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Günter Grass
Günter Grass in 2006
Born Günter Wilhelm Grass
16 October 1927(1927-10-16) (age 95)
Free City of Danzig
Nationality German
Occupation Novelist, poet, playwright, sculptor, graphic designer
Political movement Vergangenheitsbewältigung
Awards Georg Büchner Prize
Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature
Nobel Prize in Literature
Prince of Asturias Awards

Günter Grass's childhood home in Danzig, today's Gdańsk

Günter Wilhelm Grass (German: [ˈɡʏntɐ ˈɡʀas]; born 16 October 1927) is a German novelist, poet, playwright, illustrator, graphic artist, sculptor and recipient of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Literature. He is widely regarded as Germany's most famous living writer.[1][2][3][4]

Grass was born in the Free City of Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland). In 1945, he came to West Germany as a homeless refugee, though in his fiction he frequently returns to the Danzig of his childhood.

Grass is best known for his first novel, The Tin Drum (1959), a key text in European magic realism, and the first part of his Danzig Trilogy, which also includes Cat and Mouse and Dog Years. His works are frequently considered to have a left-wing political dimension and Grass has been an active supporter of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). The Tin Drum was adapted into a film, which won both the 1979 Palme d'Or and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The Swedish Academy, upon awarding him the Nobel Prize in Literature, noted him as a writer "whose frolicsome black fables portray the forgotten face of history".[5]

Early life

Grass was born in the Free City of Danzig on 16 October 1927, to Wilhelm Grass (1899–1979), a Protestant ethnic German, and Helene (Knoff) Grass (1898–1954), a Roman Catholic of Kashubian-Polish origin.[6][7] Grass was raised a Catholic. His parents had a grocery store with an attached apartment in Danzig-Langfuhr (now Gdańsk Wrzeszcz). He has one sister, who was born in 1930.

Grass attended the Danzig Gymnasium Conradinum. In 1943 he became a Luftwaffenhelfer, then he was conscripted into the Reichsarbeitsdienst. In November 1944, shortly after his seventeenth birthday, he volunteered for submarine service with the Kriegsmarine, "to get out of the confinement he felt as a teenager in his parents' house" which he considered stuffy Catholic lower middle class.[8][9] However, he was not accepted by the Navy and instead was drafted into the 10th SS Panzer Division Frundsberg.[10][11] He saw combat with the Panzer Division from February 1945 until he was wounded on 20 April 1945. He was captured in Marienbad and sent to an American prisoner-of-war camp. Danzig had been captured by the Soviet Army and was then annexed by Poland, which expelled its German population. Grass could not return home and found refuge in western Germany.

His military service became the subject of debate in 2006, after he disclosed in an interview and a book that he had been conscripted into the Waffen-SS while a teenager in late 1944.[12] At that point of the war, youths could be conscripted into the Waffen-SS instead of the regular Armed Forces (Wehrmacht),

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although Grass' division functioned like a regular Panzer division.

In 1946 and 1947 he worked in a mine and received training in stonemasonry. For many years he studied sculpture and graphics, first at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, then at the Berlin University of the Arts. Grass worked as an author, graphic designer, and sculptor, travelling frequently. He married in 1954 and since 1960 has lived in Berlin as well as part-time in Schleswig-Holstein. Divorced in 1978, he remarried in 1979. From 1983 to 1986 he held the presidency of the Berlin Academy of the Arts.

Major works

Danzig Trilogy

English-language readers probably know Grass best as the author of Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), published in 1959 (and subsequently filmed by director Volker Schlöndorff in 1979). It was followed in 1961 by Katz und Maus (Cat and Mouse), a novella, and in 1963 by the novel Hundejahre (Dog Years). Together these three works form what is known as the Danzig Trilogy. All three works deal with the rise of Nazism and with the war experience in the unique cultural setting of Danzig and the delta of the Vistula River. Dog Years, in many respects a sequel to The Tin Drum, portrays the area's mixed ethnicities and complex historical background in lyrical prose that is highly evocative.

