By Hadleyblogger Drew
The man on the left is Günter Grass: Nobel-prize winning novelist, author of the magnificently disturbing The Tin Drum and other books, pacifist and long-time anti-American activist. And, apparently, former Nazi.
My purpose here isn’t to recap what’s been written in the wake of the recent revelation that Grass had been a member of the S.S. during World War II. Rather, I’ve been asked to contribute a few pieces on the stigma which the word “Nazi” still carries today (a sort of Scarlet Swastika, if you will), as a follow-up to the recent story on opera star Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Virtually every obit noted Schwarzkopf’s past membership in the Nazi party (which she dismissed as something “everyone” had done), even though the question of her involvement with the Nazis had nothing to do with that for which she was best-known, her work in music. (Yes, I’m aware that one could argue her continued ability to engage in music during the war might have been a result of privileges accorded her as a result of her membership, but I’m going to say that’s stretching things farther than I care to go.)
While Schwarzkopf was an interpreter of art rather than a creator of it (which diminishes the significance of the revelation, at least in terms of its relevance to the art itself) there are others who could be said to be creators, and the question then becomes whether or not one can separate the influence of ideology from the creation itself. As Terry Teachout puts it in his thought-provoking Wall Street Journal piece, "The work is what matters most...but artists are human, too." If there is to be a Scarlet Swastika, this is where it may show the most - in the interpretation of the artist's work. But, true or not, is it always warranted?
Which brings us back to Günter Grass. I hadn’t been intending to include Grass in my series, but the timing of this story was too much to pass up. And it ties in to one of the central questions we ask, if an obvious one: is there a double standard regarding the treatment and consideration of past affiliations, whether they be youthful indiscretions or fervent beliefs? There are already those wondering if the left will give Grass a free pass due to his political ideology – a pass that might not be available to someone with, let’s say, a less liberal bent. That Scarlet Hammer & Sickle doesn’t seem to burn quite as brightly as the Swastika does, especially if you’re still part of the liberal brotherhood (witness the cult of personality that still surrounds Alger Hiss, unlike the vituperation aimed at former members like Whittaker Chambers, who renounced Communism in all its ideological forms). Will people take a second look at The Tin Drum in the same way that so many on the left want to rethink, say, The Passion of the Christ? Should they?
It seems as if there aren’t many things that society holds against you any more. Being a former Nazi is one of them. In our post-literate society the word itself is thrown around with reckless abandon, to the point that it’s lost most of its original meaning. But the glow from the Scarlet Swastika is still there, and it would seem as if any discussion of the relationship between art and Nazi politics would, sooner or later, come round to Leni Riefenstahl. That's where I had planned to start this series, but instead it's where I'll continue it in a future piece.