On Writing and Politics, 1967-1983
Günter Grass is the best known and easily the most successful of the small group of contemporary German writers to find an audience in the United States. In particular, his early international best-seller, Die Blechtrommel (1959; The Tin Drum, 1961), together with the other two books of his Danzig trilogy, Katz und Maus (1961; Cat and Mouse, 1963) and Hundejahre (1963; Dog Years, 1965), and later the novel Örtlich betäubt (1969; Local Anesthetic, 1969), served to establish Grass’s reputation in the United States as Germany’s leading postwar writer. Grass’s success outside Germany is no doubt in large part achieved through the power of his fanciful and at times bizarre imagination, an imagination that has produced some of the most memorable figures and scenes in all modern fiction. In fact, the opulence of Grass’s fantasy and his often grotesque vision of twentieth century reality leave such a strong impression on the reader that it is, at first, all too easy to overlook the political intention at the center of his work. Grass remains a committed and distinctly political writer, a writer whose work is clearly informed by a coherent moral and political purpose.
Grass’s writing is never far from politics and the political realities of his country’s past and present. In his work, he insistently challenges his reader to confront the past with its uncomfortable lessons in order to be able to contend with the problems that Germany and the world must face in the present and in an increasingly uncertain future. A writer is, as he recalls having told his children once, “someone who writes against the passage of time.” Like other writers who began their careers in the new Germany of the 1950’s, Grass has sought in his work to keep the reality of Germany’s recent history before his audience, to counteract the all-too-ready forgetfulness of an increasingly affluent postwar generation, and to remind everyone, German and non-German alike, of the lasting consequences and only partly learned lessons of what he refers to as the “German crime.”
The essays and miscellaneous political addresses included in the collection On Writing and Politics, 1967-1983—the second book of Grass’s essays to appear in English—provide an informative parallel to Grass’s development and activity as a political writer. In the material gathered here from various sources and occasions spanning the period from 1967 to 1983, Grass holds forth on his experiences as a writer and a reader and on the role that literature plays in shaping one’s view of the world. At the same time, the pieces included here suggest a political role for the contemporary writer that, if one is to take Grass’s own example to heart, extends beyond the writer’s desk and into the day-to-day political life of his country and the world. Thus, the five longer essays drawn together under the heading “On Writing” focus on Grass’s view of literature and its role in making both the past and the future part of one’s present reality, a visionary role that he sees realized, for example, in the work of his “teacher,” the German futurist Alfred Döblin, and in the novels of Franz Kafka. The eight political addresses presented in the book’s second and concluding part, under the title “On Politics,” offer concrete testimony to the political activism that has characterized Grass’s career since the early 1960’s.
The frequent autobiographical references in this volume provide considerable insight into the relationship between Günter Grass as a literary figure and as a private citizen. In several essays, Grass reflects on the role that German Fascism and the Third Reich had upon the shaping of his political consciousness. He was, he notes, only seventeen as the war ended, “too young to participate in the crimes of National Socialism, but old enough to have been shaped by their consequences.” His first tentative acquaintance with democracy came, as for his entire generation, in those first postwar years, when he was nearly a grown man. Like many of his colleagues who took a similar path toward political involvement, Grass acted upon the lessons that the failure of the Weimar Republic had for him as a writer and citizen. For the failure of German democracy in the 1930’s is, in Grass’s view, to be blamed in part on Germany’s writers, who for the most part “made no attempt to defend the Republic, while not a few of them deliberately held it up to ridicule.” A second lesson was clear as well: Those writers who did warn against the rise of Fascism went largely unheard, as—Grass adds parenthetically—they still continue to be.
Grass’s view of literature and the writer’s political role and responsibility reflect his distinctly German experience. His political activism and involvement with partisan politics as a supporter of West Germany’s Social Democratic Party arose from his conviction that writing by itself is insufficient to the political task that the writer, as well as each responsible citizen, must set for himself. In Grass’s view, even “engaged” literature can only have long-term effects. The writer who wants to have an effect with respect to the political issues of the day must leave his desk and become an active participant in the democratic process.
In repudiation of the long-standing German tradition which sees intellect and political power as incompatible, Grass became actively involved in the “dirty” work of politics in the early 1960’s. He chose to support an “evolutionary democratic socialism” and the path of slow reform via the parliamentary process of electoral politics; for it was and is here that he sees the possibility for positive social change in the spirit of the European Enlightenment. Grass declares his...
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