Liberal thinker with a very guarded secret
Obituary: Günter Grass, 16 October 1927 - 13 April 2015
The death of German novelist Günter Grass, at the ripe age of 87, sees the passing of one of the great European novelists and thinkers who acted as a conscience for all things political and historical. If you were a backpacker going across Europe in the 1970s or 80s, or indeed the West of Ireland, it would be hard to miss those battered copies of his classics The Tin Drum (1959) or The Flounder (1977) being clutched by progressive travellers, and usually adorned by the author's own distinctive drawings.
Grass was himself a distinctive presence and, in appearance, the essence of the liberal European thinker, with his broad moustache, lugubrious eyes gazing over the top of his glasses, and a tobacco pipe constantly in hand.
Grass's popularity increased after a film adaption of The Tin Drum in 1979 by director Volker Schlöndorff, and depicting the young boy who draws the people into a colourful journey of political madness. With its combination of black comedy, fable and magic realism, Grass created a distinctive and often digressive weaving of vivid imagination and historical fact.
Subsequent novels Cat and Mouse (1961) and Dog Years (1963) are popularly known as the Danzig trilogy and the author's innovations would later influence Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nadine Gordimer and Salman Rushdie.
Grass explored the horrors of war and specifically the way in which people can be seduced into accepting dictatorship and brutality, by drawing on his own upbringing and experience in Nazi Germany. He grew up in the disputed city of Danzig, then under League of Nations protection and now the Polish city of Gdansk, which in the 1930s gave clear warning of what the Nazis were capable of, a point made by the city's High Commissioner, Irishman Sean Lester, who went on to become the last Secretary of the League of Nations, and who warned the world about the German threat.
Grass became not only a trenchant critic of Nazism, but all forms of totalitarian behaviour or that he deemed to be such, including Cold War tensions and Latin American juntas. As part of his public profile, Grass was also an occasional speech writer for the German chancellor Willy Brandt.
In 1989, Grass resigned in anger from the Berlin Academy of Arts when it refused to join in a public reading from the work of his friend, Salman Rushdie, who was then facing an Islamic death threat.
However, all this public virtue was somewhat undone when, as late as 2006, Grass revealed that he had been a member of the Waffen SS, the Nazi's infamous killing machine, though there is no suggestion he killed or injured anyone. This was not the regular German army or even the Nazi party but the actual SS, and as late as 1943. It was presented as a youthful indiscretion (he was 15) but it was a stunning detail not to have disclosed, especially for someone who always demanded transparency from everyone else.
The writer's fans were understandably distraught and many demanded he return his 1999 Nobel Prize. Worse still, it looked like Grass was saving the secret for a forthcoming autobiography, Peeling the Onion, although the revelation came out in a newspaper. "My silence through all these years is one of the reasons why I wrote this book" he said "It had to come out finally."
The controversy didn't prevent Grass from continuing his public pronouncements. In 2012, he called on Germany to stop selling arms to Israel, which might have sounded a reasonable request, except that Grass described Israel as bent on nuclear war and 'a threat to world peace'. Israel itself then reacted in an equally over-the-top way by banning Grass from the country.
However, Grass has continued with his controversial pronouncements. He ridiculously compared German reunification to Hitler's 'annexation' of Austria and, more recently, he said that Germans should be forced to invite asylum-seekers to live in their homes as a way of aiding the world's destitute.
However, the author's reputation is secured by his volume of work and the haunting world of his imagination which combines fantasy, grim comedy and an exploration of the legacy that divided his native Germany and Europe.