Nobel prize-winning German writer Günter Grass died Monday. (Susana Vera /Reuters)
By John Otis April 13 at 5:53 AM
Günter Grass, the Nobel Prize-winning author of “The Tin Drum” and other novels that made him known around the world as the moral conscience of 20th-century Germany, a reputation that faltered when he belatedly revealed that he had served as a young soldier in Hitler’s SS, died April 13 at a hospital in Luebeck, Germany. He was 87.
His publisher, Steidl, announced the death, but did not disclose the cause.
With his novels, plays, articles and speeches, Mr. Grass became one of Germany’s foremost intellectuals and gadflies. The themes that consumed his literature — guilt, atonement and hypocrisy — were also central to his political commentary. He could be shrill and polarizing, a self-professed “troublemaker” who cultivated what he described as a “tendency to bring out into the open what had too long been swept under the carpet.”
His picaresque novel “The Tin Drum,” in which he created a diabolical dwarf to symbolize his country’s stunted morality during and after Nazism, brought him near-universal literary acclaim after its publication in 1959. When Mr. Grass received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, the Swedish Academy credited the book with having granted German literature “a new beginning after decades of linguistic and moral destruction.”
For decades, Mr. Grass pursued a career, parallel to his literary work, as a political activist and liberal provocateur. He advocated for environmental conservation, debt relief for poor countries and generous policies regarding political asylum. The United States, and what he regarded as its militarism, was a frequent target.
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“How impoverished must a country be before it is not a threat to the U.S. government?” he wrote after visiting strife-torn Nicaragua in 1982 as a supporter of the left-wing Sandinista movement.
He reserved his most biting commentary for fellow Germans, unremittingly spotlighting the role of ordinary people in the rise of the Nazi regime. In 1985, he condemned as “a defilement of history” a visit by President Ronald Reagan and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to a military cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, where some SS soldiers had been buried.
During his country’s reunification several years later, Mr. Grass spoke out against the “annexation” by prosperous West Germany of poorer East Germany, comparing it to Nazi expansionism.
After such statements, when Mr. Grass revealed that he served briefly in the Waffen SS, the combat arm of the infamous security force led by Heinrich Himmler, his admission sparked international outrage.
The full facts of his military record began to emerge in 2006 with the publication of his memoir “Peeling the Onion.” In one interview with a German newspaper, he said of his past reticence, “It weighed on me. My silence during all these years is one reason that led me to write this book. It had to come out.”
For decades, Mr. Grass had openly discussed his time in a Hitler youth group, his brainwashing by Nazi propaganda, his unsuccessful attempt to join the submarine corps at 15 and his conscription into the army at 17.
What he had not revealed was that, in the waning days of the war, he served as a tank gunner in the 10th SS Panzer Division. He claimed that he never fired a shot and that he was unaware of the organization’s record of atrocities in concentration camps and elsewhere.
“I did not then know as a 17-year-old that it was a criminal unit,” he told the London Guardian in 2010. “I thought it was an elite unit.”
Political conservatives in Germany called on him to return his literary honors. And many German intellectuals, including his erstwhile allies on the left, distanced themselves from Mr. Grass. This was especially the case following his publication in 2010 of a poem, “What Must Be Said,” warning that Germany might be complicit in war crimes because it sold military equipment to Israel, and his criticism in 2013 of Chancellor Angela Merkel for having been in the East’s Free German Youth movement, the communist regime’s equivalent of the Hitler Youth.
The influential German weekly Der Spiegel said that Mr. Grass had “jumped the shark. His words have lost much of their weight.”
His defenders, including authors Salman Rushdie and John Irving, argued that his body of work was not diminished by the few wartime months he spent as a teenager on the wrong side of history.
“If Grass had not been living with this wretched little skeleton in his closet, he might never have written a word,” journalist Nathan Thornburgh wrote in Time magazine in 2006. “Instead, a haunted Grass cranked out a series of brutal novels about the war [that] helped his entire country stave off collective amnesia for decades.”
Reaction to ‘Tin Drum’
While in the SS, Mr. Grass was captured by the Americans and forced to visit the newly liberated Dachau concentration camp. After his release
Günter Wilhelm Grass was born Oct. 16, 1927, in the semiautonomous region then known as the Free City of Danzig, which came under Nazi control in 1939. It is now the Baltic Sea port of Gdansk, Poland.
His father was a grocer and a minor government official who supported Hitler and pushed his son to be an engineer. His mother, an opera lover who kept volumes of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in their two-room house, encouraged her son’s artistic side.
Mr. Grass began writing at 13, shortly after the war broke out, and submitted his first story to a Hitler Youth magazine. The execution of a relative who tried to defend the Danzig post office from the Nazis was incorporated into “The Tin Drum,” as was the rape of Mr. Grass’s mother by Soviet soldiers, an event that he found out about only after her death.
“My mother never spoke about it, though I tried to get her to speak,” he told the Guardian. “There are things for which one can’t find words.”
His first marriage, to ballet dancer Anna Schwarz, ended in divorce. In 1979, he wed organist Ute Grunert. Besides his wife, survivors include four children from his first marriage; two daughters from other relationships; and two stepsons.
Mr. Grass illustrated many of his own books and dust jackets. Immediately recognizable for his walrus mustache and heavily-lidded eyes, Mr. Grass maintained his celebrity and continued to provoke outrage well into his 80s. In 2012, he was declared persona non grata by the Israeli government for his poem “What Must Be Said,” which cast the country as a threat to world peace for its bellicose posture toward Iran.
At times, his stridency suggested that he had steeled himself to controversy. But there were signs, especially after his SS confession, of his vulnerability.
“I always face the question: Should I grow myself a thick skin and ignore it, or should I let myself be wounded?” he told the Guardian in 2010. “I’ve decided to be wounded, since, if I grew a thick skin, there are other things I wouldn’t feel any more.”
Staff writer Marc Fisher contributed to this report.