Günter Grass excited some controversy and indignation in Germany last year when this autobiography of his early years was first published. Now, carefully translated by Michael Henry Heim with a sensitive ear to his deliberately impressionistic style, his tale is worth examining afresh to see how far the indignation was justified. For Grass, Nobel prize-winner for literature and a senior statesman of European culture, had done something unforgivable: he had long concealed, then finally confessed in his wayward, artistic fashion, to having volunteered – not simply been conscripted – for the Waffen SS during the war. These were no common soldiers but Hitler’s elite, exterminating troops; German sensibilities, naturally sensitive to such an insouciant opening of old wounds, were outraged.

The book covers Grass’s childhood – he was born in the Free State of Danzig in 1927 to a couple who ran a modest corner shop – youth and early manhood, up until he began writing The Tin Drum, the novel that established his reputation, in Paris in the 1950s. He describes joining the Jungvolk in 1937 aged 10, wanting to escape the stifling confines of his family’s two-room flat and lured by promises of hikes and camp-fires. This led on to the senior group, the Hitler Youth, and thence to volunteering for the submarine corps. By this stage, in 1943, land warfare predominated, so Grass reapplied to train as a tank gunner in the Waffen SS. His reasons for applying for active duty seem entirely credible: it got him out of school (where he had been an indifferent scholar); it got him out of the “petit bourgeois atmosphere of familial obligations”; he could also wear a uniform and aspire to be a romantic hero, protecting his city from attack. The marching song of the Waffen SS, “If others prove untrue, yet we shall steadfast be”, must have been a heady “hymn” for idealistic boys.

The gentle, softly-spoken “Joseph”, who played dice with Grass, argued with him about theology, told of his desire for the priesthood and who spoke “a bookish, Bavarian-tinted German”, was the same young man who later became Pope.

In practice, he barely worked out how to fire a gun and never got to use one. His wartime service in Silesia hardly lasted a week, such was the chaos on the Eastern front during the last year of the war. Danger came more from the threat of being hanged or summarily shot by senior German officers for “cowardice” (being separated from one’s unit without official papers) which was often unavoidable in the circumstances, than from the advancing Russian forces. Grass was also lucky, managing to survive time and again when all the other raw young recruits around him were being slaughtered.

These are the facts as he narrates them; on this basis it is hard to indict him for war crimes. Germany’s problem with its past history includes the just apportioning of guilt; clearly, the Danzig schoolboy with his adolescent dreams of bravery and rebellion, his ignorance and naivety, bears little responsibility for his country’s misdeeds.

Yet can such ignorance be a sufficient defence? Grass’s mother, watching fellow citizens being rounded up, remarked, “I can’t understand why they’ve got it in for the Jews”; her son, only listening to the Wehrmacht’s censored radio broadcasts and incredulous when he later saw photos of the concentration camps, is not so sure.

He seems baffled and ashamed by the cocoon of egoism and imagination that he wove around himself: “I had been content to know nothing or to believe false information”, he writes; later in his narrative he adds; “I let myself be seduced”. Still later he states, “I had been incorporated into a system that had planned, organised and carried out the extermination of millions of people”. He alludes to “joint responsibility” and the ceaseless “gnawing of shame and guilt”, concluding “I will have to live with it for the rest of my life”.

Some of this is no doubt sincere. Some, I sense, is posturing; artistic rhetoric. It is one thing to own up to youthful folly; quite another to admit to adult indifference. The memory can also play notorious tricks; in retrospect the past can shift, vanish, re-assemble itself both consciously and unconsciously. Grass is a master story-teller, whose past has become yet another “story”, a web spun of anecdote, fact, myth, fantasy and dreams for his own satisfaction and the enchantment of the reader. Not the least of his techniques is to mix his memories with his later fiction, showing how the personalities he met in his youth were transmuted into characters in the novels. We can readily accept that this mixture of belief and make-believe was useful “to help him get on with life” – but they blunt the intensity of his moral viewpoint, and thus his moral integrity.

His book is part expiation, part explanation, written “because I wanted the last word”. The onion image is both conventional and convenient; it allows him to be in control of the layers peeled away and to harvest his emotions at the same time: “chopped, it brings tears”.

It is salutary to contrast him with two contemporaries, one of whom survived the bombing of Dresden (where Grass passed through with his unit late in February 1945) and the other who (possibly) shared a brief period with him at the Bad Aibling prisoner-of-war camp run by the Americans. The first is Viktor Klemperer, Jewish scholar and philologist, whose analysis of the language of the Third Reich conveys a moral outrage of which Grass is barely capable; the second is Pope Benedict XVI. At this point I must add that although Grass insists in his oblique fashion that the young Joseph Ratzinger, also born in 1927 (but into a devout Catholic family and, unlike his exact contemporary, an unwilling conscript into the German army in the latter months of the war) was his chum in the camp, he never knew his surname. His sister, when he told her the story, thought it “a yarn”. Yet I am willing to believe that the gentle, softly-spoken “Joseph”, who played dice with Grass, argued with him about theology, told of his desire for the priesthood and who spoke “a bookish, Bavarian-tinted German”, was the same young man who later became Pope.

Klemperer and Joseph reflect a different perspective: the older man, a Jew, outlawed by the Nazis because of his birth, had no choice but to exercise his acute intelligence in condemnation of the sinister histrionics surrounding him; the younger one, equally intelligent and formed by an equally powerful tradition, repudiated the political system along with his family.

Grass, too, had a Catholic boyhood, but one which was conventional rather than devout. He says that his transition to non-belief was smooth and that by his adolescence he was “more heathen than Christian”. Sexual preoccupations and an inner world peopled with the fictitious and historical heroes of his voracious reading drove him “beyond the miracles of the Catholic bag of tricks”. Nonetheless, there are at least a dozen allusions to the mysterious “Joseph” in his book, as if the errant altar-boy, who became an improbable gunner, then a painter, sculptor, poet and novelist, still has a fitful, non-assuaged yearning for the world offered by his soft-spoken companion, who once told him “that grace doesn’t just fall into your lap”.

Francis Phillips writes from Bucks in the UK.