One of the great European writers in recent history, Günter Grass, died at the age of 87. Despite leaving a controversial legacy in the last period of his life, Grass represented a generation of German thinkers and statesmen who made Polish-German reconciliation possible and who made Germany an example for others of coming to grips with dark chapters of its naton’s history,
Günter Grass was born in the Free City of Danzig in 1927. Throughout most of its history, Danzig (Gdańsk in Polish) belonged to Poland yet was very multicultural. Its residents were Poles, Germans, Jews, Kashubians (a West Slavic group closely related to Poles indigenous to the region), Italians, Lithuanians and even Scots. The city belonged to the Hanseatic League and was an important Baltic port city in medieval Europe. In 1772, 1773 and 1795 internally weakened Poland was partitioned by its neighbours: Russia, Prussia and Austria. Danzig became Prussian and throughout the nineteenth century was continuously colonized by German settlers.
After 1918, Poland became independent again. Danzig and the surrounding area became a free city under a League of Nations mandate, although it was in a customs union with Poland, which represented the city diplomatically and administered its rail lines. Most of Danzig’s population was ethnically German, although its Polish population grew in the 1920s, adding up to as much as a fifth of the city’s inhabitants.
In 1933, the Nazis took over the Danzig city council and introduced repressions against city’s Polish and Jewish populations. Annexation of Danzig by the Third Reich was one of the arguments Adolf Hitler used to justify his 1939 invasion of Poland.
It was precisely in such Danzig where Grass was born. His parents themselves represented the city’s multiculturalism: Grass’s father was a German Lutheran, and his mother was a Polish-Kashubian Roman Catholic. Grass witnessed the rise of Nazism and, as a teenage boy, volunteered to serve at the Reich’s submarine service. Rejected, the future Nobel Prize winner was later drafted into the Waffen-SS.
Grass did not reveal this shameful episode of his youth until the publication of his memoir Peeling the Onion. Since then, his literary reputation has been deteriorating. In 2012, he published a poem in German press (translated and published in Britain’s The Guardian, Italy’s La Repubblica and Spain’s El Pais) criticizing the German government for arming Israel. Given Israel’s sharp turn to the right under Benjamin Netanyahu, Grass was harshly criticized and even banned from visiting Israel.
These two incidents particularly harmed Grass’s reputation because he wasn’t just any German writer. He was the most eloquent voice of a generation that helped restore Germany’s tarnished reputation by calling for a national mea culpa and who was a key promoter of Polish-German reconciliation.
Although Grass himself had failed on this account, he had long criticized his countrymen for not coming to terms with their dark past. His books perfectly exposed the absurdity of Nazism and the fanatical loss of reason among the German people in the 1930s. His most famous novel, 1959’s The Tin Drum, was a prototypical work of magical realism and one of the most devastating literary critiques of Nazism. It tells the story of Oskar Matzerath, who decides to stop growing at the age of three and cease to communicate verbally. Instead, he communicates by screaming anarchically or by banging his drum bought in a Jewish-owned toy store later vandalized during Kristallnacht.
Little Oskar has two “presumptive fathers”: the Pole Jan Bronski, his Kashubian mother’s cousin and lover, and Alfred Matzerath, a German Nazi Party member and Oskar’s mother’s husband. It could be argued that Oskar represents Danzig; it is uncertain whether Oskar and Danzig are truly German or Polish but he and it are certainly Kashubian. Oskar himself represents the Kashubian spirit, defiant of any nationalisms. As Oskar’s grandmother Anna Bronski says: “[Kashubians] are not real Poles and we’re not real Germans, and if you’re a Kashube, you’re not good enough for the Germans or the Polacks. They want everything full measure.”
Oskar is an adult (evidence of this can be found in his numerous sexual encounters, which led the book to be labelled as pornographic upon its publication), yet he refuses to grow up. Only at the end of the war does he decide to stop his rebellion. This is an interesting case of a Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age, novel in reverse. This way Grass suggests that, under Nazism, everything was in reverse. The adults became childish, while the only way to preserve one’s innocence was to become a complete nonconformist like Oskar.
Günter Grass himself devoted much attention to purging the German national spirit. He was a close friend of Willy Brandt, West Germany’s socialist chancellor and fellow Nobel Prize winner who recognized Germany’s eastern border with Poland and apologized for the Nazi atrocities. During an emotionally moving visit to Warsaw in 1970, he knelt at Natan Rapaport’s monument to the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 and left a wreath at Poland’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the ruins of Warsaw’s former Saxon Palace.
In addition to supporting Brandt and his policies, Grass frequently appealed to his fellow Germans to express remorse for their past misdeeds. At the same time, however, he was capable of understanding German pain. For example, while acknowledging that his countrymen had started a war that claimed tens of millions of lives, he noted that the bombing of Dresden was unnecessary and resulted in the deaths of countless innocent women, children and the elderly.
Grass was also a gadfly who criticized his people for less grave offences. When Germany’s birth rate became one of Europe’s lowest in the 1980s, Grass responded by writing his book Headbirths, filled with characteristic sardonic humour, about a narcissistic German couple who prefers to keep a cat and travel to Thailand on holidays rather than have children.
It is quite a miracle that given the horrific German and Soviet occupation of Poland – which resulted in six million deaths (half Jewish and half Polish Gentile), razed-to-the-ground Warsaw and complete obliteration of Polish elites – Germany and Poland enjoy friendly relations today. This is thanks to people such as Brandt and the Polish bishops (who in 1965 wrote a letter to their German counterparts “forgiving and asking for forgiveness”) but also as Günter Grass.
Given his mixed ethnic background and childhood in one of Europe’s most multicultural cities, Grass retained a sympathy for all things Polish. His Tin Drum praises the heroism of Danzig’s Polish Post Office’s employees, who boldly defended it against the Nazi onslaught. As Danzig became a fully Polish city after the World War II, Grass became an honorary citizen of Gdańsk which he visited frequently. He showed support to Solidarity in the 1980s, while meeting with its activists in the movement’s birthplace Gdańsk (although he shocked them by comparing them to Nicaragua’s Sandinistas; given his leftist sentiments, Grass saw this as a compliment, although the Poles thought otherwise).
He knew that Poles and Germans shared a history of war and territorial loss. But he saw this as a way of uniting the two. His 1992 novel Call of the Toad describes a curious love story between two middle-aged war expellees, one Polish and one German. In it, a German man from Danzig and a Polish woman from Vilnius meet. Despite mutual prejudices, they quickly find common ground and create a cemetery where the Poles from the country’s territories now in Ukraine and Lithuania, and the Germans from formerly Prussian lands by then in Poland’s control, can be buried. They name their initiative the Cemetery of Reconciliation.
Günter Grass’s death is a true loss to the European culture. Today, nationalism and historical revisionism are on the rise. For example, today’s Japan starts similarly glorifying its war criminals in school textbooks provoking outrage from China and Korea, targets of Japanese brutality during World War II. Japan, Ukraine and other nations where nationalism and the inability to cope with one’s past are still present, need figures like Grass. Meanwhile, true reconciliation between any two nations burdened by common history marked with violence can hardly ever come true. Grass’s example however, manages to transcend the borders of Poland and Germany.
Filip Mazurczak studied history and Latin American literature at Creighton University and international relations at The George Washington University. He is a contributor to Visegrad Insight and First Things.
Photo: Elisa Cabot |Creative Commons | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0