Peeling Onions, Layer by Layer: An Obituary to Günter Grass

The incredible weight of a writer’s reputation, in formidably turbulent and impossibly exciting times, never seems to rest solely between the hardbacks of a bunch of books. It is a weight that is borne like a silent burden on a restless conscience and thrown like the protestor’s rock through the pretty lace-curtained windows of bourgeois serenity and forgetfulness. That is in a world where the writer places his/her moral compass in the bustling public square, part self-reflection, part historical reproach, but mostly as an indispensible exercise in writing to never forget. As self taught writer, artist, sculptor, politically engaged intellectual, and long term supporter of the Social Democratic Party in Germany, Günter Grass did just that.

After the horror unleashed across Europe by the spectre of fascism in Germany ended in a devastating war, writers wrote to understand what had happened and why, to express corrosive and simply unspeakable guilt, wrote to express the loss of an aesthetic language – Günter Grass was one of that generation who wrote to never forget, reminding everyone of the roots of the new republic.

It is no surprise that the controversies that he found himself in almost always hinged on his politics – critics defending him have even said that those who lashed out at him were ignoring the ‘literary merits’ of his work. Grass would have been the last one to talk of literary merits, for his writing was unfailingly political, an uncomfortable intervention in the politics of his times. In fact, if he was given the Nobel Prize for his writing, he was even denied others for his politics.

The Danzig Trilogy (The Tin Drum, 1959, also adapted into a film by Volker Schlöndorff; Cat and Mouse, 1961; and Dog Years, 1963) memorialises the city where he was born in 1927 and witnessed the growth of fascism in Germany and its predatory occupation of Poland. In fact, some say that Oskar Matzerath, the central character in The Tin Drum, who at the age of three decides never to grow up, is an immortal in German literature, alongside Goethe’s Faust and Brecht’s Mutter Courage. He has said that the content of his writing was never a matter of choice, and that the youth of that generation was marked by the mistakes, the madness, and the blindness of the Nazi period, and that if one wished to prevent history from repeating itself, then one had to open one’s mouth. And that is why he continued to explore the question of political responsibility, and processed this deeply impactful history both as a matter of personal memory and as collective remembrance.

Perhaps this is also why he felt that he had to learn to write autobiographically, and revealed only late in life in his memoirs (Peeling the Onion, 2006) that he had been a part of the Waffen SS at the age of 17, an admission that, for some, had come so late that it set off a storm that went far beyond the literary world.

He had this to say to a shocked public in a televised interview: ‘It lay buried within me. I can’t really give a precise reason. It has always occupied me, I was always conscious of it, and I thought that what I had done as a writer, as a citizen of this country – all of it is signifying the opposite of what had shaped me in my early years during the Nazi era – I thought that was enough.’

In reality, he was, even at that point in his life, and like the name he gave his memoirs, still ‘peeling the onion’ of memory, which brings tears, and sometimes has no core. But his memoirs – like the personal historical account My Century, 1999 – are also about the growth and pathfinding of the new post war generation involved in the project of nation building. It is a work that depicts not merely the contentious hard work, but the moral labour that went into a whole people standing up and trying to dust themselves off, for the stigma of fascism would not go. Ever present is the warning that this might happen again, that Germany would again become the bully, and this even led him to say that Germany should have remained divided, for, if united with her eastern twin, she would repeat the same madness.

In a divided Germany, this was a contentious position indeed. For the same historical reasons, another truth that is almost never spoken out loud in Germany is that of Israel as the oppressor state. It is the unbending backbone of guilt in German culture that makes it so. Grass opened his mouth and told that truth about the threat of nuclear capability in Israel and the danger to Iran, and Germany’s involvement in his poem ‘What Must be Said’:

    • Why only now, grown old,


    • and with what ink remains, do I say:


    • Israel’s atomic power endangers


    • an already fragile world peace?


    • Because what must be said


    • may be too late tomorrow;


    • and because – burdened enough as Germans –


    • we may be providing material for a crime


    • that is foreseeable, so that our complicity


    • will not be expunged by any


  • of the usual excuses.

In modern Germany, where guilt at what Hitler did to the Jews (and to the Sinti and Roma, to those on the left, to gays and lesbians, to the differently-abled) makes it impossible to say anything against the Israeli state without being termed anti-Semitic, saying this was an unparalleled act of courage indeed.

But courage was not in short supply for Grass. As a supporter of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), he took up many a cause, and conflicted with broader opinion on issues like atomic power and policies on asylum seekers. Show Your Tongue with its allusion to Kali (1988), a chronicle of Calcutta (a city that first appeared in The Flounder [1977]), is perhaps as much an attitude with him as the title of his chronicle of Calcutta. Even this preoccupation with politics and the human condition another corner of the world evoked strong reaction of both kinds among those following his work. Never letting go of an opportunity to hold up to every society a mirror cracked with history, Grass did not spare Calcutta, which he charcoaled with the artist’s eye.

    • It is only typical that he should have wanted

.... to be buried

with a bag of nuts

and my newest set of teeth.

The crunch and crackle

of where I lie

will lead to the supposition:

That’s him,

still him.


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