Günter Grass, who passed away on April 13, was a revered, Nobel-winning German writer and public intellectual. For decades, he was an influential conscience-keeper of post-WWII Germany. He exhorted his nation to turn its gaze on the horrors inflicted under the Nazi regime and atone for it. Then, in 2006, came the admission that he had served in the vile Waffen SS, the military that served the Nazi government. “What I had accepted with stupid pride of youth I wanted to conceal after the war out of a recurrent sense of shame,” Grass wrote in his memoir. “But the burden remained, and no one could lighten it.” The admission, though made out of penitence, dulled his credibility greatly.
It was perhaps the “burden” he wrote of that coloured his writing. In his literary works, Grass created characters and plots that, as per the
Nobel committee, “recall the disavowed and the forgotten: the victims, losers and lies that people wanted to forget because they had once believed in them.” The Tin Drum has been interpreted as being symbolic of a forceful contrition. The protagonist of the novel, Oskar Matzerath, who wills himself to stop growing at the age of three while having the mind of an adult, is often held as representative of a morally stunted Germany that was without courage to stem the march of Nazism. Yet others, mostly critics of the staunchly anti-nationalist author, see the stunted man-child as what many wish Germany to be, a weak state perpetually flagellating itself in atonement. No matter where Grass would have situated Oskar, and by extension, Germany, with his passing, the world has lost a true giant of modern day literarure and a relentless moral guide.