[Marxism] Günter Grass, German Novelist and Social Critic, Dies at 87
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Mon Apr 13 06:50:05 MDT 2015
NY Times, Apr. 13 2015
Günter Grass, German Novelist and Social Critic, Dies at 87
By STEPHEN KINZER
Günter Grass, the German novelist, social critic and Nobel Prize winner
whom many called his country’s moral conscience but who stunned Europe
when he revealed in 2006 that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS
during World War II, died on Monday. He was 87.
Mr. Grass’s publisher, the Steidl Verlag, said the author died in a
clinic in the northern city of Lübeck, which had been his home for
decades. No cause of death was given.
Mr. Grass was hardly the only member of his generation who obscured the
facts of his wartime life. But because he was a pre-eminent public
intellectual who had pushed Germans to confront the ugly aspects of
their history, his confession that he had falsified his own biography
shocked readers and led some to view his life’s work in a wholly
In 2012, Mr. Grass found himself the subject of further scrutiny after
publishing a poem criticizing Israel for its hostile language toward
Iran over its nuclear program. He expressed revulsion at the idea that
Israel might be justified in attacking Iran over a perceived nuclear
threat and said that it “endangers the already fragile world peace.”
The poem prompted an international controversy and a personal attack
from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Grass later said that he had
meant to attack Israel’s government rather than the country as a whole.
The publication in 1959 of Mr. Grass’s wildly inventive masterpiece,
“The Tin Drum,” propelled him to the forefront of postwar literature.
Critics hailed the audacious sweep of his literary imagination. A
severed horse’s head swarming with hungry eels, a criminal hiding
beneath a peasant woman’s layered skirts, and a child who shatters
windows with his high-pitched voice are among the memorable images that
made “The Tin Drum” a worldwide triumph.
In awarding Mr. Grass the Nobel Prize in 1999, the Swedish Academy
praised him for embracing “the enormous task of reviewing contemporary
history by recalling the disavowed and the forgotten: the victims,
losers and lies that people wanted to forget because they had once
believed in them.” It described “The Tin Drum” as “one of the enduring
literary works of the 20th century.”
Although Mr. Grass was a playwright, essayist, short-story writer, poet,
sculptor and printmaker as well as a novelist, it was his role as a
social critic that brought him the most notoriety.
For much of his career, he campaigned for disarmament and social change.
By the end of the 20th century, however, his uncompromising
anti-militarism and his warnings that a unified Germany might once again
threaten world peace led some of his countrymen to criticize him as a
pedantic moralist who had lost touch with real life.
The revelation of his Nazi past led to accusations of hypocrisy. He
revealed it himself, days before a memoir, “Peeling the Onion,” was to
be published. Mr. Grass had long said that he had been a “flakhelfer”
during the war, one of many German youths pressed to serve in relatively
innocent jobs like guarding antiaircraft batteries. But in an interview
with the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine, he admitted that he had in
fact been a member of the elite Waffen-SS, which perpetrated some of the
Nazi regime’s most horrific crimes.
“It was a weight on me,” said Mr. Grass, then 78. “My silence over all
these years is one of the reasons I wrote the book. It had to come out
in the end.”
In his memoir, Mr. Grass reflected on the vagaries of conscience and
memory. “What I had accepted with stupid pride of youth I wanted to
conceal after the war out of a recurrent sense of shame,” he wrote. “But
the burden remained, and no one could lighten it.”
Although he was conscripted into the SS in 1944, near the end of World
War II, and was never accused of participating in atrocities, the fact
that he had obscured this crucial fact of his background for decades
while flagellating his fellow Germans for their cowardice set off cries
“Moral suicide,” said the newspaper Welt am Sonntag. The playwright Rolf
Hochhuth said it was “disgusting” to recall that Mr. Grass had denounced
President Ronald Reagan and Chancellor Helmut Kohl for their 1985 visit
to a cemetery in Bitburg where Waffen-SS soldiers were buried, while
hiding the fact that he had been in the SS himself.
Mr. Grass’s defenders argued that his social and political influence had
been highly positive for postwar Germany, forcing the country to face
and atone for its Nazi past. He might not have been able to play that
role, they said, if he had been forthright about his own background.
With his mane of black hair and drooping walrus mustache, bifocals
slipping down his nose and smoke curling from his pipe, Mr. Grass was
almost a caricature of the postwar European intellectual. His books were
all but inseparable from his public persona, giving him a unique
position in German public life that stretched over more than half a century.
