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.)