In 2002, Grass returned to the forefront of world literature with Im Krebsgang (Crabwalk). This novella, one of whose main characters first appeared in Cat and Mouse, was Grass's most successful work in decades.

Social and political activism

Günter Grass by Irish artist Reginald Gray (The New York Times, 1965)

Günter Grass in 1986

Grass has for several decades been a supporter of the Social Democratic Party of Germany and its policies. He has taken part in German and international political debate on several occasions.

During Willy Brandt's chancellorship, Grass was an active supporter. Grass criticised left-wing radicals and instead argued in favour of the "snail's pace", as he put it, of democratic reform (Aus dem Tagebuch einer Schnecke). Books containing his speeches and essays have been released throughout his literary career.

In the 1980s, he became active in the peace movement and visited Calcutta for six months. A diary with drawings was published as Zunge zeigen, an allusion to Kali's tongue.

During the events leading up to the reunification of Germany in 1989–90, Grass argued for the continued separation of the two German states, asserting that a unified Germany would necessarily resume its role as belligerent nation-state.

In 2001, Grass proposed the creation of a German-Polish museum for art lost during the War. The Hague Convention of 1907 requires the return of art that had been evacuated, stolen or seized. Unlike many countries[citation needed] that have cooperated with Germany, some countries refuse to repatriate some of the looted art.[13][14]

On 4 April 2012, Grass's poem "What Must Be Said" ("Was gesagt werden muss") was published in several European newspapers. In the poem, Grass expresses his concern about the hypocrisy of German military support (the delivery of a submarine) for an Israel that might use such equipment to launch nuclear warheads against Iran, which "could wipe out the Iranian people" (dass...iranische Volk auslöschen könnte). And he hoped that many will demand "that the governments of both Iran and Israel allow an international authority free and open inspection of the nuclear potential and capability of both." In response, Israel declared him persona non grata in Israel.[15][16][17] According to Avi Primor, president of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, Grass was the one and only important German personality who had refused to meet with him when he served as Israeli ambassador to Germany. Primor noted: "One explanation for [Grass'] strange behavior might be found in the fact that Grass (who despite his poem is probably not the bitter enemy of Israel that one would imagine) had certain personal difficulties with Israel" and that during a visit there and despite the fact that his books had been translated into Hebrew and had been well received in the Israeli market he "was confronted with the anger of an Israeli public that booed him in successive public appearances. To be sure, the Israeli protestors were not targeting Grass personally and their anger had nothing at all to do with his literature. It was the German effort to establish cultural relations with Israel to which they objected. Grass, however, did not see it that way and may well have felt personally slighted."[18]

On 26 April 2012, Grass wrote a poem criticizing European policy for the treatment of Greece in the European sovereign-debt crisis. In the poem, called "Europe's Disgrace", Grass accuses Europe of condemning Greece into poverty, a country "whose mind conceived, Europe."[19][20]

Awards and honours

Günter Grass with the German Chancellor Willy Brandt, 1972

Grass has received dozens of international awards and in 1999 achieved the highest literary honour: the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Swedish Academy noted him as a writer "whose frolicsome black fables portray the forgotten face of history".[5] His literature is commonly categorised as part of the artistic movement of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, roughly translated as "coming to terms with the past."

He received the Georg Büchner Prize in 1965 and was elected in 1993 an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature[21] In 1995, he received the Hermann Kesten Prize.

Representatives of the City of Bremen joined together to establish the Günter Grass Foundation, with the aim of establishing a centralized collection of his numerous works, especially his many personal readings, videos and films. The Günter Grass House in Lübeck houses exhibitions of his drawings and sculptures, an archive and a library.

In 2012 Grass received the award '2012 European of the Year' from the European Movement Denmark (Europabevægelsen) honoring his political debattes in European affairs.