“The Tin Drum” became one of the most widely read modern European
novels. It also made Mr. Grass a leading spokesman for a generation
barely old enough to have recalled or participated in Nazi crimes.
The book’s hero, Oskar Matzerath, wills himself at the age of 3 to stop
growing, and thereafter expresses himself only by pounding drums. He was
viewed as representing a German nation so morally stunted that it could
not find the courage to prevent Nazism.
An intense anti-nationalist, Mr. Grass viewed his country with emotions
that could flare into fear and hatred. Some critics said the
artificially small and weak Oskar Matzerath symbolized what he wanted
In the 1960s and ’70s, much of Mr. Grass’s work dealt with the German
themes of disillusionment, the militaristic past and the challenges of
building post-Nazi society. His greatest successes of the period were
“Cat and Mouse” (1961), about a man whose unusually large Adam’s apple
forever sets him apart from the rest of humanity, and the Joycean “Dog
Years” (1963), which analyzes three decades of German history and
suggests that the country has not progressed much. These two novels,
together with “The Tin Drum,” make up what Mr. Grass called his “Danzig
While he was writing these works, Mr. Grass also campaigned and wrote
speeches for Willy Brandt, who was one of West Germany’s dominant
politicians from 1957, when he was elected mayor of Berlin, to 1974,
when he stepped down after five years as the country’s first Social
Mr. Grass later demonstrated against the deployment of American nuclear
missiles in Germany, denounced the German arms industry and quit the
Social Democratic Party, the Berlin Academy of Arts and the Lutheran
Church, which he had joined as a teenager after renouncing Roman
Catholicism. He criticized both the Lutheran and the Catholic
hierarchies as “moral accomplices” of Nazism.
Mr. Grass was a tireless defender of Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba and
embraced Nicaragua’s left-oriented Sandinista government in the 1980s.
Yet he described himself as an opponent of revolution who viewed “humane
socialism” as the ideal society. He denounced repression in Soviet-bloc
countries and attacked regimes run by religious fundamentalists, but his
criticism was often accompanied by scathing denunciations of Western and
especially German capitalism. In opposing the first Persian Gulf war,
for example, he focused his anger on his own country, accusing German
companies of arming the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
“Once again, it is Germans who are designing and producing poison gas
factories,” he said in an interview. “This is where you really see the
German danger. It isn’t nationalism, and it isn’t reawakened neo-Nazis.
It is simply the unchecked lust for profit.”
Many of Mr. Grass’s books are phantasmagorical mixtures of fact and
fantasy, some of them inviting comparison with the Latin American style
known as magical realism. His own name for this style was “broadened
“Günter Grass’s books present surprising and extremely contradictory
combinations of opposites,” the Russian-German writer Lev Kopelev wrote
in an essay on the occasion of Mr. Grass’s 65th birthday. “Minutely
detailed presentations of real things and scientifically precise
descriptions of historical events are melted together with fairy tales,
legends, myths, fables, poems and wild fantasies to produce his own
special poetical world.”
Mr. Grass was renowned for his wide-ranging tastes. He was a gourmand
who favored hearty peasant food, and his work exudes the aroma of
home-cooked dishes like smoked goose breast and roast pork with
sauerkraut and caraway seeds, the preparation and consumption of which
he described in loving detail.
His fascination with animals was reflected in book titles like “The
Flounder” and “From the Diary of a Snail.” He was a jazz lover, once
worked as a jazz musician, and collaborated on “O Susanna,” an
illustrated book on the subject published in 1959.
Some critics hoped Mr. Grass would produce a monumental novel
encompassing all the great themes that have tormented Germany through
its history, and felt betrayed when he did not. Many of his later works
were met with both critical and popular indifference. The dominant
German literary critic during most of his career, Marcel Reich-Ranicki,
who died in 2013, called him “greatly overrated,” and once appeared on
the cover of the magazine Der Spiegel ripping apart a copy of one Grass
book he especially loathed, “Too Far Afield.”
After the Berlin Wall was breached in 1989, Mr. Grass argued against
German unification on the ground that a people responsible for the
Holocaust had forfeited the right to live together in one nation. He
suggested that East and West Germany remain separate for a time and then
join a loose confederation of German-speaking states.
