Günter Grass, Who Confronted Germany's Past As Well As His Own, Dies At 87 In 2006, the Nobel prize-winning author of The Tin Drum admitted that as a teen during World War II, he had served with the Waffen-SS — the combat unit of the Nazi Party's elite military police force.
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Günter Grass, Who Confronted Germany's Past As Well As His Own, Dies At 87

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Günter Grass, Who Confronted Germany's Past As Well As His Own, Dies At 87

Günter Grass, Who Confronted Germany's Past As Well As His Own, Dies At 87

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

German writer Gunter Grass has died at the age of 87 after a brief illness. He was best known for his novel "The Tin Drum." Grass won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1999. He was often called the conscience of his country, following the atrocities of World War II. But Grass kept a dark secret about his own role in that war for more than half a century. Tom Vitale reports.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: Gunter Grass was 6 years old when Hitler came to power and the Germans took control of his hometown, the Free City of Danzig - today, Gdansk, Poland. Four years later, Grass joined The Hitler Youth Movement, as he told WHYY's Fresh Air in 1992.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GUNTER GRASS: It was marvelous for 10 years old boy to go with this group. There was a tent and with a flag, playing Boy Scouts like this. It wasn't political at all in the beginning. It became more and more political - really successful propaganda done by the Nazis

VITALE: Grass volunteered for the submarine service, but was drafted into a tank unit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GRASS: I was 16, the last year of the war, and was 17, the war was over and I was in American prison camp - prisoner of war. And slowly - slowly I discovered what really has happened. And in the beginning I didn't believe the German people has done this.

VITALE: Grass said he only understood the truth when the Nazi war criminals were tried at Nuremberg.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GRASS: I listened to the radio and I heard my former youth leader, Baldur von Schirach, and he said yes, that's true. That's terrible, but from this moment on it was clear for me what has happened. And this knowledge never left me.

VITALE: Trying to come to terms with that knowledge is the basis of much of his writing, says Siegfried Mews, a Gunter Grass scholar and professor emeritus of German at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

SIEGFRIED MEWS: He has produced works which were not necessarily eagerly welcomed. That is true, for instance, of his first big novel, "The Tin Drum."

VITALE: "The Tin Drum" is the story of a Danzig boy Oscar, who gets a tin drum for his third birthday then decides to protest the Nazi rule by never growing up. As an eternal child, Oscar witnesses an adult world that is chaotic and cruel, with synagogues set on fire and fierce fighting between Germans and Poles. It became an Oscar-winning film by German director Volker Schlondorff.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TIN DRUM")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Screaming).

VITALE: After his initial success with his book "The Tin Drum," Gunter Grass went on to write dozens of plays, memoirs, poems and novels, including fable-like tales called "The Flounder," "The Rat" and "The Call of the Toad" - a comic romance between a German widower and Polish widow in the city of Gdansk. They meet at a flower stall to pick over what's left.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GRASS: (Reading) (Through interpreter) Neither widow nor widower had enough for a bouquet. She was ready to shove her meager selection back into one of the buckets when the so-called plot set in. The widower handed the widow his rust-red spoils. He held them out; she took them, a wordless surrender.

VITALE: Grass became known as the conscience of Germany, a liberal who engaged in politics and spoke his mind. When the Berlin Wall came down, Grass argued against reunification, saying a united Germany could once again become a warmongering state. But then in 2006, Grass finally admitted that his service at the end of World War II was with the Waffen-SS - the combat unit of the Nazi Party's elite military police force. Scholar Siegfried Mews says the revelation exposed Grass as a hypocrite.

MEWS: When President Reagan visited the Federal Republic in the late '80s, he and Chancellor Kohl visited the cemetery. And there were graves of Waffen-SS members, and Grass condemned this act without mentioning that he himself might have been one of those who were lying there.

VITALE: Mews says Gunter Grass never adequately explained why he kept his service in the Waffen-SS a secret.

MEWS: But on the other hand, I don't think it invalidates his work, his fiction and his activities in the service of building a better, a more democratic Germany after the war.

VITALE: It took Gunter Grass 60 years to confront his own role in the Nazi army. But at a New York Public Library event in 2007, Grass said when he became a writer, he knew right away he had to confront the sins of his country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRASS: I had to write about my time, what has happened to my generation, what has happened to my country, and I was confronted that there was no way out.

VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

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