Günter Grass, the Nobel Prize-winning author and social critic who grappled with the moral dilemmas of postwar Germany both on and off the page, died in Luebeck, Germany on Monday.
Grass gained widespread acclaim for his novel “The Tin Drum” in 1959 and a reputation as a moral compass for his divided country in the subsequent years; it was not until 2006 that he revealed his own past as a member of Hitler’s SS.
Grass was born in Danzig — now Gdansk, Poland — in 1927. His birthplace would serve as the setting of the trilogy for which he is best known, comprised of “The Tin Drum” as well as “Cat and Mouse” (1961) and “Dog Years” (1963), works that combined the bleak historical reality of Nazi Germany with signature magic realism and lyrical prose.
“The Tin Drum” follows a dwarf who chose to stop growing at the age of three- Grass’s symbol for a German society that was too cowardly to prevent the rise of Hitler. The novel has been published in over 20 languages, and Grass went on to write dozens of plays, novels, poems and memoirs.
Grass’s exploration of the trauma of life under Nazi rule earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, for giving Germany “a new beginning after decades of linguistic and moral decay.”
A liberal and anti-imperialist activist, Grass was a longtime member of Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) party, serving as a speechwriter for West German Chancellor Willy Brandt. He railed against the evils of capitalism and nationalism, targeting Western countries including, frequently, the United States. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Grass was an outspoken critic of the reunification of Germany, arguing that a united country could once again turn to tyranny.
In 2006, days before the release of his memoir “Peeling the Onion,” Grass finally revealed the history he concealed throughout his years as a strident voice of moral authority: Grass himself had served as a tank gunner in the Waffen-SS as a teenager, was captured by American soldiers and lived as a prisoner of war until his release in 1946.
“It was a weight on me,” Grass said in 2006. “My silence over all these years is one of the reasons I wrote the book. It had to come out in the end.”
The admission sparked cries of hypocrisy that only grew louder after he published a poem criticizing Israel in 2012. But his defenders argue that his experiences as a young Nazi inspired him to put on paper what he could not say out loud for so long: the complicity of Germans in the barbarism of Nazi rule, the post-traumatic weight of that history and the danger of ignoring it.
“History, or, to be more precise, the history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet,” the narrator of his 2002 novel “Crabwalk” says. “We flush and flush, but the [expletive] keeps rising.”
His publisher, Steidl, confirmed the death but did not announce the cause. Grass was 87 years old.