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On the campaign trail with Gunter Grass

One of Germany's foremost public intellectuals "does what he can" to boost the Social Democrats.

Nobel prize-winning German writer Gunter Grass smokes a pipe during a news conference in Madrid to promote his book "Peeling the Onion" on May 21, 2007. When it was published in 2006, "Peeling the Onion" met a swell of controversy, since its release coincided with Grass' admission that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS — something about which he had remained silent for 60 years. (Susana Vera/Reuters)

HALLE, Germany — In depressed, eastern German market towns like Halle, public visits by VIPs of any sort, much less Nobel Prize winners, are rare events. This is exactly why Germany's internationally acclaimed novelist, Gunter Grass, has come to Halle in the final stretch of Germany's nationwide election campaign. Grass, 82, is stumping for his lifelong party, the Social Democrats.

The consummate public intellectual, Grass has been engaged in the knock-down-drag-out of German public life since the 1950s. His postwar classic "The Tin Drum," published in 1959, thrust Germans' atonement for the crimes of the Nazi era into West Germany’s discourse. With unflagging moral tenacity and a stubborn streak that infuriates even his allies, he has since weighed in on just about every major issue affecting Germany — and every four years he takes to the campaign trail. Even though his old friend Willy Brandt, the great postwar Social Democrat, is no longer alive, Grass has remained true to the party and its egalitarian ideals. At a modest little beer garden alongside one of Halle's parks, Grass is obviously the center of attention. The native of the Free City of Danzig (today Gdansk, Poland) exudes an aura of thoughtfulness and wisdom, drawing occasionally on his mahogany pipe as he chats with the local politicos. Wearing attire straight out of the postwar decades, he looks the way Germans have long come to know Grass, with a mustard-color tweed sport jacket, baggy wide-wale corduroys and a maroon v-neck sweater over a collared shirt. He still has a full head of naturally black hair and a bushy, down-turned moustache.

“I like the campaign trail," says Grass in his gravelly, northern German brogue. He looks me right in the eye, thin plastic glasses perched on his generous outcrop of a nose. “I get to go places I otherwise wouldn’t, and talk with people about what matters to them.”

Even though his public spats with the Social Democrats have often been bruising — such as over the party’s role in cancelling Germany’s liberal asylum law — he lobbies for the flagging party with brio. At the lecturn in the jam-packed Burgerhaus auditorium in Halle, he doesn’t hesitate to draw on history’s lessons: The Weimar Republic of the 1930s, he reminds Halle’s voters, was brought down when the Social Democrats were sabotaged from the left and the right. This, though he doesn’t say it, opened the way for Hitler’s reign of terror.

This election, Grass preaches at every stop, is particularly critical: “If the Christian Democrats and the Liberals pull off a victory,“ he waves a finger in the air, “we’ll have in power the same free-market radicalism responsible for the global economic crisis. It’ll be like putting the wolf in charge of the sheep!”