In Defense of Günter Grass

In Defense of Günter Grass

If timing is everything, one can imagine how pleased Günter Grass’s publishers were to have the Nobel Prize for Literature announced during the Frankfurt Book Fair this past October, where Grass was an honored participant. But there was a greater significance to Grass’s participation than the announcement of the award. For, in a profound way, Günter Grass’s output—his literary career—helped make a German city a publishing and literary center by cleansing the German language of the Nazi stain.

After all, one of the casualties of the Holocaust was the German language. How could one use—or trust—the language or build a nation of literary worth after Hitler’s book burnings and extermination camps? But today, Frankfurt stands as one of the most important, and one of the most cosmopolitan, literary centers in the world.

Grass, as part of what he terms “the Auschwitz generation—[belonging] “not as criminals, to be sure, but in the camp of the criminals,” feels a strain no American writer would feel. Although each creative writer forms his or her work by reshaping language to a particular vision, the burden of using a language contaminated by the Nazis has been an ever-present burden for Grass and his comrades.

Indeed, he took Adorno’s now famous dictum—that it was barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz—to mean something other than silence. “There is no end to writing after Auschwitz, no such promise can be made—unless the human race gives up on itself completely.”

It is for his literary interventions—reclaiming the German language through the fantasies of his most famous character, Oskar, the thirteen-year-old boy from The Tin Drum who refuses to grow up, that Grass will be remembered.

But, for Grass, political activism and the chronicling of it is as important a component of his own legacy as his novels and poems. “A writer must face up to the test of reality; and that can’t be done if he keeps his distance,” he wrote against his critics who said that the literary life and politics don’t mix.

His political activism—and his very clear commitment to democratic socialism—caused shrill attacks against him in the American press when he won the Nobel Prize. Most notably, Grass was accused by Jacob Heilbrunn in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece of a “nostalgia for East Germany” and castigated as a “leftist dinosaur.” On the New York Times op-ed page, James Atlas took up the same cause: during a literary panel, Grass had challenged Saul Bellow about the ability of American capitalism to grapple with poverty and economic inequalities. Atlas put this forward as proof of Grass’s leftist (read communist) sentiments.

Heilbrunn’s chastising remarks about Grass’s “illusions about communism” are ridiculous if one reads or listens to Grass. Even his fears about reunification were not unrealistic. His fear of a unified Germany ...