On the Death of Günter Grass “Oh, Mister Grass!”

Disputatious voice: Günter Grass at an event at the Goethe-Institut in Gdansk
Disputatious voice: Günter Grass at an event at the Goethe-Institut in Gdansk | Photo: Martin Wälde

Günter Grass is dead. Germany is mourning one of its most eminent writers. Grass was linked to the Goethe-Institut by a particularly long and close friendship. “He believed in the impact of literature,” remembers Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, the president of the Goethe-Institut.

The Goethe-Institut has hardly had a closer relationship with a German cultural figure than with Günter Grass. Over decades, the writer exerted an influence for the Goethe-Institut as a rebellious, disputatious and controversial speaker, with his prose and poetry and his drawings in many countries around the world. He always guaranteed full attention and full auditoriums.

“For me, Günter Grass was a great, but also an incredibly challenging interlocutor,” remembers Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, the president of the Goethe-Institut. Yet he never encountered the later Nobel prizewinner as an aloof celebrity. “Grass was always willing to accept my invitations to readings, to debates and to lectures. He believed in the impact of literature.”

In the appraisal of the author by Johannes Ebert, the secretary-general of the Goethe-Institut, his memories are similar. “With the passing of Günter Grass we have lost one of the most eminent German writers of the post-war era. At the Goethe-Institut, however, we also are mourning the loss a very good friend of whom many staff members have very personal memories,” Ebert said. “Over many decades, Grass was one of the most important German voices in the world, also and in particular because his relationship with Germany was never without friction. In addition to his wonderful literary oeuvre, he often offered us important stimuli in social and political debate. We must be deeply grateful to Grass, for after the Second World War he made a decisive contribution towards generating trust in Germany again – with disputability in the best possible sense.”

Grass was also an important ally of the Goethe-Institut in another way, Lehmann adds, “He was a persuasive and staunch advocate of translators. He was aware of their incredibly important service as bridge builders and ferrymen for mutual knowledge of world literatures and supported and promoted their interests.” For many years, Grass was the patron of the writers’ and translators’ award Die Brücke, which Lehmann and Grass initiated together.

Klaus-Dieter Lehmann also has very personal memories of the writer, but as a reader and as a companion. “For me personally, The Tin Drum is one of the books that affected me the most and most lastingly and that I have read and re-read over the course of my life.” Yet he particularly remembers a day in 1999. “In Stockholm, I experienced an immensely joyous recipient of the Noble Prize in Literature. Not only did he celebrate all night long with his big family and his friends, one of whom I was honoured to be, but the next day he endured a reading marathon, which earned him the greatest approval, not only because of his steadfastness.”

One of the staff members of the Goethe-Institut who encountered Günter Grass in recent years most often is Martin Wälde, presently the director of the institute in Mumbai. “I invited Günter Grass to three major events,” Wälde recalls. In 2007, Grass’s 80th birthday was celebrated in his hometown of Gdansk. “We invited him to a panel discussion in Gdansk with the Goethe-Institut Warsaw, which Lech Walesa and Richard von Weizsäcker also took part in. The discussion was highly significant because one year before in his autobiography Grass had written about his membership in the SS as a young man for the first time, which had led to considerable international outrage. Grass, the ‘moral conscience’ of Germany, the disputatious poet and trouble-maker, had kept his membership in the SS a secret for decades.” At the time, Walesa had even demanded that his honorary citizenship in Gdansk he revoked. “The 2007 meeting in Gdansk was a sort of reconcilement with Grass. After all, hardly any German intellectual had worked harder for reconciliation with Poland than Grass.”

Günter Grass travelled the world with the Goethe-Institut for fifty years. This experience abroad was a great benefit, particularly for a young author. “They were an opportunity to escape from the German-German situation,” Grass said of the journeys in an interview for the sixtieth anniversary of the Goethe-Institut. In the 1970s, a journey with the Goethe-Institut was even directly reflected in his work. “When I came to Kolkata and was confronted with the slums and the misery, but at the same time with the Bengali culture and vitality, I was unable to write at first,” said Grass. He therefore began expressing himself in drawings. “Through drawing, I then moved to a diary-like writing, which then led to a longer Kolkata poem. From these three elements – journal notes, poetry and drawings – I then produced the book Zunge zeigen.”

Goethe associate Martin Wälde recalls how many years later, in January 2005, Grass returned to Kolkata. The two weeks in the city were “like a visit by a head of state with police escorts.” he remembers, “Grass was certainly the most significant writer and intellectual in our cultural dialogue with India. Almost everyone there knew him, especially in Bengal.” Even the rickshaw drivers on Kolkata’s streets immediately recognized the guest from Germany, crying, “Oh, Mister Grass!”

The decades-long friendship between Grass and the Goethe-Institut was based mainly on mutual respect. When Grass was asked four years ago his wish for the Goethe-Institut’s sixtieth anniversary, he replied, “The public and the prevailing government should acknowledge that the accomplishments of the Goethe-Institut are among the finest of the Federal Republic.”