Günter Grass, the German Nobel Literature Prize winner and the man who constantly challenged Germany to confront a controversial past, died on Monday. The reasons for his death were not made clear, at least publicly. He was 87 years old, and died in Lübeck, Germany.
Grass was a literary giant in post-war Germany. Throughout his writing career, Grass challenged Germans to own up to a controversial, intolerant, and militaristic past, and particularly to take an honest and sincere look at the brutal excesses under the Nazi regime. The Tin Drum is his best known work. It is a novel about a young man who refuses to grow up, as he is surrounded by supposedly responsible adults during the dark days of Nazi Germany. Grass penned some other major works as well, including The Fisherman and His Wife, The Rat, and Too Far Afield. His last work of fiction, Crabwalk, was published in 2002.
For many years, Grass was seen as Germany’s liberal social conscience, and he was no stranger to controversy. Even when the country seemed to be celebrating good fortunes, such as with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the push for reunification that came afterward, he expressed far more skepticism and reluctance than most of his countrymen on the possibility of the two German nations reuniting. He worried that reunification could mean a return to the militarism of the past, and urged Germans to slow down a bit.
Grass grew up during the days of the Third Reich. He was a child living in Danzig when Hitler rose to power, and he later joined the Hitler Youth. He admitted to fighting for the German Army late in the war, although he himself was still very young at the time. However, Grass later revealed in 2006 that he had actually belonged to the Waffen-SS, an elite German Army military police force. This personal admission went much farther than simply having been a part of the Germany Army, and it truly stunned the country. The very man who had for so long urged Germans to deal honestly and outright with their disturbing past suddenly seemed to have taken a very active part in hiding his own role in that same troubled chapter in history.
For many, such a revelation showed the noted author to be a hypocrite. It seemed to some that while chastising Germany in general for not being mindful of a troubled past, he himself seemed to have gone to considerable lengths to hide a dark personal past with some of the very same demons and excesses that he seemed so horrified with in his writings. Grass responded that he had never made a point of trying to hide this past, and claimed to have not hid it at all, saying that he had spoken openly of being in the Waffen-SS back in the sixties.
One thing seems for certain, however, and that is that Grass died leaving Germany grappling with many of the same questions and issues that he had forced Germany to wrestle with during his life, with his writings. Grass had always asked probing questions and demanded that his fellow Germans confront their troubled past, and his death should, once again, force his country to contemplate these paradoxes. As such, his legacy lives on, and nowhere more than in his home country, where he undeniably had such a profound impact with his words and thinking.
By Charles Bordeau
Photo courtesy of Elisa Cabit – Flickr License