Günter Grass, the Nobel Prize-winning German novelist and social critic that many considered a voice for those who came of age during the Nazi era, but who later caused controversy after admitting he had been a member of the Waffen-SS, has died. He was 87.
Through his writing, Grass helped revive the German culture after the tragedy and horror of World War II. As The New York Times notes, “he was a pre-eminent public intellectual who had pushed Germans to confront the ugly aspects of their history.” However, when he confessed in his 2006 memoir Skinning the Onion that he had served as a teenager in the Waffen-SS, readers were shocked and dismayed.
In 1959, Grass published the work that thrust him onto the literary scene: The Tin Drum. He followed that first success with the other two books in his Danzig Trilogy: Cat and Mouse and Dog Years. According to Time, “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.” In The Tin Drum, a young boy decides not to grow up in response to the rise of the Nazis.
The Tin Drum, four decades later, earned Grass the Nobel Prize for literature in 1999. The Nobel Academy said, “It was as if German literature had been granted a new beginning after decades of linguistic and moral destruction.”
According to Nadine Gordimer, who was 1991’s Nobel laureate, “He never failed to confront Germans with what they did.”
Though his reputation took a hit when he confessed to his Waffen-SS involvement, some of his American friends did defend him. The novelist John Irving, according to The New York Times, spoke of “the predictably sanctimonious dismantling” of Grass’ reputation “from the cowardly standpoint of hindsight.” Irving wrote: “You remain a hero to me, both as a writer and a moral compass. Your courage, both as a writer and as a citizen of your country, is exemplary—a courage heightened, not lessened, by your most recent revelation.”