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Günther Grass | Biography

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Günter Grass was born October 16, 1927, in Danzig, now Gdańsk, Poland. His father was German. and his mother a Kashubian (an ethnic group in northern Poland and one of the Slavic minorities). As a boy he joined the Hitler Youth, a group run by the Nazi Party. Its purpose was to indoctrinate children with the party's views and positions. When he was 15, Grass attempted to volunteer for submarine duty for the Nazis but was rejected. At 17, Grass was drafted and sent to train in the Waffen-SS, the much-feared military branch of the Nazi Party. He was wounded and captured by American forces and was held as a prisoner of war from April 1945 to 1946.

In 1955 Grass joined the social activist group of writers called Gruppe 47, publishing both poetry and plays. He spent the latter half of the 1950s in Paris, where he worked as a sculptor, writer, and graphic artist. In 1959 Grass published his first novel, The Tin Drum (in German, Die Blechtrommel). Widely acclaimed, it was the first in a trilogy of novels referred to as the "Danzig trilogy." The second work in the trilogy, Cat and Mouse (Katz und Maus), published in 1961, is a novella about a parentless, physically deformed only child. Published in 1963, the third novel, Dog Years (Hundejahre), chronicles the friendship between an Aryan youth and a half-Jewish boy through World War II and beyond.

Grass became a vocal critic of the German people and their inability to resist fascism and the resulting crimes committed against humanity by the Nazi Party. He represented his own generation, which was old enough to have been swept up in Hitler's rise to power but too young to understand the effects of their participation. By the late 1950s Grass was increasingly mindful of the psychological impossibility for change in a people who had sacrificed so much during a war they lost. The Tin Drum is a reflection not merely on the German state of mind but also on the possibility for art after national trauma. His protagonist and narrator in The Tin Drum, Oskar, embodies Grass's view of the German people: their lack of moral fortitude and inability to change before, during, and after World War II.

Grass also became a prominent social activist, pushing for global disarmament and fighting against governmental oppression, particularly by the Soviets. He did not support a reunified Germany, believing a state that created the Holocaust and a people who allowed it to happen were a danger to humanity. Much of his fiction criticized Germany in direct or allegorical fashion. He blamed his nation for not owning its crimes and for not atoning for them.

Grass won the 1999 Nobel Prize in Literature for his revelation of the underside of German apathy during World War II, particularly in The Tin Drum, which the Nobel committee called a "black fable." The author did not reveal his past service in the Schutzstaffel (Hitler's paramilitary organization commonly referred to as the SS) until 2006, when he told an interviewer about it in advance of the release of his memoir, Peeling the Onion. The admission caused the literary community to take sides regarding his work. Some critics viewed Grass as hypocritical. Others applauded his honesty and understood the power of propaganda over Germany's youth at the time. Grass said that the epitaph on his gravestone should read "I kept silent," referring to the secretive shame he carried throughout his life. Grass's social and political activism and his novels were his ways of atoning for what he viewed as the personal moral failing of every German who kept silent during the war and afterward, himself included. Grass died on April 13, 2015, in Lübeck, Germany.

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