BERLIN – German novelist Günter Grass, the Nobel Prize-winning author of The Tin Drum, an epic treatment of the Nazi era, died on Monday at the age of 87, his publishers said.
A broad-shouldered man with a drooping mustache, Grass spurned the German tradition of keeping a cool intellectual distance, insisting that a writer’s duty was to be at the front line of moral and political debate.
For many, he was the voice of a German generation that came of age in World War II and bore the burden of their parents’ guilt for Nazi atrocities.
The independent German Cultural Council called him “more than a writer... a seismograph for society” and the Anglo-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie called him “a true giant, inspiration, and friend.”
A seasoned left-wing campaigner, he was a towering figure in West Germans’ efforts to keep the door open to their communist-ruled neighbors in the East during the Cold War.
Yet Grass opposed hasty reunification after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and hoped a new generation of German authors from the East would nourish their work on “western arrogance.”
Grass was born in the Baltic port of Danzig, now Gdansk in Poland, in 1927 and much of his fiction was set in the city.
The Tin Drum caused a sensation when it was published in 1959, though it was condemned by some as obscene.
Former West German president Heinrich Luebke is said to have remarked that he would not sit at the same table with a man whose work he could not discuss with his wife in the privacy of their bedroom.
The book is told through the eyes of Oskar Matzerath, a strange, gifted boy who resolves to stop growing just as Nazism emerges in the 1930s, and relentlessly pounds the drum of the title. It was made into an Oscar-winning film in 1979.
Cat and Mouse (1961) and Dog Years (1963) were also set in Danzig in the war years and after, while Local Anesthetic examines opposition to the Vietnam war and the generation gap.
Grass had a stormy relationship with the Center-Left Social Democratic Party, criticizing it when it joined a conservative- led government in the 1960s but campaigning for Willy Brandt, the party’s first post-war chancellor and champion of East-West detente.
SPD leader and deputy German chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said that, with Grass’s death, “we lose one of the most important writers of German post-war history and an engaged author and fighter for democracy and freedom.”
Awarding him the Nobel Literature Prize in 1999, the Swedish Academy described one of his last works, a series of essays called My Century (1999), as showing “a particularly keen eye for stupefying enthusiasms.”
Not even 12 when war broke out, Grass was forced like other youngsters to join paramilitary organizations, and entered the Hitler Youth at 14.
Drafted into a Waffen-SS tank division in 1944, he experienced the full horrors of war, when more than half his company of mostly 17-year-olds were ripped to pieces in three minutes of shelling.
But the fact that he did not reveal this part of his history until 2006 brought accusations that he had been hypocritical when attacking others for failing properly to face up to Germany’s Nazi past and cost him some of his moral authority.
For Israel, Grass was a highly controversial author and public intellectual.
In 2012, Grass penned a poem titled “What must be said” for Munich’s liberal daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, accusing Israel of planning to launch a nuclear attack on Iran to “extinguish the Iranian people.”
His poem earned him a ban on traveling to Israel, which Grass compared to his treatment by East Germany’s Stasi.
“Why do I say only now...
that the nuclear power Israel endangers an already fragile world peace? Because that must be said which it may already be too late to say tomorrow,” he wrote in the poem, which was criticized by some in Germany as anti-Semitic.
Grass blamed Netanyahu as “the man who damages Israel the most.”
When asked by Spiegel magazine “Do you believe him when he [Grass] writes in his poem that he feels 'connected' to the State of Israel?” the German- Jewish historian, Michael Wolffsohn, said “I have never believed him. He was never a friend of the Jewish people – this is a myth he constructed himself. During his very first visit to Israel, on the occasion of the first German-Israeli culture week in 1971, he already acted like a bull in a china shop, and lectured the Israeli audience on historical and moral issues.”
Grass’s anti-Israel poem prompted criticism from leading politicians in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party.
Philipp Mißfelder, a Christian Democratic Union and foreign policy spokesman in the Bundestag, said “the poem is tasteless and unhistoric and shows a lack of knowledge about the situation in the Middle East.”
The general secretary of the CDU Hermann Gröhe said he was horrified over the tone of the poem and that Grass misjudged completely that Iran is determined to obtain nuclear weapons.
Grass did not renounce the views contained in his poem and in subsequent interviews continued to attack the Jewish state.
In 2003, three years before he disclosed his membership in the Waffen-SS in an interview with the German daily FAZ, he wrote a Los Angeles Times piece arguing that president George W. Bush and his government “are diminishing democratic values.” He further compared US policies with al-Qaida.
Although hailed as a literary innovator for his magical realist style, Grass was more likely to use public platforms to air his views on issues such as nuclear power and Germans’ historical responsibility, than to discuss the craft of novel-writing.
When Germany surrendered in 1945, Grass was briefly an American prisoner.
He then worked on a farm, in a potash mine and as an apprentice stonemason before studying sculpture in Düsseldorf and West Berlin. He began writing poems and plays in the early 1950s, worked as a journalist, played in a jazz band, and illustrated some of his own books.
He died in a hospital in Luebeck, near his home in northern Germany. His publishers gave no details of the cause of death.