Günter Grass, Germany’s pre-eminent author, died on April 13 at the age of 87. I’m not a die-hard fan of Grass’ work, but I have deep respect for the man. Following the announcement of his death, The New York Times published two articles about Grass. Both of them left a bitter taste in my mouth; neither of them do him justice.
More than a writer, Grass was a 20th century intellectual. His work is steeped in the history of National Socialism and World War Two and peels away the many layers of Hitler’s legacy in post-war Germany. Like other European writers of his generation, Grass believed literature plays an important role in shaping readers’ consciousness and therefore a country’s culture. His writing was always closely linked to politics. On a more personal note, Grass cultivated traditional values: he foraged for mushrooms, cooked family dinners, handwrote and typed his manuscripts, and used archives and libraries for research. Computers, he said in an interview in 2014, abbreviate thinking.
Grass catapulted to fame in 1959 with his novel The Tin Drum, a realistic-fantastic tale of Nationalism seen through the eyes of the idiot-savant dwarf, Oscar. Some critics lauded Grass as the voice of post war German literature, others condemned him, calling the novel perverse and pornographic. Grass himself liked to point out that as a best-selling author, he was finally making money and had a platform for his left-wing political views.
Like other progressive artists of his generation, Grass was optimistic about the democratic structures and institutions that were implemented in West Germany after World War Two. But he was outraged that the men who filled the top political positions had, for the most part, been high ranking Nazis. (An article published in Spiegel Online in 2012, verified that 25 cabinet ministers, one president and one chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany had been members of Nazi organizations. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.)
In 1969, Grass started campaigning actively on behalf of future Social Democratic Chancellor Willy Brandt, whose impeccable political credentials set him apart from most politicians in West Germany, and he supported Brandt throughout his political career. Even as he wrote more than a dozen books, Grass continued to speak out politically; not just against former Nazis still in power, but also against German remilitarization, the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the Vietnam War, political repression in East Germany, the hasty pace of German reunification – the list is too long to complete. In Germany, he was often referred to as the “conscience of the nation.” Not surprisingly, Grass always had enemies on the right who attempted to discredit him.
The day after Grass’ death, Stephen Kinzer’s extensive front-page article in the Times lists many of Grass’ accomplishments, including, of course, his Nobel Prize for literature (which he received in 1999). But the reader comes away with the impression that Günter Grass’ most enduring legacy is hypocrisy. He deserves better than that.
In 2006, Grass disclosed that he had joined the Waffen SS in the final months of World War Two. In earlier years, he had acknowledged that he believed in Hitler as a boy. But his new admission incited an uproar in Germany. Most Germans didn’t condemn him for the biographical fact itself - after all, Grass was barely 17 in the fall of 1944. Given that Grass had been indoctrinated by Nazi propaganda in every part of his young life for 11 years, could he really be expected to have known any better? Germans weren’t judging the actions of the boy but the actions of the man: why did the politically outspoken author wait so long to come forward with this biographical fact?
Let’s assume that as a young man, Grass saw his actions differently than he does now. He was an iconoclast. The Tin Drum was a searing indictment not only of National Socialism but also of the values and attitudes that made Hitler possible and still festered in Germany. Surely, Grass believed that his writing and his political engagement against all things having to do with the Nazi regime absolved him of his wrong-headed youthful “misstep.” Perhaps his teenage decision began to chafe only much later, as Grass grew older and felt the inescapable burden of German history weighing on him, too: how could I not have known better? In 1993, Grass witnessed what happened to his literary colleague Christa Wolf, who had been a voice of conscience in East Germany. Shortly after German unification, Wolf’s files revealed that as a young woman, she had worked for the Stasi as a low level informant for a short time. Subsequently, that fact came to overshadow Wolf’s entire career: her books, her speeches, even the fact that the Stasi spied on her for almost twenty years, until the Wall opened in 1989. Finally, thirteen years later, Grass did come forward, saying that those who will judge would judge him. Grass’ right wing detractors jumped at the opportunity to rake him over the coals.
Is this the most important fact of Grass’ life? Should we allow it to cast a shadow on this man of letters? To do so is to ignore the value of Grass’ life work and to side with his right wing critics.
On April 15, two days after Grass death, the Times ran an opinion piece by Die Zeit writer Jochen Bittner. Bittner’s assertion that Günter Grass’ generation has had it “pretty easy” is a matter of debate. But his contention that “you [Grass] grew big in times when ideology…counted more than the hard work of examining what is actually going on around us” is downright insulting, as is his statement that “the way you [Grass] saw the world counted more than the way it actually was.” Grass as ideologue – that’s the way his detractors in Germany have always tried to discredit him.
Grass was a great novelist (and a poet, essayist, dramatist, sculptor and graphic artist).
He was also a true democrat.
He loved popular debate and nurtured public scrutiny of politics and politicians. The German word streitbar, which was often applied to Grass, signifies the pleasure of engaging in political debate, the courage of stirring up controversy and the willingness to come forward with unpopular opinions. Indeed, Grass was streitbar - not for the sake of polarizing public opinion, but in the interests of fomenting the lively political discussions that have been a cornerstone of German democracy since 1945.
Indeed, such public discussion is the foundation of a thriving democracy anywhere.
I worry that this culture of robust and heartfelt political debate is disappearing, along with brilliant intellectuals of the 20th century like Günter Grass.