Günter Grass, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist who broke through on the international literary scene with The Tin Drum and whose stance as Germany’s “moral compass” was compromised in his later years, has died. He was 87.
Grass was born in what is now the Polish city of Gdansk in 1927; after World War II, he trained as a sculptor, and published his first book of poetry in 1956. Three years later he published what would be his masterpiece, The Tin Drum. The magical-realist, anti-Nazi novel about a boy who wills himself to stop physically growing at the age of three became a worldwide publishing phenomenon, establishing Grass as what The New York Times calls a “leading spokesman for a generation barely old enough to have recalled or participated in Nazi crimes.”
Grass went on to publish a series of celebrated novels, including 1961’s Cat And Mouse and 1963’s Dog Years, which together with The Tin Drum make up what Grass called his “Danzig Trilogy.” Grass received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1999; in bestowing the award, the Swedish Academy said his work took on “the enormous task of reviewing contemporary history by recalling the disavowed and the forgotten: the victims, losers and lies that people wanted to forget because they had once believed in them.”
Grass was also an outspoken political figure in Germany, defending Fidel Castro, criticizing both the Soviet and Western capitalist economic systems, and denouncing the Lutheran and Catholic churches as accomplices to Nazi war crimes. He was also staunchly anti-militaristic and argued against the reunification of Germany, claiming that “the preconditions for the horror [of the Holocaust], besides other, older urges, was a strong and united Germany.” He urged Germans to face their Nazi past head on, sometimes using shame and condemnation as tools to do so.
That’s why it was such a shock when, before releasing his 2006 memoir Peeling The Onion, Grass confessed that he had volunteered for the German army during Nazism and had served in the Wafen-SS in the latter days of the war. (He had previously claimed that he had been drafted, and had worked guarding anti-aircraft equipment during WWII.) Considering his politics, some considered Grass’ admission an unforgivable act of hypocrisy. Others defended him, saying that his work forcing Germans to come to terms with Nazism had been a positive thing for the country overall, regardless of Grass’ personal history.
Grass had been working on a final book, which The New York Times describes as a “literary experiment” combining poetry and prose, at the time of his death.