“Auschwitz speaks against even a right to self-determination that is
enjoyed by all other peoples, because one of the preconditions for the
horror, besides other, older urges, was a strong and united Germany,” he
said in a 1990 speech. “We cannot get by Auschwitz. We should not even
try, as great as the temptation is, because Auschwitz belongs to us, is
branded into our history, and — to our benefit! — has made possible an
insight that could be summarized as, ‘Now we finally know ourselves.’ ”
Günter Wilhelm Grass came of age on a continent torn by hatred. He was
born in Danzig on Oct. 16, 1927, to a German father and a mother who was
a Kashubian, a Slavic ethnic group with its own language and traditions.
Danzig, now the Polish city of Gdansk, was then a free city under the
control of the League of Nations, but its population was mostly German
and loyal to the Reich. It was the first territory seized by the Nazis
at the outbreak of World War II.
“One of the world’s most frequently besieged and contested cities (as
Mr. Grass loves to emphasize), Danzig during the 1930s was a symbol of
Germany’s lost territories and a focus of Nazi agitation,” the author
and critic Morris Dickstein wrote. “By the end of the war it was buried
in rubble with all its German population driven out. It is a truism to
say that except for Southerners like Faulkner, who inherited the
consequences of the Civil War, American writers have a relatively
undeveloped sense of history. But even among Europeans, Mr. Grass was
well situated to learn how history buffets and battles local dreams and
Mr. Grass joined the Nazi children’s organization Jungvolk at the age of
10. Like many Germans of what came to be known as the “flakhelfer
generation,” he claimed to have done no real service to the Nazi war effort.
Among them was Joseph Ratzinger, who went on to become Pope Benedict
XVI. After the war ended, Mr. Grass and the future pope were prisoners
together in an Allied camp at Bad Aibling. Mr. Grass later remembered
Mr. Ratzinger as “extremely Catholic” and “a little uptight,” but “a
After returning to civilian life, Mr. Grass found himself drawn toward
art and poetry. He joined a loose but highly influential circle of
critical intellectuals known as Group 47. Encouraged by other members of
the group, among them the writers Heinrich Böll and Uwe Johnson, he
decided to abandon what some said was a promising career in sculpture
and devote himself to literature.
Mr. Grass lived in Paris during the late 1950s and wrote “The Tin Drum”
in a basement apartment there. It earned him worldwide acclaim, as well
as accusations of blasphemy and pornography in Germany. It also was
banned in Communist countries, including Poland, meaning that it could
not legally be read in Gdansk, the city where it was set.
The book’s fame grew after the director Volker Schlöndorff made it into
vivid movie that won the 1979 Academy Award for best foreign language
film. None of the more than two dozen works Mr. Grass published over the
next half-century approached its impact on the European consciousness.
Some critics found the increasingly apocalyptic books Mr. Grass
published after the 1970s repetitive and self-righteous. Others
complained that his relentless activism had overwhelmed his identity as
“Here is a novelist who has gone so public he can’t be bothered to write
a novel,” John Updike wrote. “He just sends dispatches to his readers
from the front line of his engagement.”
Mr. Grass’s marriage in 1954 to Anna Margareta Schwarz, a Swiss dancer,
ended in divorce in 1978. He is survived by his second wife, Ute
Grunert, an organist; four children from his first marriage, Laura,
Bruno, Franz and Raoul; two stepsons from his second marriage, Malte and
Hans; two other children, Helene and Nele, and 18 grandchildren.
After the revelations of his Nazi past, Mr. Grass found defenders among
his American friends. One was the novelist John Irving, who assailed the
“predictably sanctimonious dismantling” of Mr. Grass’s reputation “from
the cowardly standpoint of hindsight.”
“You remain a hero to me, both as a writer and a moral compass,” Mr.
Irving wrote. “Your courage, both as a writer and as a citizen of your
country, is exemplary — a courage heightened, not lessened, by your most
Mr. Grass described himself as “not a pessimist, but a skeptic.” He
vigorously rejected the view that artists should devote themselves to
creating rather than agitating. That view, he once said, leads to a
self-censorship that delights “the powers of church and state.”
“Nothing is more pleasing or less threatening to them than that game of
the self-satisfied artist called l’art pour l’art,” he said. “In the
end, it is only about color, sound and language as ends in themselves.
Nothing is called by its true name, and therefore no censorship is
Yet he rued the many years in which he was unable to speak the full
truth about himself. “The brief inscription meant for me reads: ‘I kept
silent,’ ” Mr. Grass wrote in his memoir.
Why was he attracted to the SS as a teenager?
“It was the newsreels,” he concluded. “I was a pushover for the
prettified black-and-white ‘truth’ they served up.”
Melissa Eddy contributed reporting from Berlin.
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