Obituary: Gunter Grass
Literary heavyweight regarded by many as the conscience of the German nation
Published 19/04/2015 | 02:30
Gunter Grass, who died last week aged 87, won the 1999 Nobel Prize in literature mainly for his first novel, Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), his satire on Germany under the Nazis which became an immediate bestseller on its publication in 1959.
There was, therefore, disbelief when in 2006, at the age of 78, Grass confessed in an interview prior to the publication of his autobiography, Peeling the Onion, that in the final months of the World War II, when he was 17, he had been drafted into the Waffen-SS, the military wing of the Nazi corps that played a leading role in the Holocaust.
In common with many Germans of his generation, Grass saw the process of de-Nazification as unfinished business and made it his mission to force his compatriots to examine their own experience in order to gain a better understanding of what it was that had made Nazism possible. He specialised in telling Germans what they did not want to hear and came to be regarded as the conscience of his nation.
His masterpiece The Tin Drum was set in pre-war Danzig (the Polish port of Gdansk), where Grass himself had lived as a child, and focuses on Oskar Matzerath, a boy who, at the age of three, tosses himself down a flight of stairs to stunt his growth as a form of protest at the adult world. Over the next 20 years this man-child communicates only through his toy drum and by means of a glass-shattering scream, becoming a semi-detached observer of life under the Third Reich.
Known to a wide public through Volker Schlondorff's film, The Tin Drum inspired a generation of writers, among them Salman Rushdie, who said the book had taught him to "Go for broke. Always try and do too much. Dispense with safety nets. Take a deep breath before you begin talking. Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be ruthless. Argue with the world."
Dishevelled and lugubrious-looking with a droopy moustache over an omnipresent pipe and heavy-lidded eyes behind steel-rimmed glasses, Grass was almost a caricature of the German progressive intellectual. The Tin Drum elevated him to the status of unofficial figurehead of a generation loosely labelled the "Hitlerjugend", a group too young to be blamed for National Socialism but old enough to bear its scars.
Therefore there was widespread shock and incredulity when in 2006 he admitted that, after being drafted into the Wehrmacht in Autumn 1944, he had been assigned to the 10th SS Panzer Division, known as Frundsberg.
While he claimed never to have fired a shot, Grass admitted that at the time he saw nothing wrong with the SS and claimed only to have discovered the truth about the Holocaust after the war ended. He had decided to tell all, he explained, because his silence over so many years had weighed on his conscience.
Grass's critics, however, were unforgiving. There were demands that he hand back his Nobel Prize and accusations that, by not coming clean earlier, he had forfeited whatever moral authority he once had.
But others argued that the mistakes of youth should not be held against an author who, unlike his critics, had always been publicly critical of Germany's Nazi past.
On the whole it was this latter view that prevailed.
The enduring strength of The Tin Drum lies in its precise evocation of pre-war Danzig where Grass was born on October 16 1927. His father, a grocer, came from a working-class German family; his mother was Kashubian, a Slav minority from the Danzig area, who were distinct from the Poles in language and culture.
The 'Free City' of Danzig was then under League of Nations stewardship, but, with its large German majority and staunch Nazi sympathies, was unofficially part of the Third Reich. Brought up as a Roman Catholic "between the Holy Ghost and Hitler's photograph", Grass became a pimpf, or Hitler cub, aged 10, joined the Hitler Youth at 14 and left the Danzig Gymnasium aged 16 for menial duties with the Luftwaffe before he was drafted into the Waffen-SS in 1944.
Wounded at Cottbus in April 1945, he was sent to hospital in Marienbad, Czechoslovakia, then to a prisoner-of-war camp in Bavaria, where he was forced to view the newly liberated Dachau as part of his de-Nazification.
His family, meanwhile, had become refugees. His mother was raped by Russian soldiers before she fled from Danzig in 1945, although Grass never heard about it until after her death, when he was told by his sister who had witnessed it.
On release from the PoW camp in 1946, Grass worked for two years on farms, in a potash mine and as a stonemason's apprentice. He would attribute his political awareness to the time he spent underground.
In 1948 he enrolled at the Dusseldorf Academy of Art to study painting and sculpture, and in 1952 moved to West Berlin where he continued his studies at the State Academy of Fine Arts and got a job as a graphic designer. In his free time he played the drums and washboard with a jazz band and began to write poetry and dramatic sketches. In 1955 he joined Gruppe 47, a collection of radical young writers who saw themselves as literary equivalents of Berlin's "rubble women" who filled their wheelbarrows with debris and began to rebuild their shattered city after the war.
Germany's place in the world became an abiding obsession for Grass, and to obtain a better perspective he moved to Paris, where he took menial jobs while writing The Tin Drum and its two sequels, Cat and Mouse and Dog Years, which also centred on Danzig.
After the success of The Tin Drum, Grass returned to Germany and became actively involved in politics, campaigning for the Social Democrat Party and writing speeches for the SPD leader Willy Brandt. When Brandt became chancellor, Grass was tipped as a possible minister, but he was never party politician material. He only joined the SPD in 1982 when it lost power to Helmut Kohl, and he resigned 10 years later in protest at its support for new controls on asylum-seekers.
In the 1980s Grass was less active as a writer, though he remained a vigorous political campaigner. He demonstrated against the stationing of American nuclear missiles in Germany, denounced the Americans for supporting armed counter-revolution against Nicaragua's Sandinista government and spoke out on a wide range of environmental issues. But his position in a more self-confident Germany became increasingly controversial.
After the hostile reception given to his apocalyptic novel The Rat (1986), he disappeared to India in a huff, trumpeting his general disapproval for the state of affairs in Germany. He intended to go for a year, but after barely five months he came back, admitting he was disillusioned by the philosophy of non-violence "which is now as burnt out as our own European ideas".
Things only got worse after his return. His relations with conservative critics had always been difficult, but the reunification of Germany put him at odds with almost the entire intellectual and political elite. A reunited Germany, he told a sceptical SPD conference in 1990, would constitute "an alarming excess of power, swollen with the lust for more and more power".
Grass's opposition to what he saw as a rushed reunification was born out of fear that the return of the nation state would weaken, if not destroy, the moral imperative for Germans not to forget the Nazi past.
Grass continued to court controversy. In 2012, he was declared persona non grata by Israel after publishing a poem Was gesagt werden muss ('What must be said') in which he attacked German military support (the delivery of a submarine) for an Israel that might use such equipment to launch a nuclear attack on Iran. Later the same year he wrote a poem condemning the EU's treatment of Greece in the European sovereign-debt crisis.
In addition to his writing Grass carved out something of a reputation as an artist, sculptor and engraver. He designed many of the covers and illustrations for his own works and had several exhibitions. He also enjoyed collecting mushrooms and shells.
Gunter Grass married, in 1954, a Swiss dancer, Anna Schwarz, with whom he had three sons and a daughter. They divorced in 1978 and in 1979 he married Ute Grunert, who survives him with the children of his first marriage and two children from other relationships.