Guenther Grass remembered for Nobel-winning Nazi-era literature, his own past
A trained sculptor, Grass made his literary reputation with "The Tin Drum," published in 1959.
Guenter Grass, the Nobel-winning German writer who gave voice to the generation that came of age during the horrors of the Nazi era but later ran into controversy over his own World War II past and stance toward Israel, has died. He was 87.
Matthias Wegner, spokesman for the Steidl publishing house, confirmed that Grass died Monday morning in a Luebeck hospital.
Grass was lauded by Germans for helping to revive their culture in the aftermath of World War II and helping to give voice and support to democratic discourse in the postwar nation.
Yet he provoked the ire of many in 2006 when he revealed in his memoir "Skinning the Onion" that, as a teenager, he had served in the Waffen-SS, the combat arm of Adolf Hitler's notorious paramilitary organization.
In 2012, Grass drew sharp criticism at home and was declared persona non grata by Israel after publishing a prose poem, "What Must Be Said," in which he criticized what he described as Western hypocrisy over Israel's nuclear program and labeled the country a threat to "already fragile world peace" over its belligerent stance on Iran.
A trained sculptor, Grass made his literary reputation with "The Tin Drum," published in 1959. It was followed by "Cat and Mouse" and "Dog Years," which made up what is called the Danzig Trilogy — after the town of his birth, now the Polish city of Gdansk.
Combining naturalistic detail with fantastical images, the trilogy captured the German reaction to the rise of Nazism, the horrors of the war and the guilt that lingered after Adolf Hitler's defeat.
The book follows the life of a young boy in Danzig who is caught up in the political whirlwind of the Nazi rise to power and, in response, decides not to grow up. His toy tin drum becomes a symbol of this refusal.
The books return again and again to Danzig, where Grass was born on Oct. 16, 1927, the son of a grocer.
In the trilogy, Grass drew partly on his own experience of military service and his captivity as a prisoner of war held by the Americans until 1946.
"The Tin Drum" became an overnight success — a fact that Grass told The Associated Press in 2009 surprised him. Asked to reflect why the book became so popular, he noted that it tackles one of the most daunting periods of German history by focusing on the minutiae in the lives of ordinary people.
Then he quipped: "Perhaps because it's a good book."
Three decades after its release, in 1999, the Swedish Academy honored Grass with the Nobel Prize for literature, praising him for setting out to revive German literature after the Nazi era.
With "The Tin Drum," the Nobel Academy said, "it was as if German literature had been granted a new beginning after decades of linguistic and moral destruction."
"His writing had a great political significance, especially in the renaissance of Germany after the World War," 1991 Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer told The Associated Press in 1999. "He never failed to confront Germans with what they did."
Grass untiringly warned his compatriots to remain vigilant against racism.
He was widely admired by his literary contemporaries but also controversial for his outspoken political stands, including his strong stance against German reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
He never shed his fear that Germany could again stray into the dangerous ways that led to the terror that became World War II.
"It can't be that my children and grandchildren will have to suffer under the stigma of being German," he said after winning the Nobel Prize. "But these late-born children also have a share of the responsibility for ensuring that such things — even their stirrings — never happen in Germany again."
But his standing as a moral arbiter took a hit with his late revelation that he was called up for duty with the Waffen-SS in the closing months of the war.
Recalling the pull of Nazi propaganda, he said that when he was assigned to the 10th SS Panzer Division "Frundsberg" he found "nothing offensive" about the prospect.
Grass painted an unheroic picture of his service with the division, which fought Soviet troops in the last days of the war in eastern Germany. It ended with his capture by the Americans in May 1945 after a shrapnel wound left his arm so stiff he couldn't move it. His division was delayed getting into the fighting because it was waiting for tanks that never came.
In a letter written to the mayor of Gdansk amid calls for him to be stripped of his honorary Polish citizenship, the author insisted that he had needed time to reflect on how to deal with what he called "this episode from my young years that was brief, but which weighed on me heavily."
Still, Joachim Fest, a biographer of Hitler and one of the country's most prominent chroniclers of the Nazi period, said Grass' silence was "totally inexplicable."
"He is seriously damaged," Fest said. "To use a common saying, I wouldn't buy a used car from this person."
Six years later, Grass drew criticism from across the political spectrum for his sharp criticism of Israel in a poem that skirted any explicit mention of Iranian threats against the Jewish state.
"To put Israel and Iran morally on the same level is not intelligent, it is absurd," then-German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said at the time.
A few days after the poem appeared, Grass insisted that he had meant to single out Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, and not Israel as a whole. But that did little to quell the controversy.
Grass — the picture of the leftist intellectual with his pipe, gravelly voice, bushy mustache and slightly disheveled look — was active in Germany's political scene throughout his life and a longtime member of the center-left Social Democratic Party.
Grass' later literary works received decidedly mixed reviews at home and abroad, with many questioning whether he had lost his incisive ability to critically comment on the darker side of German history.
Grass received several honorary degrees, including an honorary doctorate from Harvard University in 1976.