There is a rough schematic one should follow when eulogizing Günter Grass, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist and critic who died Monday at his home in Lübeck, Germany.
It goes something like this: Grass was a prolific writer of mediocre novels, but his 1959 classic The Tin Drum, a brilliant meditation on Germany’s shameful recent past, is the only one deserving of mention. Be sure to add a few chin-stroking paragraphs dealing with his late-in-life admission that compulsory service in the Hitler Youth was, in fact, punctuated by compulsory service in the Waffen-SS, a rather more sinister fact that he long excised from his résumé. Then provide a quick précis of his tedious 2012 anti-Israel poem “What Must Be Said” and the tedious controversy that followed, if only to establish that he fearlessly challenged taboos. And finally—but most important—one simply must describe Grass as the avuncular, pipe-smoking, walrus-faced moral conscience of postwar Germany, the man who forced his fellow countrymen to confront their own pasts, even if he was cagey about confronting his own.
On this last requirement, most media outlets followed the assigned script. PBS spoke of Grass’s “reputation as a moral compass,” a writer who “grappled with the moral dilemmas” of the Third Reich. A critical assessment of Grass’s life in The New York Times declared that he recalibrated Germany’s postwar “moral compass.” Likewise Agence France Presse: Germany said auf wiedersehen to a fiction writer who “acted as a moral compass.” Many newspapers found space for American novelist John Irving’s judgement. He anointed his longtime friend—you guessed it!—Germany’s “moral compass.”
In other words, the world hasn’t merely lost a great novelist. Time has robbed us of a peacetime Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a walrus-faced Klaus von Stauffenberg, Oskar Schindler with an Olivetti typewriter. Without Grass, who would teach Germans to resist that preternatural urge to apply fascist solutions to trivial political problems?
It is indeed true that Günter Grass was an exceptionally talented writer, but one who managed a single exceptional novel. Appalled by the discredited utopianism of the past but enchanted by the utopianism of the present, Grass commingled his political obsessions with his fiction, following the revolutionary dictum that art should serve the people, regardless of the people’s desires. “Between books,” he said in 1982, “I have given politics what excess energy I could.”
That’s almost right. For Grass, the novel was always didactic, so in judging his literary output it’s impossible to isolate and remove his ideological obsessions. He was a peerless stylist, sophisticated with language, who surrendered his storytelling to characters whose soporific perorations always sounded suspiciously like Günter Grass.
In his colossally silly 1995 novel Too Far Afield, a fictional polemic opposing German reunification, a former East German shuffles with a friend through post-Cold War Berlin, lamenting all of these gruesome new freedoms, having deep thoughts about the cycles of history while sitting in a brand new McDonald’s (ick)—for his 70th birthday party. (Yes, his hand is that heavy). When Grass cranks up the politics in his fiction, it always corresponds with a suitable increase in ideological cliche.
American novelist John Updike wanted to like Grass, but acidly—and accurately—concluded that he had become “a novelist who has gone so public he can’t be bothered to write a novel,” having transformed into someone who “just sends dispatches to his readers from the front line of his engagement.”
An annoying trait from a Canadian novelist, perhaps, but the weight of German history, his defenders argued, necessitated such engagement. As The Guardian’s Jonathan Steele remarked is his obituary, Grass “spent his life reminding his compatriots of the darkest time in their history, the crimes of the Nazi period …” This sounds like an admirable position—the ordinary Germans who allowed their country to be seized by criminals and became accomplices to genocide should be constantly reminded of their complicity—but everywhere he turned Grass heard the clicking heels of jackboots. And everything with which he disagreed was a harbinger of resurgent Nazism.
Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl’s missile policy in Western Europe reminded Grass of the 1942 Wannsee Conference, during which top Nazi brass meticulously plotted the physical destruction of European Jewry. In the mid-’90s, he compared Germany’s treatment of Turkish asylum seekers with the Nazi deportation of Jews to extermination camps. When Kohl’s right-leaning CDU snatched power from the foundering Social Democrats in 1982, he compared their electoral victory to Hitler’s seizure of power. When a monument to Jewish victims of the Holocaust was unveiled in 1998, Grass noted, quite reasonably, that Roma victims were also worthy of being memorialized. It was, he quite unreasonably added, “the kind of [racial] selection undertaken by the Nazis.”
In 1990, Grass complained that during a political speech the “vulgar” German Chancellor Helmut Kohl “asked the masses, in the style of [Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef] Goebbels at the Berlin Sports Palace, ‘Do you want German unity? Do you want our prosperity?’” (The reference is to Goebbels’s thunderous 1943 speech, delivered after Germany’s crushing defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad, to an audience of bandaged soldiers and fanatical fascists, in which he asked a question to which there was one answer: “Do you want total war?”)
And it wasn’t just Germany that was slouching towards Auschwitz. Visiting the United States in 1983, Grass told The New York Times that he was “convinced that in the United States, in the so-called silent majority, strong fascist tendencies have become apparent in recent years…” Journalist Barbara Probst Solomon attended a Grass lecture during his American junket, summarizing his main point as “we Americans have become the new Nazis.”
