Guenter Grass, the 71-year-old German novelist who confronted his countrymen with their guilty silence after the Holocaust, today won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The Swedish Academy credited Grass' first novel, "The Tin Drum," with restoring honor to German literature "after decades of linguistic and moral destruction." The academy said the book "comes to grips with the enormous task of reviewing contemporary history by recalling the disavowed and the forgotten: the victims, losers and lies that people wanted to forget because they had once believed in them."
To become a writer – a German writer – in the aftermath of the Holocaust was a brash and terrifying act. The philosopher Theodor Adorno had pronounced that "to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbarous."
Grass was initially sympathetic to that view, but eventually decided that Germany needed voices who would take on the country's legacy of genocide and proudly carry the banner of shame. In the emotionally-repressed years that followed the war's end, Grass' unflinching stories of Germans who cooperated with the Nazi terror were greeted as courageous and wise.
Grass and his wife Ute Grunert celebrated the nearly $1 million award by drinking sparkling wine with friends at a wine shop beneath his office. Grass said he planned to keep a dentist's appointment later in the day: "That will help calm the nerves," he said.
He is the first German author to win the award since Heinrich Boell in 1972 and only the second since Thomas Mann in 1929.
"I feel joy and pride," the author said after learning of the prize, which Nobel-watchers had thought he might get any time in the past 20 years. "This prize is a great achievement for me."
"The Tin Drum," published in 1959, became one of the most admired and revealing allegories of guilt and complicity.
The book tells the tale of Oskar Matzerath, a young dwarf who, like Grass, grows up in Danzig and experiences the German attack on Poland, whereupon the three-year-old boy refuses to grow up, pining instead for the security of his mother's womb.
At a time when most renditions of the Holocaust were relentlessly dark and grim, Grass used raunchy humor to probe the German psyche and provoke his countrymen.
But Grass' irreverence and his commitment to the notion that Germany remained a psychologically damaged society wore thin on his countrymen. And his novels and non-fiction writing after the critically acclaimed Danzig Trilogy – "Tin Drum," "Cat and Mouse," and "Dog Years" – were often dismissed as lesser works and as the product of a political crank.
Grass has also been criticized for rarely including overt references to the Holocaust and the murder of six million Jews in his catalogue of German crimes. Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley's wife, Ernestine Schlant, a scholar of German literature, wrote in a recent book that Grass' works virtually ignore the experiences of Jews.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Grass was one of the first and most vocal opponents of the reunification of his divided homeland. He argued that Germans had forfeited their right to live together in one country. A united Germany, he said, was "doomed to failure" because "our unified state filled the history books of the world with suffering, ruin, defeat, millions of refugees, millions of dead and a burden of crimes which we will never be able to throw off."
Once cherished by his fellow citizens, Grass became a thorn in his government's side. In recent years, Grass has sharply criticized Germany for its treatment of the country's large Turkish and other foreign populations.
When Germany began deporting Eastern European refugees in the mid-1990s, Grass warned that "we have all become passive witnesses, once again, to a barbaric act – this time a barbaric act backed by democracy."
The secretary general of then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Party responded that Grass had "put himself outside the circle of serious authors" and had "sunk to an intellectual low."
And as Germany moved to re-establish itself as an equal among nations, shucking its cloak of guilt and remorse, Grass found himself marginalized in the country's intellectual circles and ridiculed in the mainstream media.
In a recent novel, western German writer Peter Schneider spoofed his country's left-wing intellectuals, the group for which Grass stands as supreme spokesman: "One's own immaculate conscience was best demonstrated by detecting trace elements of Nazi thinking in others."
Undaunted, Grass has repeatedly called for Germany to build a full-scale Holocaust museum; no such institution exists in the country.
Grass' most recent book, a hefty attack on how western Germans have treated eastern Germans in the decade since unification, won blistering reviews at home. The mass circulation daily Bild decreed that "Grass does not love his country and does not know the people for whom he is writing."
But Grass remains unapologetic in his defense of the Germans who lived on the communist side of the Berlin Wall, saying "I believe it is a good thing that a writer does not sit on the side of the victors."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company