Waffen-SS revelations

On 12 August 2006, in an interview[12] about his then forthcoming book Peeling the Onion, Grass stated that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS. Before this interview, Grass was seen as someone who had been a typical member of the "Flakhelfer generation," one of those too young to see much fighting or to be involved with the Nazi regime in any way beyond its youth organizations.

On 15 August 2006, the online edition of Der Spiegel, Spiegel Online, published three documents from U.S. forces dating from 1946, verifying Grass's Waffen-SS membership.[22]

After an unsuccessful attempt to volunteer for the U-boat fleet at age 15, Grass was conscripted into the Reichsarbeitsdienst (Reich Labor Service), and was then called up for the Waffen-SS in 1944. At that point of the war, youths could be conscripted into the Waffen-SS instead of the Armed Forces (Wehrmacht).

Grass was trained as a tank gunner and fought with the 10th SS Panzer Division Frundsberg until its surrender to U.S. forces at Marienbad. In 2007, Grass published an account of his wartime experience in The New Yorker, including an attempt to "string together the circumstances that probably triggered and nourished my decision to enlist.".[23] To the BBC, Grass said in 2006:

It happened as it did to many of my age. We were in the labour service and all at once, a year later, the call-up notice lay on the table. And only when I got to Dresden did I learn it was the Waffen-SS.[24]

Joachim Fest, conservative German journalist, historian and biographer of Adolf Hitler, told the German weekly Der Spiegel about Grass's disclosure:

After 60 years, this confession comes a bit too late. I can't understand how someone who for decades set himself up as a moral authority, a rather smug one, could pull this off.[25]

As Grass has for many decades been an outspoken left-leaning critic of Germany's treatment of its Nazi past, his statement caused a great stir in the press.

Rolf Hochhuth said it was "disgusting" that this same "politically correct" Grass had publicly criticized Helmut Kohl and Ronald Reagan's visit to a military cemetery at Bitburg in 1985, because it also contained graves of Waffen-SS soldiers. In the same vein, the historian Michael Wolffsohn has accused Grass of hypocrisy in not earlier disclosing his SS membership. Many have come to Grass' defense based upon the fact the involuntary Waffen-SS membership was very early in Grass' life, starting when he was drafted shortly after his seventeenth birthday, and also precisely because he has always been publicly critical of Germany's Nazi past. For example, novelist John Irving has criticised those who would dismiss the achievements of a lifetime because of a mistake made as a teenager.[26] However, Pat Buchanan, Reagan's White House Communication's director at the time, has claimed that the very point that Reagan was seeking to emphasize in his own decision to visit Bitburg was that many of the Waffen-SS were either very young or had been drafted into the Nazi forces.[27]

Grass's biographer Michael Jürgs spoke of "the end of a moral institution".[28] Lech Wałęsa initially criticized Grass for keeping silent about his SS membership for 60 years, but after a few days Wałęsa publicly withdrew his criticism after reading the letter of Grass to the mayor of Gdańsk, and admitted that Grass "set the good example for the others."[29] On 14 August 2006, the ruling party of Poland, Law and Justice, called on Grass to relinquish his honorary citizenship of Gdańsk. A 'Law and Justice' politician Jacek Kurski stated, "It is unacceptable for a city where the first blood was shed, where World War II began, to have a Waffen-SS member as an honorary citizen." However, according to a 2010 poll[30][31] ordered by city's authorities, the vast majority of Gdańsk citizens did not support Kurski's position. The mayor of Gdańsk, Paweł Adamowicz, said that he opposed submitting the affair to the municipal council because it was not for the council to judge history.[32]


