Günter Grass, German author and activist, dies aged 87

Günter Grass.

Günter Grass, who was one of Germany’s most important post-war novelists, died on April 13 at the age of 87 in the town of Lübeck, in northern Germany.

Grass was perhaps most famous for his 1959 book The Tin Drum, a novel that embodied fantastical elements in its critique of Weimar and Nazi Germany. As such, his style bore resemblances to Latin America’s genre of magical realism. In 1979, the book was turned into an Academy Award winning film by Volker Schlöndorff, which won the Oscar for best foreign film.

Grass won the 1999 Nobel Prize in Literature, partly for this book, but also for the other books in what became known as the Danzig Trilogy. The Swedish Nobel Prize committee said Grass was a writer “whose frolicsome black fables portray the forgotten face of history”, which include “the victims, losers and lies that people wanted to forget because they had once believed in them”.

Within Germany, Grass was known for his leftist activism and his support for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) before it moved rightwards to become a centrist party, where he was particularly involved in disarmament campaigns.

During the process of German reunification after the fall of East Germany, Grass argued in favour of the continued division of Germany because he believed that Germany had lost its right to have a unified country because of the Holocaust.

In 2006, Grass admitted that he had kept secret his membership in the Waffen SS during World War II, when he was about 17. The admission caused an uproar, and many argued that his novels needed to be reinterpreted in light of this new information.

He revealed this part of his biography shortly before publishing it in a short book, saying: “My silence over all these years is one of the reasons I wrote the book. It had to come out in the end.”

Despite this revelation, the influence that Grass had on post-war Germany should not be underestimated. Both his novels and his social activism acted as a call to conscience to recall Germany’s dark history and its moral responsibility to work for a world without war.

He actively campaigned for Willy Brandt, who became Germany’s first Social Democratic chancellor from 1969 to 1974. Brandt was instrumental in recognising Germany’s guilt for World War II and began the policy of “Ostpolitik,” or opening of Germany up toward Eastern Europe.

However, when Germany began its rearmament campaign by stationing nuclear missiles in the country for the first time in the early 1980s, under SPD chancellor Helmut Schmidt, Grass left the party under protest. He later defended Fidel Castro’s Cuba and the left-wing Sandinistas in Nicaragua, becoming ever more critical of German capitalism.

Referring to Germany’s complicity in helping Saddam Hussein build poison gas factories, Grass said: “This is where you really see the German danger. It isn’t nationalism, and it isn’t reawakened neo-Nazis. It is simply the unchecked lust for profit.”

[Reprinted from TeleSUR English.]

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