Eulogizing Gunter Grass: Nobel Winner, ex-SS and Anti-Israeli

Germany's most famous writer died Monday; a look into his past reveals some dark shadows, which led to his ban in Israel.

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Gunter Grass
Gunter Grass
Reuters

Germany's most famous writer, Gunter Grass, best known for his 1959 novel "The Tin Drum" but whose reputation was tarnished by his admission he had served in Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's Waffen SS, died Monday aged 87, his publishers said.

The Nobel laureate died in a hospital in the northern city of Luebeck, the Steidl publishing house said on Twitter.

Grass quickly followed his debut and best-known novel "The Tin Drum" with "Cat and Mouse" and "Dog Years," all dealing with the rise of Nazism in his hometown of Danzig, now Gdansk in Poland, reports AFP.

He won a string of international awards, including the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999 and continued to publish into his 80s.

Later in life, the novelist, poet, playwright and sculptor, often seen chomping on his pipe and sporting a walrus mustache, courted controversy with an offensive poem that painted Israel as the biggest threat to world peace.

In the prose-poem entitled "What Must Be Said," published in 2012, he maintained that an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities could “wipe out” and “annihilate” its people, adding that Iran's nuclear ambitions were “unproven.”

In response to the poem Grass was widely labelled as an anti-Semite, and handed a ban from Israel.

After years of urging Germany to come to terms with its World War II past, the outcry further darkened the shadow cast by his 2006 bombshell admission that he had served in the Nazis' elite Waffen SS after being conscripted into the corps as a teenager.

Grass remained defiant in the face of the backlash over the poem but admitted he found the accusations of anti-Semitism "hurtful."

Allergic to ideologies

Grass' works have a strong political dimension and are considered part of the German literary movement dealing with "coming to terms with the past".

But he was also not averse to commenting on, and stirring, controversy beyond his nation's borders.

He likened the cartoons of the founder of Islam, Mohammed, that appeared in 2005 in a Danish newspaper to Nazi caricatures of Jews, and criticized ex-US president George W. Bush for using religious terms to describe his war on terror.

Grass was born on October 16, 1927 in the Baltic port city of Danzig to parents who had a grocery shop.

A passionate visual artist who also studied sculpture and graphics, Grass' work and psyche were marked by Germany's past.

His first three books, known as the Danzig Trilogy, are set in the ethnically-mixed region of his childhood. Danzig was handed to Poland after the war, when its ethnic German population fled or were expelled.

"The Tin Drum" was adapted into an Oscar-winning film by Volker Schloendorff. His 2002 novel "Crabwalk" also deals with the effect of the past on the present.

Grass defined himself in a 1969 interview as a humanist allergic to ideologies of any kind "to the point of wanting to attack any belief that claims to set absolute objectives."

60-years of SS silence

Equally critical of 1960s consumerism and the revolutionary violence that it spawned among some German youth, Grass was a dedicated pacifist, opposing the installation of nuclear missiles on German soil, and a critical supporter of the Social Democratic Party.

He resigned angrily from the Berlin Academy of Arts in 1989 when it refused to join in a public reading from the work of Salman Rushdie, who was then facing a death threat following the condemnation of his novel "The Satanic Verses" by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini.

He was also critical of what he saw as an unseemly rush to unite the two parts of Germany.

After he wrote an open letter attacking the 1961 building of the Berlin Wall, he was kept under close surveillance by East Germany's Stasi secret police who gave him the code name "Bolzen" ("Bolt"), according to a 2010 book.

Grass claimed that his more than 60-year silence over his Waffen SS conscription was due to wanting to use his memoir to fully explain his past.

"What I accepted with pride in my younger years I wanted to keep quiet about after the war because of my growing shame," he wrote in the 2006 autobiography "Peeling the Onion."