Grass, Gunter (b. 1927)

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GRASS, GUNTER (b. 1927)


German writer.

Disparaged by his critics but very quickly recognized abroad, Gunter Grass stands apart in the intellectual landscape of Germany because, as he said, "the subject of my books always seemed to me to be dictated by the history of Germany" (interview, 1995).

Grass was born in the Free City of Danzig. His father was a German Protestant and his mother was a Catholic from the Kashub region. He attended school from 1933 to 1944, and therefore experienced the full force of the National Socialist education system. He was sent to the battlefront but finished the war in a prisoner camp in Bavaria. It was in this landscape that he set his Danzig trilogy. Die Blechtrommel (1959; The Tin Drum) depicts the rise and establishment of Nazism, as well as the war, the fall of the Third Reich, and the beginnings of reconstruction through the eyes of a dwarf. Katz und Maus (1961; Cat and Mouse) opens with World War II and ends with the protagonist deserting to the Federal Republic of Germany. Hundejahre (1963; Dog Years) covers the period from 1925 to 1950, when communism, National Socialism, and antifascist ideologies followed each other in succession.

The end of the war and the ensuing displacements and ideological disillusionment gave Grass the freedom of the stateless. He entered the workforce, then studied at the Beaux-Arts Academy in Dusseldorf (1949–1952) and later in Berlin. Between 1965 and 1980, he lived first in Paris and then in West Berlin. As early as the 1950s, he established himself as the most peculiar author of the children-of-the-war generation. In 1955 he was a member of a group of young authors called Gruppe 47; another member, Heinrich Böll, would become a close friend. Feeling himself an exile, Grass sought to find a republic of letters within the writers' community. He also played a part in founding the Writers' Union and the review L76.Socialismand Democracy (1976) with Böll and Carola Stern. Rejecting any literary break between the two Germanys, he found himself surrounded by writers not only from the Democratic Republic of Germany but also from countries of the Eastern bloc. In the following decade, Grass's works were devoted to what he called "a German past which does not pass." In Ortlich Betaubt (1969; Local Anesthetic), he criticized both the eclipsing of the past and the rejection of any kind of "petit-bourgeois" activism against the Vietnam War. This was also the time when he was a member of the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP)—an experience that inspired his Aus dem Tagebuch einer Schnecke (1972; From the Diary of a Snail).

From this point on, his writing and political commitment were intertwined. His "intentions were always to use literature as a means … to enlighten public opinion." He supported women's emancipation (Der Butt [The Flounder], 1977) and spoke out against the danger of nuclear disasters (Die Rattin [The Rat], 1986). He opposed the financial reconquest of the lost eastern territories (Unkenrufe: Eine Erzahlung [The Call of the Toad], 1992). In Mein Jarhundert (1999; My Century), he surveyed German history and described Germany's reunification from the standpoint of the Democratic Republic of Germany as sheer annexation. His 2002 book, Im Krebsgang (Crabwalk), traced the Germans' retreat before the Red Army in 1945. Grass also wrote five plays and many collections of poetry and produced a large number of artworks.

Grass stands out from other German intellectuals, who distanced themselves from politics (as under the Weimar Republic, when German intellectuals took the attitude that the status of a writer was incompatible with political engagement). In 1974 he left the Catholic Church because it condemned abortion. At the beginning of the 1980s he spoke out for peace and disarmament and against the Reagan administration in the United States. In an act of solidarity with the writer Salman Rushdie, whose life was threatened by a fatwa, he resigned from the Academy of Art of West Berlin in 1989 as a protest against colleagues who did not want to publicly express their support for the writer of the Satanic Verses. He created a foundation to provide assistance to the Roma and Sinti (Gypsies) who had been victims of the Nazis. In 1997 he accused the German government of supporting the Turkish repression of Kurds by means of weapons trafficking. The following year, he supported the Democratic Socialist Party–Green coalition but left the DSP in protest of its support for reforming the right of asylum. Grass has been a killjoy rather than the embodiment of Germany's good conscience. For some critics, the Nobel Prize he won in 1999 rewarded his literary work in the Republic of Bonn (that of Adenauer and Brand, who, without forgetting Germany's Nazi heritage, were students of democracy under the tutelage of the Western Allies), but also brought an end to Grass's polemics in the Republic of Berlin (capital of reunified Germany, clearly sovereign and ready to assume the responsibilities of a normal state).

Nevertheless, Grass remains a master of the German language, and his language stands in stark contrast to the German used for the Third Reich's lies and the postwar literature that called itself clear cut—a literary movement born out of the ruins of Nazism, which had reduced artistic production almost to the point of nonexistence. He knocked down the boundaries of literature. Using the spoken language to convey an abundance of disturbing images, he created a style that melded diary notes, poetry, realistic narratives, fables, and parody. Writing has been Grass's true home.

See alsoGermany.


Everett, George A. A Select Bibliography of Gunter Grass (from 1956–1973): Including the Works, Editions, Translations, and Critical Literature, New York, 1974.

Görtz, Franz Josef. Gunter Grass: Auskunft für Leser. Darmstadt, Germany, 1984.

Joch, Oeter. Zaubern auf weissem Papier: Das graphische Werk von Gunter Grass. Gottingen, 2000.

O'Neill, Patrick. Gunter Grass: A Bibliography, 1955–1975. Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1976.

Vormweg, Heinrich. Gunter Grass. Hamburg, 2002.

Fabien ThÉofilakis