Guenter Grass, author of ‘Tin Drum,’ dies at 87

Guenter Grass, the Nobel Prize-winning author who explored Nazi brutality and the trauma Germany suffered after World War II in novels such as “The Tin Drum” and “Cat and Mouse,” has died. He was 87.

He died Monday morning in a clinic in the northern city of Luebeck, Germany, according to a statement on the Twitter feed of his publisher, Steidl Verlag.

Grass’s magic realist work wrestled with the impact on individuals of Germany’s tumultuous 20th century. A Social Democratic Party activist, he said the country had no claim to a normal national identity after the Holocaust.

“It’s my opinion that every writer who has really read Guenter Grass is in his debt,” the American novelist John Irving wrote in a tribute for Grass’s 80th birthday published in the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper in 2007. “For myself, I know that with certainty.”

Grass twice grabbed headlines in later years: The first time in 2006, when he revealed in his memoirs that he had served in the Waffen-SS, a combat arm of Adolf Hitler’s elite SS security unit, at the end of World War II.

He caused uproar again in April 2012 with a poem accusing Israel of endangering world peace with its nuclear capacity and the threat it posed to Iran. The poem, published in Germany’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung under the title “What Must Be Said,” prompted Israel to ban Grass from entering the country.

Awarding the Nobel in 1999, the Swedish Academy said “The Tin Drum” tackled “the enormous task of reviewing contemporary history by recalling the disavowed and the forgotten: the victims, the losers and lies that people wanted to forget because they had once believed in them.”

The 1959 novel’s complex narrative, shifting perspectives, surreal prose and collection of circus-like characters created one of the first postwar German works to describe the role — and complicity — of many working-class Germans in Hitler’s dictatorship and the persecution of Jews. It challenged the belief that Nazism was the work of a fanatical few.

The novel tells the story of Oskar Matzerath, whose two “presumptive fathers” are a Nazi party member and a Pole later executed for defending a post office during the German invasion. After receiving a tin drum as a gift at age 3, Oskar wills himself not to grow, refusing to join the company of adults entering World War II.

“To avoid playing the cash register, I clung to my drum and from my third birthday on refused to grow by so much as a finger’s breadth,” Oskar says. “I remained the precocious three-year-old, towered over by grownups but superior to all grownups, who refused to measure his shadow with theirs.”

“The Tin Drum” was turned into a film by Volker Schloendorff in 1979 and won an Oscar in 1980 for best foreign-language film.

The novel was followed by “Cat and Mouse” (1961) and “Dog Years” (1963), which together compose Grass’s Danzig Trilogy. His style influenced writers including Irving and Salman Rushdie. Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children,” the 1981 novel considered to be a central post-colonial work, exhibits a similar treatment of Indian history as applied by Grass to Germany.

Sporting a walrus moustache often wreathed in the smoke pouring forth from his pipe, Grass waited 61 years to reveal that he had joined a Waffen-SS unit. As the self-styled arbiter of the German national conscience, his belated confession drew an avalanche of criticism.

“The ‘Praeceptor Germaniae’ had something to say about everything and everybody, but not on how it came about and how it was that he himself — even if only for a few months — wore the uniform of Himmler and Heydrich,” the Sueddeutsche Zeitung said in an opinion piece in 2006.

Grass was born on Oct. 16, 1927, in the northern coastal city of Danzig, now Gdansk in Poland, to parents who ran a shop. He was a child when World War II began with Hitler’s invasion of Poland. In his 2006 memoir “Peeling the Onion,” he recalled watching as a 12-year-old while a horde of storm troopers plundered, destroyed and set fire to a synagogue.

“As a member of the Hitler Youth I was a young Nazi,” he wrote in the memoir. “A believer until the end.”

When Grass tried to join a submarine division at 15 because he wanted to escape home, he was first turned away. In the final months of the war, he was called to Dresden to be drafted into the SS Frundsberg division, which had degenerated from one of Hitler’s fiercest paramilitary forces to a ragged crew of conscripts.

Grass’s service wasn’t long, but his SS tenure would occupy him silently for the rest of his life.

“I wasn’t aware of any fault,” Grass said in an ARD television interview shortly after his confession. “I was pulled into the SS, didn’t participate in any crimes, and always had the desire one day, in a broader context, to reveal it.”

In April 1945, Grass was injured and taken by the U.S. Army as a prisoner, spending almost a year at an internment camp. A refugee in West Germany after being driven out of Poland, he went on to study sculpture and painting at the Dusseldorf Arts Academy and moved to West Berlin in 1953 to continue his studies at the city’s Academy of the Arts.

After 1956, he spent much time with his new wife, the Swiss ballet student Anna Schwarz, in Paris, where he also began writing poetry, short fiction and theater. It was there that he completed “The Tin Drum,” returning to Berlin after its publication.

Grass divorced Schwarz in 1978. He married his second wife, the organist Ute Grunert, the following year.

In the 1960s, Grass grew more politically active and got acquainted with Willy Brandt, the Berlin mayor who would become West Germany’s first postwar Social Democrat chancellor. He participated in political campaigns and joined the SPD in 1982, though he left in 1993 to protest immigration policy.

The writer’s aim was always to place the atrocities of Nazism at the core of the German national debate, as with his role in denouncing the election of Christian Democrat Kurt Georg Kiesinger as chancellor in 1966. Kiesinger had joined the Nazi Party in 1933, the year Hitler took power in Germany.

“How should we commemorate the tortured and murdered resistance fighters, the dead of Auschwitz and Treblinka, if you, the fellow traveler of those times, have chosen to determine the political directives of today?” Grass wrote at the time.

That position aligned with his condemnation of a 1985 visit by Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President Ronald Reagan to a military cemetery in Bitburg that also contained the remains of Waffen-SS soldiers.

His belated confession about his service in the SS caused a rift between Grass and fellow Gdansk native Lech Walesa, the former Polish president and leader of the communist-era Solidarity movement. Walesa demanded Grass’s honorary citizenship of the city be removed, fraying the German-Polish relations Grass had helped rebuild. Walesa later reconciled with the German writer.

Grass’ views against German reunification after the collapse of the Berlin Wall also fueled controversy. His 1995 novel “Too Far Afield” took the perspective of East Germans critical of the sudden dominance of their materialistic and arrogant western neighbors. Characters in the book compare reunification to Hitler’s “Anschluss,” or annexation, of Austria in 1938.

A review in Der Spiegel magazine by Marcel Reich-Ranicki shows the literary critic on the cover tearing the book apart.

Others were more appreciative. The New York Times, in a 2002 review of the English translation, said “Too Far Afield” was calmer and more accessible than earlier works.

“It is the work of a seasoned craftsman, certain of what he wants to do, completely in control of his gifts,” it said.

With his first wife, Grass had three sons, Franz, Raoul and Bruno, as well as a daughter, Laura. He also had two daughters, Helene and Nele, from two separate relationships. He was stepfather to two sons from his second wife, according to Munzinger Archiv, an online database.

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