Grass, right, in 1944, at sixteen, when he was drafted into the Labor Service.
In 1943, when I was a fifteen-year-old schoolboy in Danzig, I volunteered for active duty. When? Why? Since I do not know the exact date and cannot recall the by then unstable climate of the war, or list its hot spots from the Arctic to the Caucasus, all I can do for now is string together the circumstances that probably triggered and nourished my decision to enlist. No mitigating epithets allowed. What I did cannot be put down to youthful folly. No pressure from above. Nor did I feel the need to assuage a sense of guilt, at, say, doubting the Führer’s infallibility, with my zeal to volunteer.
It happened while I was serving in the Luftwaffe auxiliary—a force made up of boys too young to be conscripts, who were deployed to defend Germany in its air war. The service was not voluntary but compulsory then for boys of my age, though we experienced it as a liberation from our school routine and accepted its not very taxing drills. Rabidly pubescent, we considered ourselves the mainstays of the home front. The Kaiserhafen battery became our second home. At first there were attempts to keep school going, but, as classes were too often interrupted by field exercises, the mostly frail, elderly teachers refused to travel the wearisome dirt road to our battery.
We got to use our 88-mm. guns only two or three times, when a few enemy bombers were sighted in our airspace in the beam of the searchlights. Massive raids—the kind that Cologne, Hamburg, Berlin, and the Ruhr Basin cities suffered—we did not experience. No damage worthy of the name, few casualties. We were proud to have shot down a four-engined Lancaster bomber; the “rather charred” crew members were said to have been Canadians. As a rule, however, service in the Luftwaffe auxiliary was dreary, though dreary in a different way from school. We were especially turned off by nightly guard duty and ballistics classes, which dragged on forever in the musty classroom barracks.
We had every other weekend off. We could, as they put it, “go home to Mama.” And, each time, my joy at the thought of the visit was tempered by my pain at the thought of our cramped quarters—a two-room flat adjoining the small grocery store that my parents ran, where the only space that I could call my own was a low niche under the sill of the right-hand living-room window.
At home, I kept bumping into things and into the lack of things: a bathroom and a toilet, for instance. All we had at the battery was a common shower room and, beyond it, a common latrine. There we would squat next to one another, shitting into a pit, and that didn’t bother me at all. But, at home, the toilet on the landing, shared by four flats, grew more and more distasteful to me: it was always filthy from the neighbors’ children, or occupied when you needed it. It stank, and its walls were smeared with fingerprints.
The two-room hole. The family trap. Everything there conspired to constrain the weekend visitor. Not even the mother’s hand could smooth away the son’s distress. True, he was no longer expected to sleep in his parents’ bedroom like his sister, but even on the couch made up for him in the living room he remained a witness to the married life that continued unbroken from Saturday to Sunday. That is, I could hear—or thought I could hear—sounds I had heard, muffled as they were, from childhood on, sounds that had lodged in my mind in the form of a monstrous ritual: the anticipatory whispers, the lip-smacking, the creaking bedsprings, the sighing horsehair mattress, the moaning, the groaning, the entire aural repertory of lovemaking, so potent, especially in the dark. I had a clear picture of all the variations on marital coupling, and in my cinematic version of the act the mother was always the victim: she yielded, she gave the go-ahead, she held out to the point of exhaustion.
The hatred of a mother’s boy for his father, the subliminal battleground that determined the course of Greek tragedies and has been so eloquently updated by Dr. Freud and his disciples, was thus, if not the primary cause, then at least one of the factors in my push to leave home.
I racked my brain for flight routes. They all ran in one direction: the front, or one of the many fronts, as quickly as possible.
I tried to pick a quarrel with my father. It wasn’t easy. It would have taken massive recriminations, and, peace-loving family man that he was, he was quick to give in. Anything to maintain harmony. The progenitor had a constant wish for the offspring on his lips: “I want your life to be better. . . . You will have a better life than ours.” Try as I might to turn him into a bugbear, he was not made for the role.
Yet the suddenly unbearable two-room flat and four-family toilet on the half-landing could not have been the sole cause of my urge to enlist. My schoolmates had grown up in five-room flats with their own bathrooms, supplied with rolls of toilet paper instead of the newsprint we tore into squares. Some of them even lived in fancy private houses and had rooms of their own, yet they, too, yearned to get away, to go to the front. Like me, they wanted to face danger without fear, to sink ship after ship, knock out tank after tank, or fly through the skies in the latest-model Messerschmitts, picking off enemy bombers.
After Stalingrad, however, the situation at the front went downhill. Anyone who, like my Uncle Friedel, was tracking it with colored thumbtacks on specially enlarged, cardboard-backed maps had trouble keeping up with developments in the East and in North Africa. At best, he could register the successes of our ally Japan at sea and in Burma, though our submarines occasionally padded the bulletins with the number and register tonnage of ships they had sunk. In the Atlantic and up near the Arctic, they’d attack convoys in packs.