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What drives Günter Grass?

June 8, 2012

Why does Günter Grass continue to intervene in the political sphere? And why does he always cause controversy when he does? An interview with Volker Neuhaus, Grass biographer and publisher of his works.

Gunter Grass
Image: dapd

Nobel Prize-winning author Günter Grass continues to spark controversy with comments on social and political affairs - sometimes in interviews, other times in poems. Some believe Grass intentionally broaches "taboo" subjects, most recently the Israel-Iran conflict and Greece and the euro crisis . His interventions usually provoke fierce controversy. What motives him? Are these the confused comments of an aging writer, as some critics have suggested, or are they simply the "entirely normal" thoughts of a prominent author? DW posed these questions to Volker Neuhaus, the publisher of Grass' works. He is currently writing a biography of the Nobel Prize winner, due for release in fall 2012.

DW: Mr. Neuhaus, you have been publishing the works of Günter Grass for many years and you know the Nobel Prize winner very well. How do you view the media hype surrounding the two latest poems by Grass on current political affairs?

Volker Neuhaus: As very peculiar. The most peculiar thing is that following the publication of his second poem (about Greece, published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on May 27, 2012), people asked, "Why does he do it?" I don't believe there's a poet in the world who was ever asked why he or she publishes his or her poems. Grass is now in the very fortunate position that his poems can be published in highly visible places. The content of his works can then be debated - as has happened. But the way in which it has happened appears to be very, very peculiar.

If we take a look behind the scenes, how can the controversy be explained?

Because Günter Grass is in a very unusual position. It's a position which people would like to take away from him, but can't. You can't take away his company car. You can't deny him a bonus. You can't kick him out of office. He's a self-made man. Now people always say that he should give the Nobel Prize back, since that's the only thing he could do. Or renounce his PEN membership. Grass is a rare example of a fully independent and yet prominent man. And he only has himself to thank for that - he doesn't need to act with regards to others. That's why he provokes controversy.

German author Guenter Grass, left, receives the Nobel Prize for literature from Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf, right, at the Concert Hall in Stockholm, Sweden, Friday, Dec. 10, 1999
Some critics have said Grass should return the Nobel Prize for literature he received in 1999Image: AP

And he has found a very special "enemy" in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ). That dispute has really blown up over the past few years. What do you think is behind it?

I don't know. It's known as "debunking" - to push someone off their pedestal in order to diminish or tame them. Grass has achieved a status which can't really be contested. The hatred of Grass at the FAZ is institutionalized - there's no other way of putting it. The hatred is passed down from one literature editor to the next, and in their different ways, across different generations, they always attack Grass. It's very odd.

The FAZ, Spiegel and other sections of the German media regularly criticize Grass
The FAZ, Spiegel and other sections of the German media regularly criticize GrassImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Let us look for a moment at the person and writer Günter Grass. A critic once wrote: He stands in the European tradition of enlightened militant humanism; he is an interventionist. Would you agree with that?

Yes, that's nicely put. He uses his prominence to get his opinions heard. Something we all do. People go to their regular gatherings and express their opinions and they only hear the opinions of their fellow group members. Grass is in a position to articulate his opinions in order that they are heard. The first poem (on Israel) was due to be published in Die Zeit weekly newspaper, but then the publishers said no, and so the Süddeutsche Zeitung published it that same day. It was a stroke of luck for him.

There are essentially always two accusations made against him. One concerns the facts of the argument. One newspaper wrote: "Grass's statements cannot be backed up, not even rudimentarily, with current and common academic expertise or even with current journalistic debates on the issue." It basically says that Grass has completely failed to understand the Israel-Iran conflict.

That relates to a misunderstanding.… I'm fully convinced that the first two stanzas of the Israel poem are not against Israel at all. The name Israel first appears in the third stanza. The first two are clearly about the US. There, simulation exercises were being played out on whether or not nuclear war could be waged. That is what he's referring to. Israel was only used as a counterpart to Iran. It is about the two nuclear powers in the Middle East. But, the decisive element is that Grass is in the position to represent his own opinion, which is firm and decisive. He's very well informed about the situation and is able to lead any discussion on the subject. He also participates in public debates. He's exceptionally well informed.

Günter Grass with the late Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eschkol in the 1960s
Günter Grass with the late Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eschkol in the 1960sImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The second accusation against Grass concerns the "poor poetic quality" of his works. And with that the question of whether or not such poems are the appropriate form for such expressions of opinion.

A poem is only that which is printed as a poem. A colleague of mine also proved that Grass' poem is completely rhythmical - I'm talking about the first poem. In a public discussion we were - the opposition on the podium - all in agreement that, if Grass had expressed his opinions in an interview instead of a poem, he wouldn't have provoked such a reaction. A poem has something statuesque about it, something enclosed, something apodictic, something monumental. That's what he did in the first instance on the subject of the US/Israel/Iran. And then - one could call it astute - he did it again. He wrote a wonderful, hymn-like poem, the content of which suited the topic of Greece and stood in the Hölderlin tradition, with celebratory leaps and bounds. On the subject of Greece of all things! He can already play the poem on the piano, the one he has been playing for over 60 years…

After the first poem, many observed that on this issue (Israel), Grass had the public's support, as numerous letters to the editor proved. The feeling was that he represented the opinion of the majority, in contrast to the feuilletons. That can't be said of his poem on Greece.

Yes, he reminded us that it really was time to remember the roots of community values. That the European Union is not only a common market, but also part of a strong tradition of occidental values.

Interview: Jochen Kürten / hw
Editor: Kate Bowen