Before it became known for 20th century wars, Germany was regarded as a nation of poets and writers. Indeed, during periods of great catastrophe, like Prussia’s defeat at the hands of Napoleon, Germans often consoled themselves with the thought that even if they failed on the battlefield, they would always have the superior literal and cultural minds. One of the greatest writers of contemporary Germany was Günter Grass, a man born out of another period of crisis and whose wiring sought to explore and understand it.
Grass was born on October 16th, 1927, in the Free City of Danzig. he was raised Catholic, and in 1943 he was conscripted as a Luftwaffe Helper. In November of 1944 he volunteered for submarine service to, in his words, get out of the confinement he felt in his parent’s house. The navy refused him and he was drafted into the Waffen-SS in late 1944. He served for two months in a tank division until he was wounded on April 20th. He was then captured and released at the end of the war. He spent the next two years as a stonemason. Later, he worked as a graphic designer and writer, and moved to West Germany in 1953. His first major novel, the Tin Drum, was published in 1959. It and the following novels in the Danziger Trilogy explored life in the free city of Danzig in the years leading up to the Second World War. He became the most prominent German author of his time, and gained influence as a prominent cultural figure. He supported the Social Democratic Party of Germany and opposed both German re-unification and German military cooperation with Israel, a state which he thought was overly expansionist and militaristic. He opposed German re-unifications because he thought it would make Germany a bellicose state again. He was awarded the Nobel prize in 1999, praised as a writer “whose frolicsome fables portray the forgotten face of history.” Late in his life, public revelations about his fighting in the SS damaged his reputation and his credibility as a socialist and liberal advocate. He died in 2015 at the age of 87 of a lung infection, caused likely by his lifelong practice of pipe smoking.
Grass’s legacy is that of a brilliant writer with a flawed life and legacy. He was part of the SS, and that fact remains a stain on his legacy. However, his contributions to literature and his later activism are not tarnished by that. He was a conscript, and worked after through his writing to destroy the elements of German culture that contributed to Nazism. He was in many ways a return to a Germany of old, a cultural icon in a nation so recently defined by atrocious acts of war. Even though he is dead, his work lives on as emblematic of a critical period in German history.