This week’s Genre of the Week, presented by the Files that is in connection with English and life in Germany, had to take a moment of pause- and for a good reason. Germany lost a literary great yesterday (13 April, 2015)- a controversial one but one of the key pillars representing literature in modern German history after 1945, and one who will have his place in the top 20 of all German writing greats. In its place, the Files would like to pay homage to this particular writer, who passed away peacefully in Lübeck at the age of 87.
Günter Grass was one of the very first literary greats I was introduced to in my college German classes at my alma mater, Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, when I studied German in the late 1990s. At that time I was taken aback because I had expected the teachers to introduce more popular German literary greats that we could associate ourselves with German culture and history, such as Erich Kästner, the Grimm brothers, and Wolfgang Goethe. But on hindsight, the decision of bringing him in the limelight was perhaps the best ones the teachers ever made, for Mr. Grass represented one of the children rising from the ashes of the fallen National Socialist Reich, one of many who engineered the reinvention of the Bundesrepublik through his writing and participation in discussions on the political and literary platforms, and one of many who through his experiences in his youth during the Nazi era and subsequentially, World War II, as well as a young man who was part of the reconstruction process in Germany, brought forth many lessons from Germany’s past that we, as the majority of a fast-moving society- have remembered some but forgotten the rest.
This includes the establishment and reestablishment of a nation and its effects on its people, as he described in his Danzig Trilogy, a set of novels built from 1959 to 1963 and whose book Tin Drum was converted into a film in 1979. Danzig was his place of birth and childhood, and Grass’ books looked at how the rise and fall of the Third Reich and Hitler’s tyranny brought out the worst among his people, splitting families into two (pro-Nazi vs pro-Slavic) and persecuting the minority, thus producing the scar of guilt that still lingers today, years after he wrote his works. Grass himself was initially opposed to German reunification fearing that a unified country would dominate the European landscape, thus rekindling German fears that he had experienced while growing up in Danzig.
Yet when talking about the reestablishment of the country, it does not come with obstacles that the people faced during this phase, as Grass wrote about in his books on My Century and Crabwalk. There, he described the persecutions that happened to the Germans after World War II as the country was being rebuilt. The historic fiction written in the two books were based on Grass’ experience and spurned discussions on the German question, where people were split up between those wanting to leave Germany behind and those who want to rebuild Germany and reinvent the country’s image, walking away from the nightmares of the past that happened during the Third Reich. This platform on the reinvention and recreation of Germany was later used in several films whose plot took place after 1945. Among them include a German film released in 2013 entitled Schicksaljahre, a story about a family torn apart by The Third Reich and World War II, and was forced to rebuild after the war ended.
But despite all the stories he wrote about Germany, especially after the war, Grass left us with an important question worth considering: How can we cope with the past while ensuring that the mistakes we made in life will never happen again- both from the same individual as well as by passing it on to others to repeat them? This is a question that will never be answered in its entirety for our lives are based on our raw talents and abilities. We keep making changes in order to make something as perfect as possible, only to find that once the finished product is completed, it still contains the imperfections that will surface and never change. Being raw has its advantages, where we find a way to create and make perfect but we never reach this perfection. This was something Grass mentions about in his interview conducted in 2013 (which you can see below as well), as he talks about how his literary works were considered raw and how he rigorously made changes, big and small, even when the manuscript was about to go to the press. The same mentality applied to his artwork, for he was a painter and produced many paintings and drawings on the side, some of which received many accolades for the work.
In the end, despite the controversies he had, especially with regards to his role as a Nazi soldier in his youth and his frigid relations with Israel, Günter Grass was considered a protocol of his time, showing the readers life in Germany during the darkest times and afterwards, but also showing them that Germany was anything but a savage state, as many people considered the country after the war and for many years prior to 1989. Germany, in his view, was a country like any other country- a raw state going through the developments after the war in order for it to be like the other states. At the same time, he saw that even though Germans affected by the tyranny of Hitler and the affects of the war felt the guilt of their country and what happened during the war and with the Holocaust, they had a chance to rebuild from the ground up and over time, walked away and embraced the future. Germany’s past will not be forgotten, but its development into the state it is today is still being remembered and admired by many. And with that I must say, Grass will be missed as one of the founding fathers of modern German literature, with a Nobel Peace Prize in his hand and definitely a standing ovation from the other literary greats awaiting him above. That is after getting honored by many who knew him through his works here.
In honoring Günter Grass, the Files has a collection of videos for you to watch, many of which are in German, except the interview has English subtitles. The interview includes his views on social networking versus talking to people, which is worth interesting to watch and think about. The aforementioned example films Der Blechtrommel (read by the author) and Schicksaljahre (starring Maria Furtwängler) are included as well:
Interview in 2013:
Der Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) Listening (in German)
Günter Grass and his Distaste towards Facebook and Technology:
Schicksaljahre (EN: The Years of Mystery)