Published On: Tue, Oct 25th, 2011

Pin the Tail on the Nazi

Susan Sarandon is an attractive and intelligent actress whose work I much admire, but when she pipes in on politics, as she did recently by calling the current pope a Nazi, I think to myself; “Oh boy, is she a featherhead”.

In her defense, Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) was in fact conscripted into the Hitler Youth at the age of fourteen. It was compulsory service to which Ratzinger submitted to shield his family from Nazi harassment. But as Allied forces closed in on Berlin, he deserted his anti-aircraft unit without firing a shot, surrendered and remained in a POW camp until the end of the war.

In the same camp was another teenage Hitler Youth – Gunter Grass. Now an acclaimed novelist and political commentator of the Left, he was a member of the Waffen-SS, but one whom I daresay Miss Sarandon would never call a Nazi.

Given their similar involvement in the Third Reich, why is this so?

Political expediency is one answer. The pope’s conservative theology conflicts with Miss Sarandon’s liberal politics (i.e. abortion, same-sex marriage, etc.). All of which is fine and arguable in the public square. But by attempting to pin a fascist label on the pope, Miss Sarandon discredits him out of hand and thereby circumvents the issues and, in the process, misrepresents the historical record.

Groupthink also plays a role. She offered her comments during a Q&A at the fashionable Hamptons Film Festival where most in attendance laughed in agreement. Establishing one’s irreligious bona fides is a favorite pastime among Hollywood elites and, judging by the East Hampton reaction, Miss Sarandon succeeded.

Less receptive were religious observers.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which fights anti-Semitism, called on Sarandon to apologize to the Catholic Community. “Ms. Sarandon may have her differences with the Catholic Church, but that is no excuse for throwing around Nazi analogies. Such words are hateful, vindictive and only serve to diminish the true history and meaning of the Holocaust,” the ADL said in a statement.

The pope’s war record should be scrutinized and has been for years. Gunter Grass’s role in Nazi Germany, however, was deliberately obscured for six decades.

Gunter Grass, leftist champion

When he finally revealed his involvement with the Waffen-SS in his 2006 book, Peeling the Onion, Mr. Grass’s excuse for withholding the truth for so long was a predictable pang of conscience. “It weighed heavily on my mind. My silence over all these years is one of the reasons I have written this book.”

Writing a review of the book in The Telegraph, Daniel Johnson was less charitable. “For a writer who has built his entire reputation on his indictment of an older generation for supposedly evading responsibility, Grass shows little awareness of his own bad faith in concealing the shameful facts about himself.”

Mr. Grass has long been a champion of leftist causes, writing novels and polemics that either mock or satirize conservative points of view. But he is also a keen observer of human nature and I would recommend Peeling the Onion for its vivid depiction of life during wartime and the moral depravity that ensued once Germany lost.

Predictably, some on the Right began calling for Mr. Grass to return his Nobel Prize for literature. Others, in the right wing version of Miss Sarandon, called him a Nazi, too.

Neither indictment is instructive. Words have meaning and the ADL’s assessment is closer to the truth. Nazism is a historical fact that slaughtered millions of people, most especially six million Jews. It was a totalitarian ideology that very nearly drove Western Civilization into another Dark Ages. It required blood, sweat and sacrifice to defeat and its significance is only demeaned by glib misrepresentations of fact.

The word Nazi is tossed about far too cavalierly today. (“Bush is a Nazi!” “No, Obama is a Nazi!” and so on.) It’s like playing pin the tail on the donkey. The point is not to jump on either bandwagon. A friend of mine who fought actual Nazis from North Africa all the way to Berlin was hardpressed to assign blame on either Pope Benedict or Gunter Grass.

“When you’re fourteen, you don’t know a Nazi from a Communist,” he said. “War victimizes everyone, especially the young.”

That’s not child’s play. That’s pretty charitable coming from a former GI.

About the Author

- Robert Maley has worked in publishing, banking and – as incongruent as it may seem – the theatrical world. After many years of living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, he now resides in the more pastoral setting of Virginia. A playwright with an MFA from Columbia University, he has had several plays produced off-off-Broadway. Presently, he is a critic of the Cultural Marxism to which he once allied, especially as it pertains to the arts, faith and academia.

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