In 1958, Germany was divided between a complacent and prosperous West Germany and a dreary East Germany, a Soviet colony with the redeeming feature of a porous border. One could take the Berlin subway to visit Stalinism in its Post-Stalin form—and return in time for a good meal. That meant a lot in Germany even thirteen years after devastating defeat. West Germany was ruled by an elite full of Nazi accomplices and no small number of Nazi stalwarts in culture, business, government, and politics. The Nazi generals were on pensions, their colonels promoted to command the new West German army. Younger Germans dutifully listened to lessons about democracy in school or read de Tocqueville in university. They got few answers when they questioned their elders about the recent past. The moral consensus in West Germany entailed commitment to what was termed “the Christian west”—and extreme devotion to the national soccer team and vacations in Greece, Italy, and Spain. The Volkswagen Beetle was a world success. As for moral inquiry—that was what professors of ethics and theology were paid for, and in an agreed national division of labor, they kept their quarrels to themselves.
Suddenly, however, there was commotion in the street, shouting, a dissonant musical fanfare, profanity—and the insistent beating of a drum. A writer, himself at seventeen a soldier in the dreaded and dreadful Waffen SS although he did not dwell on that, had drawn on familial history to create a writhing living theater in book form. Its techniques were borrowed from film, from traditions of carnival, from the metahistorical gloom of modern German art before its extirpation by the sounder souls on Dr. Josef Goebbels’ payroll. The creator was a stonemason at home in painting too, and he had transformed it all into a novel written (more troubling still) in a Parisian basement. The Tin Drum appeared—and well before the student revolt (the work of those who read it, along with their teachers, in high school) irrevocably altered Germany’s cultural and political landscape.
I was living in London, active in the nascent British and European New Left, knew the German literary conventicle Group 47 sponsoring Günter Grass. We belonged to a European network of artists, writers, and scholars with friends in Moscow and New York. With Nina, my German wife, I followed German events rather closely. The British, after all, did not think that their past had to be buried. The contortions of the German spirit fascinated us. We hoped that a new consciousness would come but were not sure. The German friend who sent us The Tin Drum was a West Berlin Protestant theologian concerned with the past. (He had written a book on Lincoln’s faith.) Nina read The Tin Drum first. When she put it down she had one remark. “We have rejoined western culture.”
The city fathers of Bremen gave Grass their cultural prize and withdrew it after having read the book. They were shocked by its persistent references to the human body and its manifold functions. Grass’ subsequent novels included The Dog Years, The Flounder, and The Rat. In his bestiary, humans had to make place for the rest of creation. His insistence that Germany was divided into two sexes as well as two states offended the guardians of a very fictive purity. Grass also offended by writing of his Polish relatives in the city of Danzig, immortalized in his novel. The Germans are as ethnically mixed as the rest of the Europeans but mentioning it was (and is) disturbing.
In the obituaries, some distinguish Grass as writer from Grass as political polemicist. In fact, his art and his politics are one. The earthiness of the writing is the source of the bluntness, the directness, of his politics. His portrait of humanity shows us in our animality, our turpidity, and our fear. How could he turn around and demand that we become model citizens, democratic and peace loving?
Here personal experience may help. I knew Günter, saw him on visits to Germany, had contact across the ocean. In recalling him, his British translator described him as “good company.” He was a good listener as well as a good talker, a close questioner, an inquiring companion. He appreciated the varieties of life courses, the eccentricities of individuals, and was especially attentive to the young. On several occasions, we were speakers at political events. He was endlessly patient with his admirers. I saw him at party conventions of the Social Democrats. The world famous writer did not condescend to the postmen, autoworkers, and schoolteachers of the rank and file. They were comrades—in a world in which comradeship was in itself a political good.
There are aspects of his life which are hugely entertaining. The rulers of Communist Germany did not know what to do with him. Lace-curtain philistines, the fantasy and sexual openness of his books disturbed them. I cannot recollect any East German dwelling in which his books were not on the shelves. Often, they graced apartments in Moscow, Warsaw, and Prague. He intervened, with the Social Democrats, with the Communist regimes on behalf of dissidents. I recall visiting the editors of the Soviet weekly Literary Gazette in 1986 and criticizing the exiling of Sakharov. You sound like Grass, they said. The courageous citizen scientist was in fact released shortly thereafter.
He was no less critical in Western Europe. When in 1983 French President Mitterrand convened an international cultural conference, Grass was campaigning in a German election. He charged his film director Volker Schloendorf and myself with rebuking Mitterrand on his support for the stationing in Germany of American missiles he would on no account accept in France. Mitterrand did not hear criticism graciously. Schloendorf and I conveyed the message, endured an irritated rebuff and shrugged at each other. We agreed: Günter would have given as good as we got.
He has incurred the enmity of that segment of world Jewry which supposes that Israel can do no wrong. A criticism of Israel in 2012 provoked considerable abuse. He was even barred from visiting Israel, an honor also accorded Noam Chomsky. Israel’s behavior is presumably due to the drive to normalize Jews intrinsic to Zionism: we are to be seen as stupid as the rest of humanity. Grass had Jewish friends, Norman Mailer amongst them, and I do not think he thought of us in that way.
I wrote in The Nation nine years ago about his belated confession of having been drafted into the Waffen SS—and my regret that he gave his adversaries a club with which to beat him. Since then he has said that the guilt of retaining the secret might have spurred him to write. Perhaps—but his subsequent struggle with the legacy of German history was amends enough. Rightly read, it taught us something about ourselves. I think that is what was meant by the term “world literature.” Auf Wiedersehen, Günter.