There’s no exact equivalent of the word Vergangenheitsbewältigung in another language. A typical, unpronounceable German compound, it refers to the process of coming to terms with the past — a uniquely difficult exercise in Germany’s case. The writer who helped a generation of Germans break their silence and deal with that past was Nobel laureate Günter Grass, who passed away on Monday. Grass put the Free City of Danzig, where he was born in 1927, at the heart of his masterpiece The Tin Drum (1959), a satirical anti-Nazi novel. After World War II, Danzig had become the Polish city of Gdansk, but Grass, after Tin Drum, would emerge as postwar Germany’s moral centre.
Grass began his writing career as a poet and excelled in every form he touched. Yet, his reputation, from the beginning till the very end, became subject to the public intellectual’s trial in the court of public opinion, coloured by political and military history. Tin Drum was pilloried by critics and burned in Düsseldorf before it became an international bestseller and, 40 years later, the mainstay of Grass’s Nobel citation. Grass, eventually, would rise to the stature of an institution, but controversy would define him. He opposed the German reunification, comparing it to Hitler’s annexation of Austria, a denunciation that didn’t earn him many admirers. But the most sensational rupture with his readers came in 2006, when Grass confessed in his autobiography, Peeling the Onion, that he had volunteered for the army and served in the Waffen SS. This revelation overturned his carefully constructed life story of having been conscripted into the army.
In many ways, Grass’s troubles with peeling his own onion illustrated an entire nation’s difficulty in coming to terms with its past. Even in this, he was holding a mirror to German society. Grass came to know very early that “books can cause offence, stir up fury, even hatred”, and he remained a formidable artist only because he chose to pit himself against the zeitgeist.