SPIEGEL Interview with Günter Grass 'The Nobel Prize Doesn't Inhibit Me in My Writing'
Part 4: 'The US Shouldn't Have Been Given the Commanding Role in Afghanistan'
SPIEGEL: You are rooted in German history, but you have always objected to the cult of nationalism in any form. How do you feel about the new patriotic enthusiasm, as we saw during the football World Cup, for example?
Grass: I have always believed that one cannot leave the discussion about nationalism entirely to the right wing. We can only play a responsible role in Europe if we can effectively justify our own sense of national identity -- beyond nationalism. But there were also playful aspects to the little German flags that people were waving during the World Cup. I saw women putting black, red and gold pacifiers in their babies' mouths. That sort of thing offsets any perceived sense of pathos.
SPIEGEL: You aren't the only writer of your generation who has made political statements again and again. Do you perceive a lack of similar vigor among your young fellow writers?
Grass: I would find it regrettable if they didn't draw a lesson from this relatively brief tradition. They shouldn't repeat the mistakes of the Weimar Republic and withdraw into their private worlds. Intellectuals contributed greatly to the development of our fledgling democracy in West Germany into a grown-up democracy. Unfortunately, there are signs that this contribution is waning. The financial crisis, child poverty, deportation (of illegal immigrants), the growing gap between rich and poor: These are all issues where younger authors should develop and express an opinion.
SPIEGEL: You yourself are less politically involved than you once were. In an open letter to the chancellor, the author Martin Walser, who is one of your contemporaries, called for Germany's withdrawal from Afghanistan. Don't you have a position on this war?
Grass: Of course I do. But the Afghanistan war, of all wars, can't be oversimplified. Unlike the war against Iraq, there is a UN mandate. Our involvement there has proved to be a huge mistake, but it's difficult to find a responsible way of withdrawing from that responsibility. The United States certainly shouldn't have been given the commanding role. The Americans are incapable of waging this type of war. They are failing once again, just as they did in Vietnam, and we're failing with them.
SPIEGEL: If there is no patent remedy, your voice as a Nobel laureate carries more weight today than it would have in the past. Why are you holding back?
Grass: I don't have the impression that that's what I'm doing. And besides, I don't spend the whole day thinking about the fact that I'm a Nobel laureate. I'm reminded of it sometimes, usually when I put my two cents in. It certainly doesn't help me when I write, although it doesn't hurt either.
SPIEGEL: Doesn't it put you under pressure?
Grass: The prize doesn't inhibit me in my writing at all. That's probably because I received it at an advanced age. Actually, the prize that the Group 47 (editor's note: a prestigious postwar association of German writers) gave me in 1958 was more important for me, because I was as poor as a church mouse at the time. And it was awarded by fellow writers, which gave it a completely different meaning. I'm not saying this to belittle the Nobel Prize, but it didn't have such an influential impact on my life.
SPIEGEL: Now be honest: Hadn't you been hoping to receive it for a long time?
Grass: Not any more, at least at the end. It went on the same way for 20 years: Every fall, journalists called me to tell me that I was one of the contenders, and wanted to book the first interview with me. And then things would quiet down again for a year.
SPIEGEL: Weren't you irritated when German author Heinrich Böll received the prize in 1972?
Grass: No, I wasn't, even if you don't believe me. I was in the middle of the SPD's election campaign, sitting in a VW bus on a market square somewhere in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. We were doing these spontaneous events that involved driving to small cities. I was just speaking into the microphone, giving a short speech, when someone handed me a note that said: Böll won the Nobel Prize. I incorporated it into the campaign. We also happened to be supporters of the same political idea.
SPIEGEL: You draw a conclusion in your new book. You write that "working through" things in life never ends, and that "even traditional stories are meant to be retold. And after each ending, I realized that I had more work to do." What sort of work do you intend to do next?
Grass: After a period of writing that's lasted many years, I have to change tools and devote myself to printmaking again. I want to create new etchings and drypoint for my novel "Dog Years," for the 50th anniversary of its first publication. "Grimms' Words" will certainly mark the end of my autobiographical writings. At my age, one is surprised if one experiences the next spring, and I know how long it can take to complete a book with an epic concept.
SPIEGEL: Do you fear the end of your life?
Grass: No. I've realized that, on the one hand, one is ready for it. I also realize that I've retained a certain amount of curiosity. What will happen to my grandchildren? What will the weekend football results look like? Of course, there are also some banalities I still want to experience. Jacob Grimm wrote a wonderful piece on aging, and I also found the following sentence in another one of his works: "The last harvest is on the stalk." It touched me, and of course it immediately prompted me to reflect on my own age. In doing so, I didn't discover any predominant fear of death.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Grass, thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Volker Hage and Katja Thimm
- Part 1: 'The Nobel Prize Doesn't Inhibit Me in My Writing'
- Part 2: 'I Would Like to Put a Stop to this Movement Toward Reading on Computers'
- Part 3: 'I Didn't Volunteer for the Waffen-SS'
- Part 4: 'The US Shouldn't Have Been Given the Commanding Role in Afghanistan'