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Culture

'Literature had a life of its own' for Grass

Writer Hans Christoph Buch was a friend and colleague of Günter Grass, who died on April 13. He tells DW what made the Nobel Prize winning author such an important post-war figure in Germany - and the world.

DW: Mr. Buch, what made Günter Grass such an outstanding author of the post-war generation?

Hans Christoph Buch: On the surface, two things. His novel, "The Tin Drum," was an international success which was translated into more than 40 languages and was the first truly convincing German-language work to discuss the Second World War. In addition, he tells the story from the perspective of a dwarf, and in spite of the tragic event it takes on a comical element. It's a satirical, bloomy novel and was a sensation at the time - a new kind of literature that made an important contribution to Germany and its democracy and to its break from the Nazi era.

Secondly, there was Grass' political activism with the [center-left political party] SPD and [Chancellor] Willy Brandt. He was always a polemical, politically active person and author who never shied away from expressing his opinion. He often ruffled feathers, even among his friends. He upset and irked people, for example, by comparing the Israeli nuclear bomb with Iran's nuclear program and basically labeling Israel as the potential initiator of an atomic war. That really caused a stir.

On the other hand, receiving the Nobel Prize in Stockholm for his life's work was a huge moment for Germany and for Grass personally. But there were also the shadowy sides. Shortly after the prize, it was made known that at 17 he had served for a brief time as a soldier with the Nazi special unit, Waffen-SS. That didn't fit together with his anti-Fascist activism.

DW: Did that cause him to lose credibility in your eyes?

To some extent, yes. He had been the herald of anti-Fascist literature, of political activism and the break with the Nazi past. And then it came out that he himself had been involved in a special Nazi unit, the SS. He would have been forgiven if he had mentioned it earlier. But he waited for a very long time - until after the Nobel Prize. There was a rumor that he withheld the information because he otherwise wouldn't have received the prize.

But in my eyes that didn't diminish his significance. He was a very moral, polemical person and historical witness and also a vocal author with a legacy. He not only leaves "The Tin Drum," but also later works, like "Crabwalk" (2002), about the sinking of the ship "Wilhelm Gustloff," which was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine off the Baltic coast in January 1945 and sank into the freezing ocean with thousands of German refugees on board.

This was a topic he took up very late because he always focused first on German guilt and then on the suffering of German refugees from the eastern European regions. That was also part of his story, but he didn't talk about it until much later in life.

He was a very courageous author who will be missed because he often set the discourse himself - even if in a sometimes exaggeratedly provocative way.

DW: You knew Günter Grass as a fellow member of the writers' association, "Gruppe 47," which he joined in 1955….

Yes, I met Günter Grass in 1963 at a Gruppe 47 conference, where he defended the manuscript I read there against critics like Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who had recently come to the West from Poland, and others. Grass was a good friend. Later he was my teacher in a writers' workshop at the Literary Colloquium Berlin.

In the mid-1960s, I supported him in his efforts with Willy Brandt's campaign for chancellor. And after that we stayed in touch, even though the year 1968 marked a turning point in Grass' ties to me and other young authors because we criticized the Social Democratic Party harshly during this period. Nevertheless, we maintained a friendship with Grass.

I remember well our readings in private homes in East Berlin, where we met secretly with East German writers. Grass had read from his novel "The Flounder" (1978). The exchange with other writers was always very interesting.

Even in critical discussions, he always defended literature against the demands of politics. It wasn't that Grass only thought politically, but literature was for him an autonomous field that had a life of its own and went well beyond the political issues of the day - though those issues concerned him as well. Grass always got involved in everyday politics - but as a writer and against the backdrop of his significant literary oeuvre.