Günter Grass Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Grass is to be considered one of the leading figures of German literature since 1945. His writings address social and political issues in a unique manner, and he has consistently stressed the relationship between the artist and society.

Early Life

Günter Grass was born in the free city-state of Danzig (Germany), today the Polish city of Gdańsk, on October 16, 1927. His parents were middle-class merchants of German-Polish descent. The free state of Danzig was occupied by the Nazis when Grass was eleven years old, and, by the age of fourteen, he had become, as did most boys his age, a willing member of the Hitler Youth. From 1944 to 1945, he served in the German army but was wounded in April, 1945, and then sent to a hospital in Czechoslovakia, where he was captured by the Americans. Taken one day by his American captors to the Nazi concentration camp of Dachau (outside Munich), Grass could not believe that such atrocities could have taken place, and he thought it was a hoax perpetrated by the Americans. When the Nürnberg trials on Nazi war crimes were held, he finally realized the truth of the historical record.

After the end of the war, Grass worked for a while as a farm laborer, and in 1947 he became a stonemason’s apprentice, spending time in a mine. He also performed in a jazz trio. He married Anna Schwarz, a dancer, in 1954. These various jobs did not suit his artistic nature, and from 1949 to 1956 he studied drawing and sculpture in Düsseldorf. In 1955, his wife submitted, without his knowledge, one of his poems to a poetry contest, and he won third prize. He then spent several years in Paris and worked on his writing projects and his graphic art. Grass has given exhibitions and published collections of his etchings.

Life’s Work

During the early 1950’s, Grass wrote a number of surrealistic poems, which he illustrated himself and which were published under the title Die Vorzüge der Windhühner (1956; the advantages of windfowl). He also wrote several plays that suggest the love of the grotesque and bizarre that figures in so many of his later writings. Noch zehn Minuten bis Buffalo (1954, 1958; Only Ten Minutes to Buffalo, 1967) is one of the better-known plays from this early period. In 1958 the young author was asked to read at the prestigious Group 47 annual meeting of German writers and was awarded first prize.

The epic novel Die Blechtrommel (1959; The Tin Drum, 1961) was his first commercial success, and it generated much public controversy. It is the grotesque and, at times, licentious story of Oskar Matzerath, a precocious dwarf, and his picaresque adventures before, during, and after World War II. Oskar—part Grigory Rasputin, the madman, and part Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the poet—struggles in the course of the novel to find his true identity amid the chaos of his family life and the social and political upheavals of Germany during the Nazi era. The text incorporates many of Grass’s memories of and reflections on his youth in Danzig. Because of the novel’s often open attitude toward sexuality, it scandalized many of the more conservative elements in German society at that time. The city government of Bremen, for example, refused to grant him the literary prize that the committee had awarded him.

The surrealistic style of The Tin Drum marks Grass, at least in part, as the heir to a well-known Prague writer of the early twentieth century, Franz Kafka. As in the latter’s dreamlike stories, emotional states of mind are treated as if they were external events. Oskar, for example, distrusts, as a child, the adult world, and so he refuses to grow up. He wills himself into not growing and retains the physical stature of childhood. When he is angry or upset, he screams, as does any child, but, in the novel, Oskar’s vocalizations have the unique ability to shatter glass. The effect of such a writing style is of an altered or miraculous “reality” in which subjective feelings become objective occurrences.

After the success of this initial novel, Grass was awarded the Berlin Critics Prize in 1960, and he moved from Paris to Berlin, where he has resided since. His first marriage ended in divorce; he married again in 1979. An outspoken and independent-minded liberal, Grass rejected the materialistic consumer society of West Germany, refusing to own a car, television, or telephone.

Grass’s first novel became part of a series of narrative texts that has been called “Die Danziger Trilogie” (the Danzig trilogy). The second work of the set, Katz und Maus (1961; Cat and Mouse, 1963), is a novella that describes the youth and early adulthood of the Christ-like figure Joachim Mahlke, as related by his childhood friend and eventual betrayer, Pilenz. Mahlke, a Danzig youth, is an overachiever who has an overly prominent Adam’s apple. He feels he must exceed the accomplishments of his fellows and thereby earns both their admiration and resentment. He becomes a superior swimmer and diver and eventually, in...

(The entire section is 2103 words.)

Günter Grass Biography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Günter Grass was born in Danzig (now Gdask, Poland) on October 16, 1927. His parents owned a grocery store in the suburb Langfuhr. His father’s family included workers and carpenters; his mother’s family was Kaschubian. Biographical elements from his working-class youth appear throughout his literary works, especially in the Danziger Trilogie (1980; Danzig Trilogy, 1987). Grass attended the Conradinum gymnasium in Danzig. As a teenager, he served in an antiaircraft battery during World War II, was wounded, and became an American captive. Subsequently, he worked his way from Bavaria to Düsseldorf, where he became an apprentice stonecutter (1946-1947) in order to earn money for art school. He studied both graphic design and sculpture in Düsseldorf (1948-1952) and sculpture in Berlin under Karl Hartung (1953-1956).

During these years, Grass also began to write; his initial efforts were in the area of lyric poetry. He resided in Paris from 1956 to 1959. He first read before the literary group Gruppe 47 in 1955, winning the group’s prize in 1958 for excerpts from his novel The Tin Drum, which catapulted him to fame after its publication in 1959. Grass participated in Gruppe 47 until its last meeting in 1967.

