Günter Grass: Writing Against the Wall

"I realized it was through language, that I could define myself as a German." Meet Nobel Prize laureate Günter Grass in this interview where he reflects on his life, literary work and political engagement.

At the end of World War II, Günter Grass' world also collapsed. Born in 1927, he grew up in the Third Reich, enrolling in the army towards the end of the war -- as he describes in his autobiography Peeling the Onion (2006) -- in the SS elite. "Our youth was marked by National Socialism with all its mistakes and madness and blindness" Grass states in this profound interview, where he looks back on his life.

With Germany shattered and his hometown Gdansk occupied, Grass -- to the frustration of his father -- turned to art and literature. Very soon he realized, that the deroute of his early years influenced his writing. "So I wasn't able to voluntarily choose the content of my work, it was already dictated. And justifiably so. You are forced to admit, that if you want to prevent something like that from happening again, you need to open your mouth."

The instant success of Grass' first novel The Tin Drum published in 1959 made Grass one of the most influential German and European intellectuals after the Second World War. Here Grass talks about his love for art and language -- and how those two fecundate each other. About some drawings by the Spanish painter Francisco Goya in his study he says: "They don't hang there just because I think they're pretty, but they're also a benchmark. Challenging myself to reach this level in my writing too. Or at least to approach it." Grass also tells about another of his paragons or "Saints" -- the French writer Albert Camus, author of the novel "The Myth of Sisyphus": "The recognition that the rock never stays up on the hill. And to accept the rock, not lament it. To not believe in final destinations. And that's the best way to become immune to ideologies, which, as a rule, swear to a final, happy condition."

Looking back on his life and writing, Grass also admits mistakes. Thus he states, that he has underestimated the role of the banks in our societies: "These banks are out of control and are hollowing out the capitalist system from the inside and destroying it. You could say that the downfall of capitalism is not a very big loss. My question is 'What comes afterwards?' I'm afraid it will turn out as it did in the former Soviet Union. An oligarchic system. With absolute, totalitarian measures. An... incomparable atrocity." Also Grass reflects on the fact, whether or not it was a mistake, that he acknowledged being part of the SS very late in life: "Okay, people can accuse me of that. I could have made a kind of confession earlier on, but that's not how I am. I had to reach a certain age before I was able to write autobiographically."

In the end Grass admits that it was through language, that he came to terms with contemporary Germany: "I discovered how rich this language is. What can be expressed with it. In opposition to many of the writers, I for example met in the Gruppe 47, I believed, and still do, that a language should not be punished because it was abused." At the same time, Grass argues, that language and society belong together, that literature will always have a political dimension: "In my understanding, literature acknowledges the times and its faults. And even when it tries to omit politics, even in a love story, if you look closely, politics plays a part."

Günter Grass was interviewed by Marc-Christoph Wagner.

Camera: Klaus Elmer
Editing: Martin Kogi
Copyright: Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.

Supported by Nordea-fonden.