Ger­man No­bel lau­re­ate Guenter Grass dies at the age of 87


Guenter Grass, the No­bel­win­ning 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 Isra- el’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. 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.”

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 late­born chil­dren also have a share of the re­spon­si­bil­ity for en­sur­ing that such things — even their stir­rings — never hap­pen in Ger­many again.”

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 cen­ter­left So­cial Demo­cratic Party.


This Oct. 15, 2009 file photo shows Ger­man writer and No­bel Prize lau­re­ate for lit­er­a­ture Guenter Grass dur­ing an in­ter­view with jour­nal­ists of the As­so­ci­ated Press in the li­brary of Steidl pub­lish­ers in Goet­tin­gen, Ger­many.

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