Guenter Grass, the Nobel-winning German writer, was lauded by Germans for helping to revive their culture in the aftermath of the Second World War and helping to give voice and support to democratic discourse in the post-war nation.
However, Grass, who has died aged 87, provoked the ire of many in 2006 when he revealed in his memoir Skinning The Onion that, while in his mid teens, he had served in the Waffen-SS, the combat arm of Adolf Hitler’s notorious paramilitary organisation.
Matthias Wegner, spokesman for the Steidl publishing house, confirmed that Grass died yesterday morning in a Lubeck hospital.
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 criticised what he described as Western hypocrisy over Israel’s nuclear programme and labelled the country a threat to “already fragile world peace” over its 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 comprised 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 lingering guilt after Hitler’s defeat.
The books return again and again to Danzig, where Grass was born on October 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 — a fact that Grass said surprised him. 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.
In 1999, the Swedish Academy honoured 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.”
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