German literary lion Gunter Grass dies at 87

13th April 2015, Comments 0 comments

Germany's Nobel-winning author, Gunter Grass, who acted as a moral compass for many in the postwar nation but later provoked criticism over his own World War II past, died Monday aged 87, his publishers said.

The writer, one of Germany's most influential if controversial intellectual figures, died in a hospital in the northern city of Luebeck, the Steidl publishing house said.

Grass achieved world fame with his debut and best-known novel "The Tin Drum" in 1959, quickly followed by "Cat and Mouse" and "Dog Years", all dealing with the rise of Nazism in his city of birth, Danzig, now Gdansk in Poland.

He pressed Germany for decades to face up to its Nazi past, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, when the Swedish Academy said his "frolicsome black fables portray the forgotten face of history".

Writers and politicians paid tribute to Grass, who was also a poet, playwright and sculptor, and was often seen puffing on his pipe, sporting a walrus moustache.

But he shocked his admirers and provoked an outcry in 2006 when he admitted, six decades after World War II, that he had been conscripted into Hitler's notorious Waffen SS as a 17-year-old.

In 2012 he courted controversy and was declared persona non-grata by Israel by publishing a prose-poem, "What Must Be Said", that painted Israel as the Middle East's biggest threat to peace.

In the piece, Grass voiced fears that a nuclear-armed Israel would mount a "first strike" against Iran and wipe out its people, prompting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to slam the poem as "shameful".

Grass, a longtime leftist activist, said he was particularly stung by widespread accusations of anti-Semitism against him in the German media.

- Allergic to ideologies -

British author Salman Rushdie tweeted that the news of Grass's death was "very sad". "A true giant, inspiration, and friend. Drum for him, little Oskar," he wrote, referring to a character in "The Tin Drum".

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the country had lost one of its greats, who had been the "father figure for the thinking and writing of a Germany that was coming of age".

Culture Minister Monika Gruetters said Grass' literary legacy stood alongside that of Johann Wolfgang Goethe.

Per Waestberg, a Swedish Academy member, told AFP that Grass was "the greatest German writer of the second half of the 20th century" adding that his 1999 Nobel had aimed to "crown" the century.

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 Prophet Mohammed that appeared in 2005 in a Danish newspaper to Nazi caricatures of Jews, and criticised 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. During World War II, he was wounded and taken prisoner by the Allies.

His Danzig Trilogy is 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.

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".

- Dedicated pacifist -

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 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 put his more than 60-year silence over his Waffen SS conscription down 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".


© 2015 AFP

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