When the Nobel committee awarded Günter Grass its literature prize earlier this year, it recognized his stature not only as a novelist but as Germany's leading polemicist. Whether it was hitting the campaign trail for socialist Chancellor Willy Brandt in the late 1960s or condemning German reunification, the gloomy, walrus-moustached Grass has made a career of battling the German conservatives he refers to as "skinheads in neckties." Today, the newly minted Nobel laureate appears on talk shows to celebrate the meltdown of the Christian Democratic Union.
Like Heinrich Bell, the first German postwar novelist to win the Nobel, Grass exemplifies the decisive influence the Left has had in shaping contemporary German political culture. Germany's intelligentsia spent much of the Cold War banging its tin drums against consumer capitalism, American imperialism and an imminent resurgence of fascism. Its poets, novelists and critics viewed themselves as the first line of defense against a return to the Third Reich and insisted that it was their fundamental duty to marry literature with politics. To an extent inconceivable in the United States, the German literary class has functioned as the nation's self-appointed moral and political conscience.