Günter Wilhelm Grass is a German novelist, poet, playwright, illustrator, graphic artist, sculptor and recipient of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Literature. He is widely regarded as Germany's most famous living writer.
Grass was born in the Free City of Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland). In 1945, he came to West Germany as a homeless refugee, though in his fiction he frequently returns to the Danzig of his childhood.
Grass is best known for his first novel, The Tin Drum (1959), a key text in European magic realism, and the first part of his Danzig Trilogy, which also includes Cat and Mouse and Dog Years. His works are frequently considered to have a left-wing political dimension and Grass has been an active supporter of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). The Tin Drum was adapted into a film, which won both the 1979 Palme d'Or and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The Swedish Academy, upon awarding him the Nobel Prize in Literature, noted him as a writer "whose frolicsome black fables portray the forgotten face of history".
Grass was born in the Free City of Danzig on 16 October 1927, to Wilhelm Grass (1899–1979), a Protestant ethnic German, and Helene (Knoff) Grass (1898–1954), a Roman Catholic of Kashubian-Polish origin. Grass was raised a Catholic. His parents had a grocery store with an attached apartment in Danzig-Langfuhr (now Gdańsk Wrzeszcz). He has one sister, who was born in 1930.
Grass attended the Danzig Gymnasium Conradinum. In 1943 he became a Luftwaffenhelfer, then he was conscripted into the Reichsarbeitsdienst. In November 1944, shortly after his seventeenth birthday, he volunteered for submarine service with the Kriegsmarine, "to get out of the confinement he felt as a teenager in his parents' house" which he considered stuffy Catholic lower middle class. However, he was not accepted by the Navy and instead was drafted into the 10th SS Panzer Division Frundsberg. He saw combat with the Panzer Division from February 1945 until he was wounded on 20 April 1945. He was captured in Marienbad and sent to an American prisoner-of-war camp. Danzig had been captured by the Soviet Army and was then annexed by Poland, which expelled its German population. Grass could not return home and found refuge in western Germany.
His military service became the subject of debate in 2006, after he disclosed in an interview and a book that he had been conscripted into the Waffen-SS while a teenager in late 1944. At that point of the war, youths could be conscripted into the Waffen-SS instead of the regular Armed Forces (Wehrmacht), although Grass' division functioned like a regular Panzer division.
In 1946 and 1947 he worked in a mine and received training in stonemasonry. For many years he studied sculpture and graphics, first at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, then at the Berlin University of the Arts. Grass worked as an author, graphic designer, and sculptor, travelling frequently. He married in 1954 and since 1960 has lived in Berlin as well as part-time in Schleswig-Holstein. Divorced in 1978, he remarried in 1979. From 1983 to 1986 he held the presidency of the Berlin Academy of the Arts.
Grass has for several decades been a supporter of the Social Democratic Party of Germany and its policies. He has taken part in German and international political debate on several occasions.
During Willy Brandt's chancellorship, Grass was an active supporter. Grass criticised left-wing radicals and instead argued in favour of the "snail's pace", as he put it, of democratic reform (Aus dem Tagebuch einer Schnecke). Books containing his speeches and essays have been released throughout his literary career.
In the 1980s, he became active in the peace movement and visited Calcutta for six months. A diary with drawings was published as Zunge zeigen, an allusion to Kali's tongue.
During the events leading up to the reunification of Germany in 1989–90, Grass argued for the continued separation of the two German states, asserting that a unified Germany would necessarily resume its role as belligerent nation-state.
In 2001, Grass proposed the creation of a German-Polish museum for art lost during the War. The Hague Convention of 1907 requires the return of art that had been evacuated, stolen or seized. Unlike many countries that have cooperated with Germany, some countries refuse to repatriate some of the looted art.
On 4 April 2012, Grass's poem "What Must Be Said" ("Was gesagt werden muss") was published in several European newspapers. In the poem, Grass expresses his concern about the hypocrisy of German military support (the delivery of a submarine) for an Israel that might use such equipment to launch nuclear warheads against Iran, which "could wipe out the Iranian people" (dass...iranische Volk auslöschen könnte). And he hoped that many will demand "that the governments of both Iran and Israel allow an international authority free and open inspection of the nuclear potential and capability of both." In response, Israel declared him persona non grata in Israel.
According to Avi Primor, president of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, Grass was the one and only important German personality who had refused to meet with him when he served as Israeli ambassador to Germany. Primor noted: "One explanation for [Grass'] strange behavior might be found in the fact that Grass (who despite his poem is probably not the bitter enemy of Israel that one would imagine) had certain personal difficulties with Israel" and that during a visit there and despite the fact that his books had been translated into Hebrew and had been well received in the Israeli market he "was confronted with the anger of an Israeli public that booed him in successive public appearances. To be sure, the Israeli protestors were not targeting Grass personally and their anger had nothing at all to do with his literature. It was the German effort to establish cultural relations with Israel to which they objected. Grass, however, did not see it that way and may well have felt personally slighted."
On 26 April 2012, Grass wrote a poem criticizing European policy for the treatment of Greece in the European sovereign-debt crisis. In the poem, called "Europe's Disgrace", Grass accuses Europe of condemning Greece into poverty, a country "whose mind conceived, Europe."