Grass, Günter (1927-2015)

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Günter Grass.
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Günter Wilhelm Grass (16 October 1927- 13 April 2015): German novelist, poet, playwright, graphic artist and political activist. Grass was born, educated, and grew up in the suburb of Langfuhr, now named Wrzeszcz, in the Free City of Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland), and died in Lübeck, Germany. His father was a Protestant grocer and his mother was Catholic of Slavic Kashubian background. Grass was raised Catholic, remained Catholic until 1974, and raised his children in the Catholic faith. Though Christianity is important to Grass and features in his published works, his literary critics have almost always ignored his faith. His most formative years were as a teenager during the Second World War where he accepted the prevailing Nazi doctrines. During that war he received some training for military service but only in 2006 did he reveal that near the end of the war he was drafted into the now much vilified armed wing of the Nazi Party's Schutzstaffel (the Waffen-SS). He was 17 years old when the Second World War ended.

The traumatic events of the rise of National Socialism and the German disaster of losing the Second World War refocused Grass’ thinking and beliefs. In adult life he turned against German Nazi culture and did much to expose its evils. In politics he became active in promoting the German Social Democratic Party, became vigorous in peace movements, including being very vocal as a social and literary critic, and often questioned political convention and popular ideas. Both through his writings and public activities he demonstrated a moral earnestness that earned him the role of "conscience of his generation."

Grass’s affection for his childhood home city of Danzig and its region appears in his many prose works. He appeared on the international literary scene with the publication of his first novel, the 1958 best-seller Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum). It is an exuberant picaresque novel written in a number of styles that imaginatively distorts and exaggerates his personal experiences -- set in the Polish–German dualism of Danzig during its Nazification followed by war, the Russian conquest, and early post war Germany. Die Blechtrommel and his subsequent works —- the novella Katz und Maus (Cat and Mouse, 1961) and the novel Hundejahre (Dog Years, 1963) —- are popularly known as his Danzig trilogy. Though readers meet some of the same characters in more than one of the novels, each Danzig set novel stands on its own and is not a part of the others.

His style of writing is complex and has been described as both postmodern and a form of magic realism. He uses humour, and both parody and irony in his works which are often earthy and the sex graphic. Grass often endows his characters with an almost subconscious feeling of guilt and a feeling of responsibility for the wrongs they have done to others. There is no explicit moral to be drawn from their attitudes and Grass has stripped from his works any ideological content. Though set in the same Danzig neighborhood of his youth, the element of nostalgia is almost absent from his works. In his prose Grass does not invent geographic places or historical backgrounds but instead he uses streets, churches, tramways, and village names that were in the Danzig region of his early life. These are used so often that it may enable readers to become familiar with the map of Danzig and the surrounding Vistula delta.

In this Danzig environment are also Mennonites who Grass notes are distinct as Dutch in ethnic origin, different in religion from Protestants and Catholics, and with their own culture. Though only a small minority, these Mennonites with their distinctives did catch Grass’ notice. He commented on and used some as characters in several of his prose works and featured them above their actual numbers. Grass correctly mentioned the villages they lived in, some of their occupations, their foibles, frequently mentioned Epp Wheat, and highlighted differences between "rough" and "refined" Mennonites as in this passage: "It took the rough Mennonites with hooks and eyes but without pockets, took more refined Mennonites with buttons, buttonholes and diabolical pockets." (Dog Years, 1963, p.5)

Grass grew up in a Low German speaking environment which will resonate with contemporary Mennonites from Prussia or Russia who have a lasting love of the Low German language. In his work Cat and Mouse there are occasional passages of dialogue written in the colloquial speech of Danzig region which Grass has called "Mein geliebtes Danziger Platt" (my beloved Danziger flat [i.e. Plattdeutsch]). Also in Dog Years is an interesting ditty which he ascribes to the fictional fisherman Simon Beister as a "genuine hook-and-eye Mennonite, rough and pocketless; over his boatshed hung a painted wooden sign with the ornate description." Given below is Grass’ original German with its English translation.

Mit Haken un Ösen; Wear hooks and eyes,
Dem ward lieb Gottke erlösen. Dear Jesus will save you.
Mit Knöpp un Taschen: Wear buttons and pockets,
Dem ward der Düwel erhaschen. The Devil will have you."

Grass’ most prominent Mennonite character is the "refined" Mennonite school teacher Hermann Ott who is found in the work From the Diary of a Snail (Aus dem Tagebuch einer Schnecke, 1972). Ott is described as having a Dutch background, being a kind and engaging teacher of Jewish high school children. When he helped some escape from the Nazis he had to go into hiding for the duration of the Second World War.

In 1999 Grass received the Nobel Prize in Literature. His works, all written in German, have been translated into English and many other foreign languages.

Author(s) Victor G Wiebe
Date Published March 2016

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MLA style

Wiebe, Victor G. "Grass, Günter (1927-2015)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. March 2016. Web. 23 Oct 2017.,_G%C3%BCnter_(1927-2015)&oldid=147298.

APA style

Wiebe, Victor G. (March 2016). Grass, Günter (1927-2015). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 October 2017, from,_G%C3%BCnter_(1927-2015)&oldid=147298.

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