  • Die Vorzüge der Windhühner (poems, 1956)
  • Die bösen Köche. Ein Drama (play, 1956) translated as The Wicked Cooks in Four Plays (1967)
  • Hochwasser. Ein Stück in zwei Akten (play, 1957) The Flood
  • Onkel, Onkel. Ein Spiel in vier Akten (play, 1958) Mister, Mister
  • Danziger Trilogie
    • Die Blechtrommel (1959) trans. The Tin Drum (1959)
    • Katz und Maus (1961) trans. Cat and Mouse (1963)
    • Hundejahre (1963) trans. Dog Years (1965)
  • Gleisdreieck (poems, 1960)
  • Die Plebejer proben den Aufstand (play, 1966) trans. The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising (1966)
  • Ausgefragt (poems, 1967)
  • Über das Selbstverständliche. Reden – Aufsätze – Offene Briefe – Kommentare (speeches, essays, 1968) trans. Speak out! Speeches, Open Letters, Commentaries (1969) with 3 additional pieces
  • Örtlich betäubt (1969) trans. Local Anaesthetic (1970)
  • Davor (play, 1970) trans. Max (1972) on a plot from Local Anaesthetic
  • Aus dem Tagebuch einer Schnecke (1972) trans. From the Diary of a Snail (1973)
  • Der Bürger und seine Stimme. Reden Aufsätze Kommentare (speeches, essays, 1974)
  • Denkzettel. Politische Reden und Aufsätze 1965–1976 (political essays and speeches, 1978)
  • Der Butt (1977) trans. The Flounder (1978)
  • Das Treffen in Telgte (1979) trans. The Meeting at Telgte (1981)
  • Kopfgeburten oder Die Deutschen sterben aus (1980) trans. Headbirths, or, the Germans are Dying Out (1982)
  • Widerstand lernen. Politische Gegenreden 1980–1983 (political speeches, 1984)
  • Die Rättin (1986) trans. The Rat (1987)
  • Zunge zeigen. Ein Tagebuch in Zeichnungen ("A Diary in Drawings", 1988) trans. Show Your Tongue (1989)
  • Unkenrufe (1992) trans. The Call of the Toad (1992)
  • Ein weites Feld (1995) trans. Too Far Afield (2000)
  • Mein Jahrhundert (1999) trans. My Century (1999)
  • Im Krebsgang (2002) trans. Crabwalk (2002)
  • Letzte Tänze (poems, 2003)
  • Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (2006) trans. Peeling the Onion (2007) First volume of memoir.
  • Dummer August (poems, 2007)
  • Die Box (2008) trans. The Box (2010) Second volume of memoir.
  • Unterwegs von Deutschland nach Deutschland. Tagebuch 1990. (2009) trans. From Germany to Germany: Diary 1990 (2012)
  • Grimms Wörter (2010) Third volume of memoir.

Collections in English translation

  • Four Plays (1967) including Ten Minutes to Buffalo
  • In the Egg and Other Poems (1977)
  • Two States One Nation? (1990)


