Much has been written about Nobel Prize-winning author Günter Grass, who died at the age of 87 on April 13. Here’s what he meant to a teenage girl who grew up in post-Nazi West Germany, trying to come to terms with the guilty silence of her parents’ generation.
To call Günter Grass my imaginary friend may be going too far. He was real, but although he had an important place in my life, I never knew him personally. What he truly was, is one of the strongest, most credible voices for my generation – the so-called post-war generation. Many of us had a hard time figuring out what our parents and our country had done between 1933 and 1945 and were often met with silence at home and at school. Günter Grass and other writers, in contrast, were making a genuine effort to make a clear intellectual break with the Nazi era and its authors who were either followers or still on the fence about where they stood. We looked to him for guidance and orientation, for anything we could believe and hold on to.
When The Tin Drum was published in 1959 I was 12. Four years later, the Auschwitz Trials started in Frankfurt (the first time Auschwitz personnel were standing trial in a German court from 1963-65) surrounded by huge publicity. More information was coming out daily and with it grew our determination to find out what exactly it was our fathers did in the war.
Many of us were caught between the horror of watching footage of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp by Allied forces and reconciling that experience with comments back home over dinner that went something like this: “Yes, it was terrible, but no way were six million Jews killed. It was three million at the most.” Or, “We did not know anything.” Or, “It was only the SS that did those things.” No one we knew personally seemed to have had anything to do with the Holocaust and very few acknowledged they had ever supported Hitler.
At the time there was a lot of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past) going on in Germany. It helped, because it named the Nazi crimes without excuses or denial. But it was a kind of generalised acknowledgment, often delegated to officials. Although honorable and necessary, it also created a false alibi, a kind of absolution for a nation in shock. The collective took over responsibility that rested with individuals – even with our parents. It did not help to alleviate our fears at all.
Grass on the other hand was blunt and, to many, scandalous. His first two novels set in Danzig (Gdansk), The Tin Drum and Cat and Mouse (1961), were an event. Many of my friends bought them hot off the press. I remember hearing mostly negative comments about them, mostly complaints about vulgarity, historical incorrectness or even pornography. Grass was controversial and I loved it that someone I admired created so much outrage in the establishment. To me it meant that he was right. I already knew that THEY were wrong. I don’t think I understood everything he was talking about, but I believed him. For many of us he was courageous and daring where our parents and teachers were evasive and silent. We needed that. Grass’ voice was powerful enough to shatter the silence that surrounded us, a force not unlike the high-pitched screams of Oskar Matzerath in The Tin Drum that shattered window panes.
Günter Grass was not only an author in his own right; he was also politically involved with the SPD and active in a writers’ association founded as a direct response to the collapse of the Third Reich that called itself Gruppe 47. Its members vowed not to allow history to repeat itself. He and the others were determined to lay a foundation for a better, democratic Germany, for a completely different literature, aware of its responsibility for future political and social development. Their mission said: “Our method: taking stock. Our intention: the truth.” Wow. I had not heard anyone say that before. They wanted exactly what I (and loads of young Germans) wanted. Günter Grass became their spokesperson, and my spokesperson. He did not mince words. It was declared that much of the “old”, pre-war literature had not been free of Nazi whitewashing and therefore the group decided on a rigorous practice they called “clear cutting”, by replacing the pompous writing style of pre-war literature with a radical, new, simple language. Nothing else would do. Literary critics hated it and ridiculed the first attempts. Not me. I had found my tribe, my voice, and instead of listening to more apologists I turned to literature for answers.
Of course there were other important writers during the 1960s who had a great impact on us: There was the mysterious Peter Handke, whom I was madly in love with. I deeply respected Heinrich Böll and Siegfried Lenz, who told amazing, masterful stories of life before and after the War. I wept over Peter Weiss’ dramatic reconstruction of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. Every single word in that play is from the actual evidence given in court.
But Günter Grass, at least to my teenage mind, was the most down-to-earth of them all, always willing to get his hands dirty, to speak his truth, never aloof, always stirring things up, connected to politics. He even got involved in the Willy Brandt campaign to help him become West Germany’s first Social Democrat chancellor and end the Adenauer era. For me that was another act of courage. Whom and what Grass supported became heightened in one of the most poignant moments of post-war history when then-Chancellor Willy Brandt fell to his knees in front of a memorial to the victims of the Warsaw ghetto.
Of course, since then I have often wondered how his late revelations about having joined the Waffen-SS at age 17 would have affected the way I saw Grass had I known about it early on. Hard to say for sure, but probably yes, it would have. In retrospect, it hardly matters. Grass was most important for my life as someone who spoke to this need for truth so many of us had. Ironical maybe, that it was he who stepped right into the void left by the silence of our parent’s unanswered questions. Without his general (if not personal) honesty, we might have become more cynical and more disillusioned than we already were.
Later, around the 1980s, Grass did not reach me as much. I still read his books, even though they were not as powerful as when they addressed our burning desire for understanding a couple of decades earlier. The void was no longer there and the need no longer so great.
What remains and what I want to believe is that loving Grass – at least for some brief moments – put me on the right side of history.