to May 1945. It is important to note that the Waffen SS was a combat division, and very different to the SS which murdered Jews and civilians (on this point, see Stuart Taberner, ‘Günter Grass’s Peeling the Onion’, reading list below, p. 145). When Grass announced this in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung prior to the book’s publication, there was a storm of publicity. The long-term effect on Grass’s reputation remains to be seen, but it does not alter Grass’s uniquely rich contribution to post-war German literature and culture. It does however shed light on a topic which always was central to Grass’s fiction, namely his characters’ complicity with the Nazi regime.

The book’s title alludes to a chapter in The Tin Drum entitled ‘Im Zwiebelkeller’ (‘In the Onion Cellar’), in which West Germans go to a special bar where they can chop onions in order to help them have a good cry about their past. The book relates Grass’s early interest in art and the end of his childhood with the outbreak of the Second World War. It also tells of his encounter in a prisoner of war camp with ‘Josef’, who was later to become pope. The narrative perspective often reminds us of the disjunction between Grass the teenager and the 79 year-old narrating Grass who wishes to manage his own reputation and legacy as a public figure.

Further Reading

Rebecca Braun, ‘“Mich in Variationen erzählen”: Günter Grass and the Ethics of Autobiography’, Modern Language Review 103 (2008), 1051-66

Mary Cosgrove, Born under Auschwitz: Melancholy Traditions in Postwar German Literature (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2014)

Helen Finch, ‘Günter Grass’s account of German wartime suffering in Beim Häuten der Zwiebel: mind in mourning or boy adventurer?’, in Germans as Victims in the Literary Fiction of the Berlin Republic, ed. by Stuart Taberner and Karina Berger (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2009), pp. 177-90

Stuart Taberner, ‘Private Failings and Public Virtues: Günter Grass’s Beim Häuten der Zwiebel and the Exemplary Use of Authorial Biography’, Modern Language Review 103 (2008), 143-54

Stuart Taberner, ‘Günter Grass’s Peeling the Onion’, in The Cambridge Companion to Günter Grass, ed. by Stuart Taberner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 139-50

Web Link

Review of Peeling the Onion by Andrew Riemer of The Sydney Morning Herald