German Nobel Prize-winning Novelist Gunter Grass Dies at 87

The German author, who revealed a decade ago that he served with the Waffen SS, three years ago was declared a persona non grata in Israel after he published a controversial poem.

Reuters

Guenter Grass, one of Germany's most significant and controversial novelists of all time, has died at the age of 87 in Luebeck, the Goettingen-based publishing house Steidl Verlag said on Monday. Grass died of an infection, a Guenter Grass House museum spokeswoman said.

The Nobel Prize-winning novelist emerged as one of Germany's most important post-World War II writers following the 1959 publication of his first novel, "The Tin Drum," which the Nobel committee later called a "rebirth of the German novel in the 20th century."

Grass was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1999 for his body of work, which also includes "Cat and Mouse," "Dog Days," "From the Diary of a Snail," and "The Flounder and The Rat."

n 2006 Grass revealed that he served with the Waffen SS during World War II. He claimed not to have fired a single shot during his service. Grass' confession angered people both because of his image as an anti-war activist and because he hid his past for so long, while spewing anti-Nazi rhetoric.

"That debate was very painful for me," Grass explained in an interview with Haaretz in 2011, "because it focused on two and a half pages in which I told about my service in the Waffen SS. I was hurt when people said I volunteered for that organization. The truth is that I was drafted, like thousands of other youths my age. And there were also thousands of older people, from the air force and the navy - all of whom were assigned to the Waffen SS in the final stage of the war."

A supporter of the left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD), Grass never shied away from political debates in Germany.

In 2012, Grass sparked controversy after he published a poem that was critical of Israel. The poem, entitled “What must be said,” was published in the Deutsche Zeitung. In it, the author claimed that Israel’s nuclear reactor – and not Iran’s – presents a threat to world peace. Grass’ called for Germany to cease supplying Israel with submarines, and warns against an Israeli strike on Iran.

The poem drew sharp criticism in Germany, Israel and among Jewish organizations. The Israeli embassy in Germany said that the poem was in line with the 'tradition of blood libel ahead of Passover." In response, then-Interior Minister Eli Yishai declared him a persona non grata in Israel.

Israel declined to comment on the death of the Nobel laureate.

Last month, Grass expressed hope for a dramatic change during the Israeli election. A guest of the international Leipzig Book Fair, Grass said in a joint interview with Haaretz, Israel Radio and Army Radio, that he was following events in Israel with interest and hoped that "Next week a new government will be elected that will be capable of doing things and not only making speeches in Washington."

Grass said he had visited Israel many times, but also felt a commitment to the situation of the Palestinians and hoped peace would be possible to achieve soon. "If I'm friendly with someone, I must have the courage to accept criticism from him too," Grass said. "We have to stop calling people who express practical criticism of Israel anti-Semites."

He added that Israel should admit that it is a nuclear power, and like other Middle Eastern countries that possess nuclear weapons, agree to international inspections.

In response to a question about the future of relations between Israel and Germany Grass said that he was 17 years old at the end of World War II, which left its mark on his entire life and all his work. He said that his children and grandchildren had an obligation to continue to bear the burden of the memory of the crimes of the Nazi regime, and to maintain relations with Israel. The interview was conducted in German with the help of literary agent Eldad Stobezki.

In the interview in March, Grass said he recently read "Judas," the book by Amos Oz that was recently published in German. He found Oz's depiction of figures from the margins of 1950s Israeli society interesting, and stressed that he greatly admires Oz and believes that his book "A Tale of Love and Darkness" is among the best literary works of the 20th century. "I never tire of proposing Oz every year as a candidate for the Nobel Prize," he said.

Grass also supported former SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt's policy of reconciliation with Poland.

Grass who was born in 1927 of German-Polish parents in Danzig, later opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Danzig is now Gdansk, in Poland.