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DW-WORLD.DE spoke to German novelist and Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass about International PEN, Germany, the role of the writer in contemporary society and a world without peace.
Skeptical about ideologies of making things better: German novelist Günter Grass
The 72nd World Congress of International PEN took place in Berlin from May 22-29. The congress topic this year was "Writing in a World Without Peace." Günter Grass -- one of Germany's most renowned novelists -- took part in the proceedings and gave a lecture at the congress.
DW-WORLD.DE: This is the third PEN congress which took place in Germany. What is the symbolic value of this initiative for Germany?
Günter Grass: I've participated in the last two meetings -- both in Hamburg, 20 years ago and today. I also delivered on both occasions the keynote address. 20 years ago, Germany was still divided, as was Europe in general, and one part of the discussion was still determined by the East-West dichotomies. Slowly, however, it turned out the problems of the 21st century would no longer be cantered around the conflict between the East and the West, but rather between the North and the South. In the current situation, the international or global aspects of PEN seem to me much clearer than they did 20 years ago.
What is your take on this year's topic "Writing in a World Without Peace?"
The numbers of persecuted writers are rising
In my speech, I said that we always had times without peace -- more or less perceived as such. We in Europe -- which was peaceful from the end of World War II until the Serbian conflict -- thought as if it was peace that had broken out here. But, because of the mutual scare tactics of the Cold War powers, it was sham peace, while wars were actually being fought all over the world. I tried to make clear in my speech how this condition perpetuates itself over time. But there are also other possibilities. There are American companies today that control the grain seeds market and that can, with their seeds which are good for one season only, make whole nations dependent. That is also a point of view which politicians like Willy Brandt, whom I respected very much, expressed by saying that hunger was also a form of war.
Could literature really create peace, though?
We shouldn't demand too much of ourselves. In the long run, we could contribute to changes in people's consciousness. Take, for example, the process of enlightenment in Europe. Authors like Voltaire or Diderot were censored at first, and their works became accepted in different countries and different regions only after a long time. In some regions of Europe, enlightenment has still not taken place. It's a slow process of making changes. But, on the other hand, I am very skeptical about setting the goal of making things better. Usually, it's ideologues who come and say "There is a goal in the end -- the satisfied man, the socialist man, the American way of life," i.e. happiness through consumption. That's all ideological distortions, that I don't want to hold onto.
Do writers all over the world perform their role as they should?
I couldn't answer that question in general terms. I think it's great that PEN exists, that writers care about each other, that we have a Writers-In-Prison program. The number of persecuted, jailed or murdered writers is on the rise, and we know that PEN efforts, often together with Amnesty International, are successful in freeing writers, making their imprisonment more bearable or helping them leave their countries. Germany's PEN does that. Writers who are persecuted in their countries can find accommodation here, get a kind of scholarship etc. That's a matter of solidarity -- an old-fashioned word, I know. But I believe that solidarity among writers is still effective.
What would you say to the immigrant writers living in Germany about the German right-wing movement gaining ground?
Politicians also bear responsibility for the rise of the ultra-right
Politically, the radical right in Germany is still isolated. There are countries, like France, for example, with Le Pen, where ultra-right parties participate in the government, especially in southern France. It Italy, a post-fascist party ruled together with Berlusconi for almost a decade. In Poland, shamefully, the current government is held up by two ultra-right parties. NPD in Germany was never elected to parliament -- except in regional parliaments and, then, for a very short time. Nonetheless, the far right is active in Germany and it gets violent. Confronting it should not only be a police task. It's a question of mentality in the population. Above all, this kind of brutal ultra-right radicalism is boosted by negligent and demagogic statements by politicians. When (Bavarian Prime Minister) Stoiber warns, for example, of the racial dilution of the German people, he is using the kind of vocabulary that validates right-wing violence.