His supporters frequently argued that, through works like The Tin Drum, Grass took it upon himself to rebuild a language deformed by hatred and fanaticism. Grass himself told The Paris Review that the German language “was tainted” by fascism, requiring his intervention. On awarding him the literature prize in 1999, the Nobel Committee said that through his novels, “it was as if German literature had been granted a new beginning after decades of linguistic and moral destruction.” But much like his liberal use of the Nazi comparison, he also deployed some of that very tainted language against his enemies. During the process of reunification, Grass cynically employed the word “annexation” in place of reunification—anschluss in German, a word associated with Hitler’s occupation of Austria.
This isn’t never again moralizing, but weaponized history—something Grass himself warned against. On a 1971 trip to Tel Aviv, Grass cautioned right-wing Israeli activists to avoid “exploiting tragic memories of the Nazi Holocaust to further their own political fortunes.”
But in 1990, when asked why he so stridently opposed reunification, Grass would point to “Auschwitz as an inescapable imperative,” exploiting fears that a reunited Germany could potentially morph into a militaristic and genocidal Germany.
But for all of the grave warnings, Grass didn’t oppose reunification because he feared the racist jingoism of a united Germany (any sensible observer could see the that political conditions in 1932 were very different than 1990), but because, as he complained to his diary, he worried that “mindless capitalist greed” would overtake the former East Germany.
Even when Grass acted admirably, he acted out of political expedience, not moral consideration. When Salman Rushdie was promised death by the Iranian theocracy for his “blasphemous” novel The Satanic Verses, Grass blasted those who failed to defend him, even resigning from the West Berlin Academy of Arts after they cancelled a pro-Rushdie event. But Rushdie was a friend, a fellow novelist, and political fellow traveler who, like Grass, had written critically of Reaganite conservatism and the nuclear buildup in Europe, and sympathetically of the Marxist revolution in Nicaragua.
The principles of free speech haven’t changed since the Rushdie affair, but the political climate surely has. Fast-forward to 2005, when a Danish newspaper produced a series of satirical drawings of the Muslim prophet Mohammed, to which a vanguard of religious lunatics reacted with guns and bombs. Grass surveyed the landscape, sized up his allies, and declared himself appalled by the newspaper’s insensitivity. Those responding to mild satire with violence were merely demonstrating a “fundamentalist response to a fundamentalist act,” produced by a newspaper staffed with “xenophobic right-wing radicals.” Salman Rushdie was one thing. But in the current climate, “we lost the right to seek protection under the umbrella of freedom of expression."
Grass’s political vision was a mess of double standards. Mario Vargas Llosa, another future literature Nobelist, heaped praise on Grass the writer, while savaging him for demanding that Latin America follow the “example of Cuba,” an unforgiving dictatorship that, because it poked a finger in the eye of the United States, Grass supported. A West German writer defending the example of Cuba, Vargas Llosa explained, required “democracy for Europe, but a utopia with guerrilleros, bombs, civil war and revolution for Latin America.” (One only need read Grass’s embarrassingly credulous paean to Nicaragua’s Sandinista dictatorship to see what Vargas Llosa means.) With an excess of kindness, he added that Grass was best when he “defended things in his country, which I find very respectable.”
Well, “respectable” seems a bit of stretch. A few years ago, I picked up Grass’s From Germany to Germany: Diary 1990, a plodding account of the year totalitarian East Germany was subsumed by democratic West Germany, a development he opposed with a unique fanaticism. It’s an uncharacteristically stiff book, pompously clueless, devoid of any moral insight, and full of contempt for those East Germans and Eastern Europeans who welcomed the end of Soviet occupation. Visiting Prague less than a year after it was liberated from dictatorship, Grass is disgusted by a working-class Czech for “his uncritical, boundless admiration for the West Germans, his disdain for the East Germans, Poles, Russians.” When he witnesses him bartering for a better exchange rate, Grass laments how “easily people are corrupted.”
Elsewhere he mentions attending a dinner hosted by Poland’s military dictator, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, while on the following page sneering at future Nobel Peace Prize laureate, former political prisoner, and soon-to-be president of Poland, Lech Walesa, who at the collapse of the Soviet Union is “bursting with self-satisfaction.”
But there was always something about the East, with its encoded anti-Americanism, that tampered with Grass’s moral compass. Even recently, he said the right things about Russia's sinister designs on eastern Ukraine and Crimea, but his heart wasn’t in it. There were the usual caveats, the calls for the West to “understand” the military occupation and “understand Russia.” In a recent conversation with a German journalist, he blamed the European Union and NATO for “provoking war with Russia.”
When asked why Grass was always courting controversy, the great German literary critic—and great Grass antagonist—Marcel Reich-Ranicki had a prosaic explanation: “He does it for a very simple reason. Grass was always interested in sensations, affairs, scandals.”
Perhaps. But there is brutal consistency in Grass’s thinking: Liberal democracies like the United States and Germany are always on the precipice of fascism and illiberal governments, standing athwart the United States and Germany, and always in need of a bit of understanding. It’s not an uncommon argument on the political fringes, both right and left. Nor is it a convincing one. And it's certainly not the belief of an intellectual equipped with a finely tuned moral compass.