He was born in the Free City of Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland). Since 1945, he has lived in West Germany, before it annexed East Germany in 1990, but in his fiction he frequently returns to the Danzig of his childhood.
He is best known for his first novel, The Tin Drum, a key text in European magic realism. His works frequently have a strong (left wing, socialist) political dimension, and Grass has been an active supporter of the Social Democratic Party of Germany. In 2006, Grass caused a controversy with his disclosure of Waffen-SS service during the final months of World War II.
Grass received dozens of international awards and in 1999 achieved the highest literary honour: the Nobel Prize for Literature. His literature is commonly categorized as part of the artistic movement of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, roughly translated as "coming to terms with the past."
In 2002 Grass returned to the forefront of world literature with Crabwalk (Im Krebsgang). This novella, one of whose main characters first appeared in Cat and Mouse, was Grass' most successful work in decades.
Representatives of the City of Bremen joined together to establish the Günter Grass Foundation, with the aim of establishing a centralized collection of his numerous works, especially his many personal readings, videos and films. The Günter Grass House in Lübeck houses exhibitions of his drawings and sculptures, an archive and a library.
As a trained graphic artist, he has also created the distinctive cover art for his novels.
Grass attended the Danzig Gymnasium Conradinum. He volunteered for submarine service with the Kriegsmarine "to get out of the confinement he felt as a teenager in his parents' house" which he considered - in a very negative way - civic Catholic lower middle class . He was drafted in 1942 into the Reichsarbeitsdienst, and in November 1944 into the Waffen-SS. Grass saw combat with the 10th SS Panzer Division Frundsberg from February 1945 until he was wounded on 20 April 1945 and sent to an American POW camp.
In 1946 and 1947 he worked in a mine and received a stonemason's education. For many years he studied sculpture and graphics, first at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, then at the Universität der Künste Berlin. He also worked as an author and travelled frequently. He married in 1954 and since 1960 has lived in Berlin as well as part-time in Schleswig-Holstein. Divorced in 1978, he remarried in 1979. From 1983 to 1986 he held the presidency of the Berlin Akademie der Künste (Berlin Academy of Arts).
Grass took an active role in the Social-Democratic (SPD) party and supported Willy Brandt's election campaign. He criticised left-wing radicals and instead argued in favour of the "snail's pace", as he put it, of democratic reform (Aus dem Tagebuch einer Schnecke). Books containing his speeches and essays were released throughout his career.
During the events leading up to the unification of Germany in 1989-90, Grass argued for continued separation of the two German states, asserting that a unified Germany would necessarily resume its role as belligerent nation-state.
In 2001, Grass proposed the creation of a German-Polish museum for art lost during the War. While the Hague Convention of 1907 requires the return of art that had been evacuated, stolen (Nazi plunder) or seized, Poland and Russia (unlike many countries that have cooperated with Germany) refuse to repatriate some of the looted art , thus e.g. the manuscript of the German national anthem is kept in Poland.
On 12 August 2006, in an interview about his forthcoming book Peeling the Onion, Grass stated that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS. Before this interview, Grass was seen as someone who had been a typical member of the "Flakhelfer generation," one of those too young to see much fighting or to be involved with the Nazi regime in any way beyond its youth organizations.
On 15 August 2006, the online edition of Der Spiegel, Spiegel Online, published three documents from U.S. forces dating from 1946, verifying Grass's Waffen-SS membership.
After an unsuccessful attempt to volunteer for the U-Boat fleet at age 15, Grass was conscripted into the Reichsarbeitsdienst (Reich Labor Service), and was then called up for the Waffen-SS in 1944. At that point of the war, youths could be conscripted into the Waffen-SS instead of the army (Wehrmacht); this was unrelated to membership of the SS proper.
Grass was trained as a tank gunner and fought with the 10th SS Panzer Division Frundsberg until its surrender to U.S. forces at Marienbad. In 2007, Grass published an account of his wartime experience in The New Yorker, including an attempt to "string together the circumstances that probably triggered and nourished my decision to enlist.. To the BBC, Grass said in 2006 :
However, as Grass has for many decades been an outspoken left-leaning critic of Germany's treatment of its Nazi past, his statement caused a great stir in the press.
Rolf Hochhuth said it was "disgusting" that this same "politically correct" Grass had publicly criticized Helmut Kohl and Ronald Reagan's visit to a military cemetery at Bitburg in 1985, because it also contained graves of Waffen-SS soldiers. In the same vein, the historian Michael Wolffsohn has accused Grass of hypocrisy in not earlier disclosing his SS membership. Also, Christopher Hitchens has pointed out that there have been critics who have called Grass' admission to be merely a publicity stunt to sell more copies of his new book. Many have come to Grass' defense based upon the fact the involuntary Waffen-SS membership was very early in Grass' life, and also precisely because he has always been publicly critical of Germany's Nazi past, unlike many of his conservative critics. For example, novelist John Irving has criticised those who would dismiss the achievements of a lifetime because of a mistake made as a teenager.
Grass's biographer Michael Jürgs spoke of "the end of a moral institution" Lech Wałęsa had initially criticized Grass for keeping silent about his SS membership for 60 years but after a few days had publicly withdrawn his criticism after reading the letter of Grass to the mayor of Gdańsk and admitted that Grass "set the good example for the others." On 14 August 2006, the ruling party of Poland, the "Law and Justice" party, called on Grass to relinquish his honorary citizenship of Gdańsk. Jacek Kurski stated, "It is unacceptable for a city where the first blood was shed, where World War II began, to have a Waffen-SS member as an honorary citizen." However, according to a poll ordered by city's authorities, the vast majority of Gdańsk citizens did not support Kurski's position. The mayor of Gdańsk, Paweł Adamowicz, said that he opposed submitting the affair to the municipal council because it was not for the council to judge history.
In September 2006, 46 authors, poets, artists and intellectuals from various Arab countries published a letter of solidarity with Grass, stating that his serving in the Waffen-SS was simply a case of a young, misguided teenager doing his duty. The text of the letter made it clear that the authors were not familiar with Grass's works or political views.