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Günter Wilhelm Grass (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 to be Germany’s most famous living writer.
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 is also included 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”.
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. 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. However, he was not accepted by the Navy and instead was drafted into the 10th SS Panzer Division Frundsberg. 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. At that point of the war, youths could be conscripted into the Waffen-SS instead of the regular Armed Forces (Wehrmacht), 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, traveling 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.
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.[who?]
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.
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.
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 that have cooperated with Germany, some countries refuse to repatriate some of the looted art.
On 4 April 2012, Grass published the poem “What Must Be Said” (“Was gesagt werden muss”) in several European newspapers. In this poem Grass expressed concern that an Israeli military strike against Iran “could wipe out the Iranian people” (das…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.
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”. His literature is commonly categorised as part of the artistic movement of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, roughly translated as “coming to terms with the past.”
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.
Collections in English translation
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