In the elections of 1961, Grass actively took up the cause of the Social Democrats and campaigned intensively for Willy Brandt, former mayor of West Berlin and chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. Grass has drawn frequent criticism from both extreme left and right political groups. He openly criticized the East German government at the East Berlin Writers’ Congress and wrote an open letter to the East German writer Anna Seghers after the construction of the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961. Grass has always been a focal point of political criticism in Germany. He unfailingly reminded post-World War II Germans of their ignoble past, he argued against German reunification, and he angered many Germans with his outspoken critique of German politics in the 1990’s, including German treatment of foreigners, West German treatment of East Germans, and human rights in general.

The early phase of Grass’s literary career, during the mid-1950’s, includes poetry, shorter prose fiction, and absurdist dramas, although it was also during these early years that he wrote The Tin Drum. His first collection of poetry, Die Vorzüge der Windhühner, appeared in 1956. He also won third prize in a poetry contest sponsored by the South German Radio in 1954. In 1956 he first exhibited his drawings in Stuttgart; in 1957 his sculpture and drawings were exhibited in Berlin. In 1957 Flood had its premiere in Frankfurt, and a ballet, Stoffreste, also enjoyed its first performance, in Essen. Further absurdist dramatic works appeared in rapid succession: Mister, Mister in 1958 in Cologne, and in 1959 two plays (Only Ten Minutes to Buffalo and Zweiunddreissig Zähne), a ballet (Fünf Köche), and a farce (Rocking Back and Forth, in Frankfurt and Hamburg). A poetry collection. Gleisdreieck, with illustrations by the author, appeared in 1960. With the publication in 1961 of Katz und Maus (Cat and Mouse, 1963) and in 1963 of Hundejahre (Dog Years, 1965)—which together with The Tin Drum constitute the Danzig Trilogy—Grass firmly established himself as the leading German novelist since World War II. In 1961 the drama The Wicked Cooks premiered, while another drama Goldmäulchen was first performed as a radio play in 1963, premiered as a stage work in 1964 in Munich, and received a second run in 1968 in Berlin. Grass also revised Mister, Mister during these early 1960’s before its publication in 1965.

Grass’s engagement with the theater continued into the...

(The entire section is 1592 words.)

Günter Grass Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Günter Wilhelm Grass was born October 16, 1927, in the city of Gdask (called Danzig in German), which had formerly been part of the German Empire and in 1920 became a free state according to the stipulations of the Treaty of Versailles. Although Danzig’s population was more than 90 percent German, Grass was the offspring of an ethnically mixed marriage; his father was a German, and his mother was of Cassubian or Kashubian—that is, Slavic—origin. Both the ethnic origin of his mother and the social milieu of the lower middle class in which he grew up—Grass’s father was a grocer—proved to be lasting influences that inspired particularly his early fiction.

Until the publication of his memoir in 2006, it was...

(The entire section is 1554 words.)

Günter Grass Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Günter Wilhelm Grass (gros) was born a Catholic in Danzig (now Gdask), Poland, on October 16, 1927, the son of a German shopkeeper and his wife, who was Kashubian, or Slavic. Grass’s racially mixed ancestry appears frequently in his written work. From 1933 to 1944, Grass attended school in Danzig and became a member of the Hitler Youth movement. In 1944, when he was seventeen, he was drafted into the German army, was wounded in the Russian advance, and was taken prisoner by the Americans. In his novel Kopfgeburten: Oder, Die Deutschen sterben aus (1980; Headbirths: Or, The Germans Are Dying Out, 1982), Grass himself acknowledges that had he been born ten years earlier, he would have “developed unswervingly...

(The entire section is 1368 words.)

Günter Grass Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Günter Grass’s writings are a fantastic blend of minute (often grotesque) details, incisive satire, macabre humor, and political commentary. Grass attempts in all of his works to address questions dealing with German history and identity, and he often writes from his personal involvement in political issues. The multiple points of view in his novels, the magical elements that mark his style, and his focus on the themes of alienation and the outsider place him in the company of other contemporary writers, such as Salman Rushdie and W. G. Sebald. Grass’s body of work, however, presents one of the most powerful visions of post-World War II Europe and Germany. His style and meticulous attention to detail make him a unique and...

(The entire section is 128 words.)

Günter Grass Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Günter Wilhelm Grass was born into a middle-class family in the eastern German city of Danzig. During World War II he had to join the Hitler Youth movement and later entered the German army during the final months of the war. He was wounded in April, 1945, and was kept in a prison camp by the Americans until 1946. Grass eventually moved to Düsseldorf and studied art and sculpture. He became a skillful and talented graphic artist, and he published several volumes of his sketches. He married in 1954 and began writing when his wife submitted one of his poems in a contest. His first novel, The Tin Drum, won the first prize at the annual meeting of the prestigious Gruppe 47 in 1958. The book brought him immediate success when...

(The entire section is 1327 words.)

Günter Grass Biography

(European Poets and Poetry)

Günter Wilhelm Grass was born in Danzig (now Gdask, Poland), a largely German-populated port on the Baltic and a protectorate under the League of Nations from 1920 until its absorption into the Third Reich in 1939. He was the son of Protestant grocer Wilhelm “Willy” Grass and his Catholic wife, Helene Knoff Grass. Günter and his younger sister were raised as Catholics. At the rise of the Nazi Party, Grass joined the Hitler Youth. At the age of fifteen, he volunteered for German submarine service but was turned down. However, in 1944, he was drafted. While serving with a tank division, he was wounded at Cottbus and subsequently captured. He recovered in an American hospital and was briefly interned in a prisoner-of-war camp...

(The entire section is 435 words.)