The hypocrite always wears a halo. He walks in the light of his own goodness, encircled by the clarity of illuminated virtue. His dark secret is hidden from sight so he can enjoy popular applause for his undiminished radiance.
So it is with Nobel Prize-winner Gunter Grass, moralist-in-chief of German letters, controller of the German conscience. He demanded that all Germans "come clean" about their past as the only way to atonement. He was the advocate for remembering and taking full responsibility for personal actions. He beat a tin drum to death.
So it was stunning news that now, at the age of 78, he has admitted publicly that he was a Nazi himself, a soldier of the Waffen SS, the special unit that made the Holocaust work. He served in the unit at the end of the war at the age of 17, after, he said, he tried and failed to volunteer for U-boat service. He says he didn't engage in any criminal activity, but he nevertheless hid his Nazi past from the public for six decades.
He urged others to claim their shame, but he waited for a propitious moment to reveal his. Why now? "It weighed on me," he says. But it's hardly a stretch to suggest -- as many Germans do -- that he made his confession shortly before the publication of his autobiography. He may sell more books this way, but once the halo slips, it never quite fits again.
And it was a big halo. Like others of the arrogant intellectual left of European letters (such as the English playwright Harold Pinter, another Nobel Prize-winner), he never lost an opportunity to use his fame and sense of moral superiority to scold America. During the Vietnam War, he compared our "war crimes" to the war crimes of Nazi Germany. He never bothered until now to say that he was a member of the elite Nazi unit commissioned to execute the worst of Holocaust thuggery.
He went out of his way to criticize Konrad Adenauer for his friendship with the United States; he blamed the resurgence of German capitalism, which he loathed, on America. He even invited sympathy from Jews for opposing Ronald Reagan's visit to the cemetery at Bitburg in 1985 because some of his old comrades of the Waffen SS were buried there along with American soldiers. Imagine how eloquent that opposition might have been if he had said then that he, too, was Waffen SS. Instead he only sneered at President Reagan.