Günter Grass, novelist, poet and human rights campaigner, died in April aged 87. He was called the conscience of Germany, or more accurately West Germany. But at the heart of both the writer and the state lay a dark secret that has haunted his reputation. He was born in 1927 in the “free” city of Danzig, a port between Germany and Poland, today Gdansk in Poland. Its free-ness was a state given after the First World War as a price paid by Germany for its defeat. It was also the subject and spiritual home for Grass’s most famous work, the Danzig trilogy — The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, and Dog Years.
They make for a moving and wonderful series of novels, some of the best post-war writing. Other novels followed but these three were to remain his most famous and best work. The novels are the story of Oscar’s life as it interweaves with the history of Germany. The Tim Drum was published in 1959 and became an instant hit in Germany and later worldwide. Along with Heinrich Böll, whose fame travelled less well, he was hailed the voice of West Germany and he received a Nobel Prize in 1999.
He was a man of the reformist left — a lifelong supporter of the SDP, the German Social democratic Party, and a champion of human rights. Though the term magical realism is usually applied to Latin American writers it applies to Grass as well. He mixed historical events with surreal and magical metaphors. In the case of Latin American works the style can partially be explained by the presence of military dictatorships, the writer finding a way of saying things that cannot be said for fear of the censor and oppression. In the case of Grass it is guilt and coming to terms with a past unspeakable — the silence about the Nazi years and the greater silence of the formation of West Germany.
Both lead to powerful stories able to draw the reader in with a strong narrative line and the added depth of expressing submerged passion and guilt, tapping into the subconscious and the power of dreams. Grass’s personal dark secret was to emerge in 2006 when he revealed that he had been a member of the Waffen SS when he was 16. It had previously been assumed that he was too young to have been in the forces. He saw no action.
Given he was the great moralist and conscience of Germany, a prominent supporter of the peace movement who in 2012 published a poem criticising Israel, a taboo subject, this revelation was and remains the basis of attacks on him from the right and consternation from the reformist left. Germany’s conscience has bad faith. But the dark secret at the heart of West Germany and at the centre of the dark underlying themes in Grass’s work is not its Nazi past — this is not a secret to anyone — but the nature of the new democratic West Germany.
The rotting elephant in this room is that with the defeat of the Nazi regime in 1945, while in the East the Nazi system was destroyed and replaced, in the West it was not. In the East a new state capitalist system was built top down and from the Soviet Union. In the West the old Nazi state machine was not destroyed, just adapted. The Nazi-cleansing process begun in 1945 was quickly stopped in its tracks. West Germany was built as a barrier against Communism — and who could be more anti-communist than Nazis?
The people who had run the Nazi system in the courts, in local government, in the civil service, in industry, ran the “new” West Germany, in some cases keeping the Nazi laws. For example, unlike the East the West kept the Nazi anti-homosexual laws; surviving gay victims of the concentration camps were not only not recognised but some were moved to prisons to complete their sentences (Heinz Dormer suffered imprisonment till 1963).
Meanwhile former SS guards got state pensions that included their years of service at the camps. West Germany banned the Communist Party in 1956 and many teachers and public servants lost their jobs in purges in the 1960s. The examples are many and shocking. This is what helped radicalise the new left that grew in post-1968 West Germany — a new left that Grass mocked and sneered at in his speeches and novels. The novel The Flounder (1977) argues for gradualism and mocks feminism and revolution.
His last work Crabwalk (2002) returns to the question of war guilt and victimhood, as well as the rise of neo-Nazis in the former East. But his later works are shadows compared to the Danzig trilogy, lacking their power and bite. He was never a revolutionary; his moral liberalism was both his strength and his weakness and he sometimes compromised, but he wrote some great and a few good novels.