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My Nobel Prize week with Günter Grass

All of Germany looked to Stockholm in December 1999 as Günter Grass received the Nobel Prize for Literature. DW reporter Stefan Dege recalls the monumental event.

Stockholm was fogged over and the store windows indicated that Christmas was just around the corner. Lanterns lit up the quaint, narrow streets.

Grass' week-long tour through the Swedish capital was packed with receptions, readings, discussions, and lectures. The Nobel week was like the Holy Week ahead of Easter, during which Grass was "resurrected" from the bowels of the literary world as a freshly crowned Nobel Prize winner.

As a DW radio reporter, I was on his heels.

DW reporter Stefan Dege, Copyright: DW/K. Dahmann

DW reporter Stefan Dege

Some 200 guests had been invited to a small reception at the Goethe-Institut in Stockholm, where German Ambassador Helmut Ackermann spoke. "I'm very pleased that a German writer is being honored. To end the century, the Nobel committee has found a deserving winner."

Ackermann foreshadowed the laudation from Horace Engdahl, the secretary of the Swedish Academy, a few days later. He said that "Grass broke the spell that lay over the German past." His breakthrough novel, "The Tin Drum," was "a second birth for the German novel of the 20th century," he added.

The voice of irony

Grass put his omnipresent pipe aside. He stood up, looked at the audience and said ironically with the spite of one who had long been maligned: "I'm a bit moved."

The 72-year-old continued: "I've been a freelance employee of the Goethe-Institut since 1961. This is the first event I've been to where the German ambassador is not only present, but has given a speech."

Never ceasing to voice his political opinions, Grass was often at odds with German politicians. He recalled visits to cities where ambassadors demonstratively stayed away because of him or - he exuded irony - "they had to attend some traditional costume festival."

My microphone was capturing both Grass' voice and the laughter in the audience.

The German guests responded with embarrassment; the Swedes were amused. It wasn't because he wasn't hungry that Grass turned down an official dinner invitation with the ambassador.

The author was fully aware that his political criticism had put him squarely on the government's radar. "It went so far that an official from the Foreign Ministry was in the audience during a discussion in Brussels with [German author] Stefan Heym about the possibility of German reunification," he told me later in an interview, remembering back to the 1960s.

Günter Grass receiving the Nobel Prize in 1999, Copyright: AP Photo/Jonas Ekstromer

Grass in what he said was his first-ever tux

The official had taken notes and sent a report directly to conservative Christian Democratic Union chairman Franz-Josef Strauss. Grass was firmly planted on the left and remained a staunch Social Democratic Party supporter.

"In Parliament, [Strauss] wanted to know how it could be that this denigrator could be working for the Goethe-Institut," Grass told me grumpily.

What we didn't know

While he ruffled feathers at home, Grass the political writer was in many cases deeply respected abroad. In response to Sweden's debate over the rise of neo-Nazism, he commented, "We have discussed this in Germany with passion and to the point of exhaustion."

Grass also cautioned, "The discourse surrounding the Holocaust should not only focus on the murdered Jews." This would lead to a selectioning of the victims and, despite all good intentions, continue the very selectioning that was practiced during the Holocaust - a mistake that had already been made in Germany, he added.

It became clear why the Nobel Prize winner had donated half of his award money to the Sinti and Roma community. But what I didn't know in December 1999 was that, nearly six years later, Grass would make his own Nazi past public. At the age of 17, he had served briefly in a Nazi special unit, the Waffen-SS. The confession put his position as a moral authority in post-war Germany at stake.

I spent three days in Stockholm with Grass, which ended with a highlight: the awards ceremony in the Royal Swedish Academy. Grass arrived with his wife Ute, eight children and three of his 14 grandchildren. He had bought his first tuxedo for the event, as he told the world.

The German press was largely critical of his appearance in Stockholm. Why can't Germany just be happy about it? Grass asked shortly before the ceremony. Yes, I thought; why not?

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