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Thursday, September 30, 1999 Published at 14:20 GMT 15:20 UK

World: Europe

Guenter Grass: Sad optimist

Salman Rushdie helped Grass celebrate his 70th birthday

Guenter Grass, winner of the 1999 Nobel Prize for Literature, describes himself as a "sad optimist".

He is a an outspoken pacifist, his opinions shaped by the experiences of World War II, but he supported the military intervention in Kosovo.

To Germans on the right of the political spectrum he personifies all that is bad about Socialism, while fellow Social Democrats sometimes criticise him for leaning too much to the right.

Mr Grass typifies a generation of post-war German writers politically committed to a more humane, progressive Germany at peace with its neighbours, particularly to the East.

The book that made him famous, Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum, 1959), was an attempt to come to terms with Germany's Nazi past.

An elder statesman of letters

In the course of a long career, he has firmly established himself as Germany's literary elder statesman, accumulating an endless list of awards including the Georg Buechner Prize and the Thomas Mann Prize, and speaking regularly on current cultural or political concerns.

[ image: South African author Nadime Gordimer is a good friend]
South African author Nadime Gordimer is a good friend
A man who enjoys a good fight, he has never been afraid of controversy and does not mind being a target for rhetorical attacks.

His childhood clearly shaped his work and his politics.

He was born in 1927 in Danzig, then a Baltic port city (now the Polish city of Gdansk), experiencing xenophobia first hand while the Nazis came to power.

The city with its often explosive mix of cultures forms the backdrop for several of his books, including The Tin Drum.

Multiple talent

He started his artistic career as a sculptor and lithographer, and throughout his career has provided the illustrations for his own books.

The Tin Drum was followed by Katz und Maus (Cat and Mouse, 1961) and Hundejahre (Dog Years, 1963).

[ image: Grass's house was smeared with swastikas after  he spoke out against xenophobia]
Grass's house was smeared with swastikas after he spoke out against xenophobia
In a 1969 interview, Mr Grass defined himself as "a humanist allergic to ideologies of any kind - to the point of wanting to attack any belief that claims to set absolute objectives".

During the 1960s he was a militant pacifist, opposing the installation of nuclear missiles on German soil, and a critical supporter of the Social Democrat Party (SPD).

His campaign for Social Democrat Willy Brandt, who then became Chancellor, is still seen by many in Germany as a prime example of political activism by an artist.

His prime motivation was Mr Brandt's policy of "Ostpolitik" - the attempt to forge closer relations with Germany's neighbours to the East and to lay the ghosts of WW II to rest.

Under successive conservative governments, Mr Grass appeared withdrawn and disillusioned with politics.

Return to the fray

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the ensuing reunification made him speak out again.

He criticised the way in which - as he saw it - the eastern part of the country was being colonised by the West.

He became a target for right-wing hate when he assumed a leading role in the fight against a new rise in xenophobia.

But he also took his fight to the international stage. He supported persecuted authors such as Salman Rushdie and Kurdish writer Yasar Kemal in their fight for the right to free speech.

Like many on the left, Mr Grass was highly critical of the Allies bombardment of Iraq during the Gulf War.

His experiences during the Third Reich led him to support a military intervention in Kosovo only a few years later.

Pacifism had to take a back seat, he argued, when a return of genocide on European soil had to be averted.

In the run-up to the last parliamentary elections, Guenter Grass was back on the campaign trail, supporting the SPD's candidate, Gerhard Schröder, who went on to become Chancellor.

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