Nobel literature laureate and enemy of political extremism

Günter Grass: October 16th, 1927 - April 13th, 2015

Günter Grass: after the nationalist enthusiasms of his youth he opted for scepticism and moderation, shunning ideological extremes. Photograph: Michael Probst/AP

Günter Grass: after the nationalist enthusiasms of his youth he opted for scepticism and moderation, shunning ideological extremes. Photograph: Michael Probst/AP

 

Günter Grass, who has died aged 87, was Germany’s best-known postwar novelist, a man of huge energy and zest who, besides his fiction-writing, enjoyed the cut and thrust of political debate and relaxed by drawing, painting and making sculptures.

Bursting on to the literary scene with the novel The Tin Drum in 1959, Grass spent his life reminding his compatriots of the crimes of the Nazi period, as well as challenging them on unification in 1990, which he described as an annexation of the East by the West.

He was always controversial, and was sometimes bitterly attacked by critics at home for pointing out that Germans had been victims as well as perpetrators. Outside Germany he was often seen as his country’s postwar conscience, a label he shared with Heinrich Böll.

In 1999, he won the Nobel prize for literature, the judges praising his “creative irreverence” and “cheerful destructiveness”. Seven years later, he stunned critics as well as admirers by admitting in the autobiographical Peeling the Onion that, aged 17, he had been drafted into the notorious Waffen-SS in the last few months of the war.

But Grass’s adolescence of unthinking patriotism was well known before Peeling the Onion. His father, Wilhelm, was German, and his mother, Helene (née Knoff) was Polish, and they ran a grocer’s shop in Gdansk (then Danzig). Günter joined the Hitler Youth: his political awakening came later, when, after the war, he worked alongside both ex-Nazis and ex-communists. He decided scepticism and moderation were better than ideological extremes, a position he maintained throughout his life. Art student As a young man, he studied painting and sculpture. He was also a jazz drummer and a poet. But it was The Tin Drum that catapulted him to fame. In the words of the writer Eva Figes it “was the book the postwar generation was waiting for. It coped with the tragedy of the Third Reich with huge energy and scope. It was inventive, macabre, funny and tremendously important.”

Grass wrote two sequels, Cat and Mouse (1961) and Dog Years (1963), both, like The Tin Drum, centred on Danzig and its complex ethnic mix. Dog Years touched on the mass expulsion of Germans from Gdansk at the end of the war, a subject Grass was to cover extensively four decades later in Crabwalk (2002), a novel that dealt with the sinking by a Russian submarine in 1945 of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship carrying close to 9,000 German refugees from the east, mainly women and children. The catastrophe cost four times as many lives as the sinking of the Titanic, yet it was barely mentioned in public after the war.

In the 1960s Grass campaigned for Willy Brandt and the Social Democrats. In 1972 he wrote a memoir of this campaigning, From the Diary of a Snail, the metaphor drawing attention to his personal political formula – slow, patient work to secure solid progress. He disdained the politics of the anti-Vietnam 1968 generation. He abhorred extremism and thought the 1968ers were dishonest in refusing to accept that German guilt masked countless individual tragedies.

Grass argued that the history of the Nazi period was still badly taught in schools and in the German media. “Films tend to portray Nazis as raving idiots. The fact that the Nazi party came to power legally at a time when there were six million unemployed is suppressed,” he said. Equally, he felt, young Germans should be aware that in 1938 many Europeans, including sections of the governing class in England, admired Hitler and saw him as a useful bulwark against communism.

Grass’s scepticism about German unity sprang in part from his feeling that East Germans were getting a raw deal. Not that he had any sympathy for the East German regime; in the years before unity he had regularly travelled to East Germany to meet dissident writers. He was also one of the first West Germans to visit Poland to try to overcome the bitter legacy of Polish-German relations.

He found it troubling nevertheless that after 1990 West Germans were more ruthless in rooting out and sacking everyone who was linked, however loosely, to the East German regime, including schoolteachers and university professors, than they had been with former Nazis half a century earlier.

Grass took up many global causes, from international debt relief to environmental pollution. He campaigned vigorously against the US-led war on Iraq in 2003. But he was not anti-American, and laughingly said the only reason he had stopped travelling to the US was because of its ferocious bans on public smoking. Shame Defenders of Grass’s reputation who dug into his record after the revelations of Peeling the Onion discovered that he had not concealed his brief SS service from his US interrogators in a POW camp. His silence on the subject was more a literary one. Grass himself put it down to a feeling of shame. “What I had accepted with the stupid pride of youth I wanted to conceal after the war out of a recurrent sense of shame. But the burden remained, and no one could alleviate it,” he wrote.

He reminded readers that his mother had suppressed her rape by Russian soldiers for similar reasons. “It was not until after she died that I learned - and then only indirectly from my sister - that to protect her daughter she had offered herself to them. There were no words.”

Perhaps he decided to make the admission before he died, knowing that historians would one day stumble on his record and it would be better for his reputation not to have suppressed it for ever. Whatever the reasons, it is doubtful that his revelation changed many minds.

In a conversation with the journalist Jonathan Steele early in 2003 , on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Grass wondered whether Britain too should not confront its own past more honestly. “I sometimes wonder how young people grow up in Britain and know little about the long history of crimes during the colonial period. In England it’s a completely taboo subject. Look at Iraq. This conflict goes back to colonial history. Don’t forget that.”

In 1954, Grass married Anna Schwarz, and they had three sons and a daughter. The marriage ended in divorce in 1978 and in the following year he married Ute Grunert. This brought him two stepsons. He also had a daughter from each of two other relationships. Ute and his children survive him.