Günter Grass (1927 – 2015)

With the death of Günter Grass, the author of The Tin Drum, an epoch of German literature comes to a close. Born in the Free City of Danzig, in what is now a symbolic part of Poland, Grass was reared a Catholic. Though he ceased in adulthood to be a church-goer, his upbringing marked all his work to the end of his life. Along with Heinrich Böll, an active Catholic, he provided what might be called a moral conscience to the new Germany that emerged from the wreckage of the Third Reich.

His first and perhaps most significant work, The Tin Drum, was hailed in 1959 as a masterpiece. Yet the man himself, essentially a man of the left, over the decades as Germany moved further from the war and became more prosperous, became indeed the economic lynch-pin of the European Community, the young generation came to dislike Grass, his politics, his creativity, his everlasting moralising – in which could be detected perhaps the insistent inner voice to which all cradle Catholics respond. He opposed (rightly in my opinion) the too rapid re-unification of the two Germanys after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

A political writer for Die Zeit, Jochen Bittner, writing immediately after Grass’ passing, openly derided the author. Grass was “out of date” in the new Germany; that “what is demanded [of writers], in the first place, is not moral judgment, but clear headed analysis of our ever-accelerating world”. Bittner confuses the role of the artist with that of commentator. But though this was unsaid in the only time Bittner met Grass, doubtless Grass would have replied that the world may change, but human nature stays the same; and the moral judgments of a writer are made about that humanity, or lack of it.

Late in his life, Grass revealed that he too had briefly, at the end of the war, been in the Waffen SS. His critics accused him of hypocrisy, but Grass committed no crimes.

Moreover, this week the trial of Oskar Gröning, the so-called “bookkeeper of Auschwitz”, revealed that of the 6,500 former Waffen SS members who worked at the camp, and survived the debacle, only 49 have been convicted in German courts. If Grass haunted the conscience of modern German it was for a reason.

Grass was conscious – as everyone in an Ireland facing a decade of commemoration ought to be as well – of the black farce of history. The Nobel Committee, in awarding him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, said he was a writer “whose frolicsome black fables portray the forgotten face of history”.

Part of that was the hidden damage that the past continues to do to the present, a fact underlying Bittner’s dislike of Grass (as he admitted). In Günter Grass’s voice, as in that of Heinrich Böll, the conscience of a Europe that had not forgotten Simplicissimus or the more ancient horrors of Germany, a Catholic voice of a kind, continued to speak, as little Oskar continued to beat his drum.

The Tin Drum by Günter Grass is now available in a new and complete translation by Breon Mitchell, the director of the Lilly Library in Indiana (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Harvill Secker, £20).