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Günter Grass Turns 80

DW staff (tkw)October 16, 2007

As controversial German author and playwright Günter Grass celebrates his 80th birthday, politicians from across the country have been congratulating him on his contribution to Germany's literary treasury.

Photograph of Günter Grass
Grass' role as a moral authority crumbled when he admitted to serving in the Waffen SSImage: AP

Günter Wilhelm Grass, who was born on Oct. 16, 1927, in what was then the German city of Danzig -- now Polish Gdansk -- made a name for himself as a writer in 1959 with his critically acclaimed first novel, Die Blechtrommel ("The Tin Drum"). Like the two other works in the so-called "Danzig Trilogy" -- Katz und Maus ("Cat and Mouse," 1961) and Hundejahre ("Dog Years," 1963) -- "The Tin Drum" draws on the author's early life in the German-Polish port.

When he published "The Tin Drum," "it was as if German literature had been granted a new beginning after decades of linguistic and moral destruction," the Nobel Prize academy wrote when it named him a Nobel laureate in literature in 1999.

Film poster from the screen version of "The Tin Drum"
"The Tin Drum" was made into a successful film

Grass was the son of a grocer. It was a desire to leave his lower-middle class Catholic upbringing which inspired him to volunteer to join the German military. Grass was then conscripted, at the age of 17, into the Waffen SS combat troops, a fact he didn't disclose until 2006.

Politically active

The admission, revealed after more than half a century, caused a huge controversy, shattering both the widespread belief that Grass had been too young during the war to have been seriously involved in Nazi crimes and his image as a moral authority. There were calls for him to be stripped of his Nobel Prize and to be deprived of the honorary citizenship of Gdansk.

Over the decades, Grass, whose work often contains a strong left-wing dimension, has used his prominence as a platform for political commentary.

As the events which led to German reunification in 1990 began to unfold, Grass was very vocal in his opposition and referred to it as an "annexation."

In 1995, he wrote about German reunification in Ein weites Feld ("Too Far Afield," 1995).

Breaking taboos

"Crabwalk" book cover
"Crabwalk" was published in 2004

History and politics are closely intertwined in all of Grass' works. In 2002 he published Im Krebsgang ("Crabwalk"), which broke a long-held taboo in German literature by focusing on the suffering of German expellees after World War II.

By highlighting a single event in 1945, the sinking of the refugee ship "Wilhelm Gustloff" in the Baltic Sea, which killed some 9,000 people, Grass traced the history of a few key characters through the generations up to the present-day portrayal of the tragedy on neo-Nazi Web sites. Like his earlier works, it underlines the author's preoccupation with the way past and present are connected and perceived.

Grass, who refused to accept a German government honor in 1979, voiced appreciation that German President Horst Köhler would be at the head of those congratulating him at an Oct. 27 ceremony in the northern city of Lübeck.

"Since I have suffered from a great deal of mockery and nastiness in recent years, it does me good to see my six decades of work recognized, not only in Germany but abroad," he told the German DPA news agency.