Thursday, June 07, 2007

Should some mistakes not be forgiven?

Photo of Günter Grass courtesy wikipedia under their free documentation license

I’m in the middle of reading Günter Grass’ personal history article in the New Yorker. More about that in a minute.

I was born in 1956, just eleven years after the end of WWII. Our kids were born about that length of time after the Vietnam war. Sometime in my youth I saw photographs from when Allied troops opened concentration camps in Germany where living skeletons with caves for eyes, and piles of bones like bonfire wood, awaited them. In 1975, on study abroad, I visited Dachau, saw the former factory buildings, the large shower rooms where people were to be gassed, their last memory seeing others dying, naked. Unlike Auschwitz, I don't believe Dachau was used for gassing after all, but many of its 200,000 prisoners died of malnutrition, disease and suicide.

Polish born German Günter Grass won the Nobel prize in literature in 1999 for his “frolicsome black fables portray[ing] the forgotten face of history . . . When Günter Grass published 'The Tin Drum' in 1959 it was as if German literature had been granted a new beginning after decades of linguistic and moral destruction.” He became a hero in Poland, and the world, for telling the stories that hadn’t been told.

In 2006, Günter Grass revealed that he had been a member of the Nazi Waffen SS after being silent about it for 60 years. Many criticized him for hypocrisy. He had been a hero in Gdansk and other places for his healing perspective on history through his writing as one who had been drafted into the armed forces. The Waffen SS, on the other hand, was originally not part of the armed forces, but was a brutal and ruthless arm of the Nazi party. He said that he thought his writing had been enough of a redemptive act and that the 1950s was not the right time to confess.

Many, including Lech Wałęsa, who had criticized him initially when he revealed his Wassen SS membership, eventually forgave him for making a mistake in his youth.

In the personal history he wrote for this week’s issue of the New Yorker, ten months after his Waffen SS membership revelation last August, Grass describes in horrifying detail what it was like to fight in the war (on the “wrong” side).

In the paragraph I just finished, he wrote:

“But I had already read everything I write here. I had read it in Remarque or Céline [WWI], who . . . were merely quoting the scenes of horror that had been handed down to them . . .”

It seems to me that when humans don’t learn from mistakes, they will repeat them, as the saying goes. When humans don’t forgive mistakes, they are making the kind of mistakes that start wars. And every war that’s started is just another mistake that begets the next generation of wars.


Ginnie said...

Wow, Ruth. I've just read this and your latest post, both of which are very thought-provoking. My first response is, "You should be sick more often!" I know you were at home from work yesterday when you wrote this (well, at least when you posted it).

Thank You, is all I can say.

Ruth said...

Boots, this has been a meaningful article for me to read. BTW, I added a link to the article itself in the text, so you can see/read it. It's long, and I still haven't completed it. I'm savoring it, but it's tough. I just admire him for being so open about something that is considered the greatest shame, to have been a Nazi.

I know what you mean. Staying home yesterday gave me lots of time to think, to write. Wish I had that kind of time always.

Rauf said...

Ruth, sometimes when my views match with the extremists i begin to think that i must be wrong.

i asked my friend who lives in Dallas if he would invite Wesley Hiram Evans to dinner just because he was a priest, same church, same God, and he wants to go to same heaven as yours, or invite Albert Pike for that matter who has same views on morals. i got no answer from him.

We have our share of extremists who can convince you on their stand. if they say the leaf is green, i begin to doubt. Its hard for me to accept that sometimes they are right Ruth.

Ruth said...

rauf, people like that are so hard to forgive! What if Evans had recanted everything and began inviting non-whites into his home for breakfast, became very loving. Which way are we more likely to forgive him? Even if people are horrid monsters, what is in me if I don't, or can't, forgive? I am only responsible for what I send out from within myself. I have no problem when someone has to suffer the consequences of what they've done. But if I view someone as worse than me, I am saying I am not capable of doing the same thing, and I don't think it's true. I think because I'm human I AM capable of doing any despicable act, given the same circumstances.

I don't think I'm a saint. I just don't want the hatred to be inside me. It's worse for me, and it's worse for the environment.

You are so right, though, whenever someone like Rush Limbaugh says something right (has he ever?) I am the last to admit it. I can talk the talk, but I don't always walk the walk.