Monday, May 4, 2015

Remembering Günter Grass

Günter Grass 1927-2015
Günter Grass, the 1999 recipient of the Noble Prize for Literature, passed away on April 13, 2015 at the age of 87.   Grass wrote one of my all time favorite novels, The Tin Drum, in which he confronted Germany's Nazi past through the character of Oskar Matzerath.  The novel opens with Oskar confined to a mental hospital and, with the help of his family's photograph album, he begins to relate his story set against the background of his home in Danzig, Poland and centered on the Nazi years.  In Oskar, Grass created an unreliable narrator/pícaro extraordinaire, one of the best, in my opinion, right along with Salmon Rusdie's protagonist Saleem Sinai from Midnight's Children, and Serenus Zeitblom from Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn.

But in 2006, Grass, who was born in Danzig, Poland on October 16, 1927,  revealed that towards the end of the war, he had been conscripted into the Waffen SS.  It was 1944 and Grass was 17 years old at the time.  It was also clear that Germany was losing the war.  In a last ditch effort, Germany began to recruit  young boys and old men to do the jobs of trained soldiers against the advancing Allies.  By May 1945, Grass was a prisoner in an American POW camp.

Why Grass didn't reveal this information until so many years later is something we will probably never know the answer to.  He wasn't in the Waffen SS long and never committed any of the heinous crimes they were so notorious for inflicting on their enemies.  But Grass was always very outspoken, sometimes even very controversial.  Hiding his past, did he have a right to be so critical of others?  His conservative critics don't think so.  They jumped on his Waffen SS secret, quickly denouncing Grass.  Does hiding his past outweigh a lifetime achievement of confronting a horrific past that you were inadvertently made a part of?

Grass's death brought up all of this again for me.  But I think Salmon Rushdie put it best, at least for me personally, when he said "if you were a teenager and a Nazi came to conscript you, and a refusal meant death, would you choose to die?…To be a conscript is not to be a Nazi.  To be the author of The Tin Drum is to merit great honour." The Telegraph April 10, 2012.

It's been a long time since I have read a book by Günter Grass.  He was really the stuff of graduate school.  Still, The Tin Drum, which is actually the first book in Grass's Danzig Trilogy that includes Dog Years and Cat and Mouse, will always be one of my all-time favorite books and now I am even tempted to reread it since a new translation has come out a few years ago.  And if you haven't already read The Tin Drum yet, I highly recommend it.

I am always sad when an author I like passes away, and Grass is no exception.  He left the world shrouded in controversy, but with such an very impressive body of work that just cannot be discounted.

You can read Günter Grass's New York Times obituary HERE


  1. I am inclined to agree with you and Rushdie. US citizens are expected to exhibit nearly blind patriotism even though our policies and our activity in the world are not always pristine. Yet we somehow expect a teen from another part of the world to take the right stance (our stance) even if it means death?

    I don't know if he should have revealed it earlier and I do wonder why he revealed it at all. Maybe he needed to get it off his conscience. I have never read Grass' books.Thanks for alerting me, Alex.

    1. I'm glad to hear you agree. I was a little nervous about posting this, but Grass was such an incredible writer, and I agree with you about the idea of blind patriotism. When we went in Iraq, and the attitude was if you aren't with me, you're against me, so many people caved to that thinking and look at how many young people we lost and families we disrupted on both sides and for what?