The Nobel laureate, who died this week, helped Germany find its voice after the horrors of World War II. But his life ultimately embodied his nation's struggles to come to terms with its past.
BERLIN — He walked onto the literary stage at precisely the right moment and had the temperament to suit the times. Günter Grass was a lucky man. His novel The Tin Drum, written in Paris and published in 1959, made the former Bohemian famous overnight. Up to that point, a certain reserve and tendency to avoid strong words had dominated Germany's post-War literary scene: Günter Eich’s sparseness, Wolfgang Koeppen’s dark and epic poetry, Heinrich Boell’s tired melancholy.
From the very beginning, Grass, who died April 13 at age 87, filled every occasion with his typical "here-I-am" gestures, and his work with sometimes rough language — which both produced critics. Still, he was generally popular, seeming to address a certain need among his contemporaries, particularly in Germany.
It was a time of rising prosperity, and slowly but surely the long grey years of depression and reserve were fading away. Although a relatively conservative narrator, it was the right time for Grass. His prose embodied the exuberance many longed for. Finally, there were characters with a thirst for life. Finally there was someone with a penchant for passionate storytelling. He also gave a wide berth to historical events, yet always carrying undertones of criticism and denouncement that was to become part of the German liberal public fabric. Grass was a sort of Grimmelshausen for the enlightened West German citizen.
Led by The Tin Drum"s self-denying Oskar Matzerath, the reader could feel safe standing on the right side of history — and enjoy the substantial prose without a bad conscience. Grass also entered the stage at the right time because there was a widespread need within the Federal Republic of Germany for a poet, a writer as a figure of public life. When I heard him read from his novel The Dog Years in 1963 in Frankfurt am Main, the auditorium was standing-room-only.
Revolutionary futuristic design with authoritarian traits
What Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse managed to achieve years later was firstly achieved by Grass. He entranced an entire generation, not with theoretical speeches and revolutionary futuristic designs, but simply with narrative literature. A Grass reading was a manifestation of a new Germany. Just as Adorno and Marcuse, Grass functioned as an Alpha wolf, who did not offer any willingness to accept opposition. This particular character trait perfectly suited the man with the walrus moustache.
It is, however, a substantial part of his tragic being that he himself was seduced by the image that the admiring public had formed of him. He truly did perceive himself to be the authority the public saw him as. He made the half-romantic, half-formed idea of the national poetic hero showing the way, leading the way, his own. It wouldn't last, of course, and the Nobel laureate was never able to accept the fact that the times when a nation was willing to be led by a poet were long gone.
The writer also embodied unbridled joie de vivre in these leisurely yet bashful times. He carved the image of a baroque man: stone mason, sculptor, draftsman, painter, book designer, lyricist, storyteller, playwright, cook, traveling lecturer, agitator. Within that sphere called creativity, he was capable of turning his hand successfully to nearly any endeavor. In all areas, except for music. He was the nation's master-creator Praeceptor Germaniae.
It was a source of pride for the German nation to call such a jack of all trades, their own, reflection the virtues of German, first-class workmanship, of German ability. But he was free from the imperial habitus of the past half century that had stuck to the "ugly" Germans like glue. Humility and Pride of the Homo Faber seemed to have been united in Grass. He was the writer who was a public person and who would make use of his right to interfere in as much as possible. He accepted the role assigned to him with force and passion. He became a friend of Willy Brandt’s, the soon-to-be hero of German social democracy, in his early years.
He was the first, and basically only, writer to cross the line to become an agitator. To support Brandt’s candidacy for chancellorship he founded the "Voting Community of German Authors" and traveled the length and breadth of the country as an election campaigner for weeks on end. He made a lot of time for this particular branch of civilian duty. "I sing of thee, democracy" was the title of one of his speeches. Taking up the happy pathos of Walt Whitman he did not want to concede that politics is a matter for the so-called experts.
Politics, according to Grass, matters to all. The citizens of a country are the ones who create democracy. One should keep in mind that, in the mid-1960s, publicly engaging in politics as a private individual was still something unheard of in Germany. Grass' message was simple yet profound: Politics is not boring, and once you engage with it, it becomes something beautiful. Student movements would pound him for this notion, labeling Grass as a wretched reformist, co-opted into the existing system.
Errors of a know-it-all
But Grass showed true grit in the face of these accusations. He did not budge an inch from his position, did not follow our flock of would-be revolutionaries and, unlike other intellectuals, relinquished his hold on captatio benevolentiae. "No," he declared, "I am going to passionately defend the slow pace of democracy against the musty revolutionary dreams of a self-declared and ignorant elite." And he was right to do so.
He despised Adenauer and was of the opinion that West Germany was just a restoration project. He viewed the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) not as a political party in opposition to his side, but as an enemy. For a very long time — perhaps his whole life long — he did not understand the crux of the founding of the Federal Republic. He did not understand that the implantation of Germany into Europe and the Western world and its resulting economy initiated the best and most stable phase in German history. He argued against it at all times, and saw and shared a distorted image of the Federal Republic. He accused Helmut Kohl of being a nationalist and interpreted the downfall of East Germany as an imperial act of the Federal Republic.
The more it became apparent that he was wrong in savoring that attitude, the more relentlessly he clung to it. Not having been blessed with a talent for dialogue to begin with, he increasingly treated criticism with derision. He made it personal, and became a hardly bearable public know-it-all.
Silence of an SS Member
He was always suspicious of conspiracy being the leitmotiv of criticism. It was not easy to start a conversation with him. From the very beginning he liked to view himself as a victim. In January 1966, I met him at his house in Niedstrasse in the Berlin suburb of Friedenau to conduct an interview. The previous evening had seen the premiere of his newest play. When the lights dimmed towards the end of the play someone said in a very carrying whisper "good God, this is rubbish!"
When I, as an intimidated 20-year-old student, entered the house it quickly became apparent that Grass, who was in an appalling mood, suspected me of being the instigator of that scandal. It turned out to be a slow-moving, poisoned interview in which Grass kept accusing me of being ignorant.
The philosopher Herman Luebbe once said that it may have been the utter silence on the subject of the Nazi era that may have helped the Germans achieve their movement towards democracy, or at least eased its transition. Grass may have been the living evidence to support that thesis. For many years he reproached many a great German to have kept silent on the subject of their past.
But then, in 2006, he revealed what up until then had only been known to a few: He himself had been a member of the Waffen-SS. His behavior was scandalous, not least because he was guilty of what he had accused others of doing. When he should have pointed the finger at himself he only pointed it at others. But perhaps, only by shuttering his Nazi past was he able to so ably redefine himself as a democrat. Alpha wolf and Praeceptor no longer, Grass was revealed simply and thoroughly as a normal German.