  1. Kulish, Nicholas; Bronner, Ethan (8 April 2012). "Gunter Grass tries to hose down row over Israel". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 8 April 2012. "GUNTER Grass, Germany's most famous living writer, has tried to quell the growing controversy..." 
  2. "Outrage in Germany". Der Spiegel. 4 April 2012.,1518,825712,00.html. Retrieved 4 April 2012. "Günter Grass, Germany's most famous living author and the 1999 recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature..." 
  3. "Yishai: Günter Grass not welcome in Israel". The Jerusalem Post. 4 April 2012. Retrieved 4 April 2012. "Germany’s most famous living writer, the Nobel literature laureate Günter Grass..." 
  4. "Outcry as Gunter Grass poem strongly criticises Israel". The Hindu. 8 April 2012. Retrieved 8 April 2012. "During his long literary career, Gunter Grass has been many things. Author, playwright, sculptor and, unquestionably, Germany's most famous living writer. There is the 1999 Nobel Prize and Mr. Grass's broader post-war role as the country's moral conscience..." 
  5. 5.0 5.1 "The Nobel Prize in Literature 1999". Retrieved 2009-10-08. 
  6. Garland, The Oxford Companion to German Literature, p. 302.
  7. "The Literary Encyclopedia", Günter Grass (b. 1927). Retrieved on 16 August 2006.
  8. "Katholischen Mief"."Und Grass wundert sich: Die öffentliche Selbstrechtfertigung des großen Schriftstellers ist so unnötig wie ärgerlich". Die Zeit. 2006. 
  9. "Nobel prize winner Grass admits serving in SS". Reuters. 2006-08-11. Archived from the original on 2006-08-25. Retrieved 2006-08-11. 
  10. "Autor Günter Grass: "Ich war Mitglied der Waffen-SS"". Der Spiegel. 11 August 2006.,1518,431333,00.html. Retrieved 11 August 2006. 
  11. "Günter Grass was in the Waffen SS" – Survey of reactions to disclosure of time in the Waffen-SS from the German and international press
  12. 12.0 12.1 "Günter Grass im Interview: „Warum ich nach sechzig Jahren mein Schweigen breche". Feuilleton. Retrieved 31 October 2010. 
  13. "Rückgabe von Beutekunst: Die letzten deutschen Kriegsgefangenen". Feuilleton. 26 October 2010. Retrieved 31 October 2010. 
  14. Spiegel.
  15. Bar-Zohar, Barak; Ravid (8 April 2012). "Interior Minister declares Gunter Grass persona non grata in Israel". Haaretz. Retrieved 8 April 2012. 
  16. Günter Grass. "Günter Grass: 'What Must Be Said'". Guardian. Retrieved 2013-01-15. 
  17. Weinthal, Benjamin (2013-01-03). "BENJAMIN WEINTHAL: Berlin politicians split over Grass travel ban, The Jerusalem Post 9. 4. 2012, online". Retrieved 2013-01-15. 
  18. Avi Primor, "Peeling Gunther Grass' Israeli Onion", Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, Vol. 6, No. 2 (2012), p. 103 (PDF)
  19. Literatur: Neues Gedicht: Grass kritisiert Griechenland-Politik, 26. 5. 2012, online
  20. "Gunter Grass stands by poem about Greece and Europe, 27. 5. 2012, online". Retrieved 2013-01-15. 
  21. "Royal Society of Literature All Fellows". Royal Society of Literature. Retrieved 8 August 2010. 
  22. "Grass räumte als Kriegsgefangener Waffen-SS-Mitgliedschaft ein".,1518,431823,00.html. Retrieved 31 October 2010. 
  23. Grass, Günter (4 June 2007). "How I Spent the War : A recruit in the Waffen S.S.". The New Yorker. Retrieved 24 May 2007. 
  24. "Guenter Grass served in Waffen SS". BBC News. BBC. 11 August 2006. Retrieved 11 August 2006. 
  25. "Grass admits serving in Waffen SS". Reuters. 13 August 2006. Archived from the original on 22 August 2006. Retrieved 13 August 2006. 
  26. Irving, John (19 August 2006). "Günter Grass is my hero, as a writer and a moral compass". The Guardian. London: Guardian Media Group.,,1853745,00.html. Retrieved 19 August 2006. 
  27. Pat Buchanan's Response To Norman Podhoretz's Op-Ed - Buchanan Campaign Press Releases - T H E I N T E R N E T B R I G A D E - Official Web Site
  28. "Echo auf Grass' SS-Vergangenheit: "Ende einer moralischen Instanz" - SPIEGEL ONLINE - Nachrichten - Kultur". 12 August 2006.,1518,431412,00.html. Retrieved 31 October 2010. 
  29. "SS-Vergangenheit: Walesa macht Grass Ehrenbürgerwürde streitig - SPIEGEL ONLINE - Nachrichten - Kultur".,1518,431491,00.html. Retrieved 31 October 2010. 
  30. "Kraj -".,34317,3560655.html. Retrieved 31 October 2010. 
  32. Rakowiec, Małgorzata (14 August 2006). "Grass asked to give up Polish title". Reuters. Retrieved 14 August 2006. [dead link]

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