Germany's Cassandra

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Günter Grass still thinks reunification was a bad idea.

By Paul Hockenos

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I Am Martin EisenstadtUnterwegs von Deutschland nach
Deutschland: Tagebuch 1990

(On the Road From Germany to
Germany: Diary 1990, German Ed.)

by GŁnter Grass
Steidl Verlag, 255 pp.

Twenty years ago, writer Günter Grass, Germany’s most noted Nobel laureate, began a special diary. The Berlin Wall, which had divided Germany for over a quarter century, had been torn down, unleashing huge questions about Germany’s destiny and its place in the wider world. Grass felt that witness demanded to be kept. The opening of the German-German border gave him the previously unimaginable opportunity to travel through the German Democratic Republic during the brief, adrenaline-charged interregnum between the wall’s fall (November 1989) and unification (October 1990). During that period, Grass—ever the public intellectual—was not only an observer but, as he has been since the postwar fifties, an active participant in the debate over the historically loaded German Questions.

The publication this year (in German only) of the Grass diaries, Unterwegs von Deutschland nach Deutschland: Tagebuch 1990 (On the Road From Germany to Germany: Diary 1990), nearly two decades after German unification provide a thoughtful antidote to the flood of self-congratulation that is certain to accompany the anniversary celebrations this year and next. Those observations are stark, perhaps in retrospect overly so: Grass was one of the nation’s most outspoken critics of unification and its architects—U.S. President George H. W. Bush, and the special object of Grass’s reprobation, conservative West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the undisputed father of unification.

It is hard today to imagine any other outcome than unification as it transpired, namely the eastern territories’ total incorporation into the Federal Republic and the united Germany’s immersion in NATO. There are few today who’d contest unification, who’d wish there were two Germanys again. But it is worth remembering that many German leftists, particularly those schooled in postwar West Germany, initially balked at the prospect of “reuniting” Germany at all, which was still, as they saw it, atoning for the sins of its recent past. Günter Grass, born in the Free City of Danzig (now Gdansk) in 1927, was a generation older than the skeptical baby boomers but no less cautious about rousing a virulent nationalism that postwar democratization may have mellowed but not purged.

In the diary, which is punctuated with Grass’s own quirky ink sketchings, the then sixty-two-year-old embarks on a series of extended reading tours to eastern cities like Leipzig, Dresden, and Cottbus, as well as further-flung locales in the forests of Mark Brandenburg and along the coast of the Baltic Sea. He crisscrosses borders that had just weeks before been the Iron Curtain—the watchtowers still in place—where good-humored East German guards just wave his car through. One asks to have a copy of The Tin Drum autographed. Grass remarks with consternation at the eastern Germans’ new obsession with products from the west, as if a carton of milk with advertising on it were better than milk from a state-run cooperative in unadorned packaging. “The money, the money’s got to come,” a Leipzig taxi driver tells him. “It doesn’t matter how; the main thing is the money.”

Like just about everyone on the German left, Grass is shocked when the freshly liberated easterners throw their first democratic vote behind the West German–backed conservatives, spurning not only the Social Democrats but also the courageous dissidents who were the catalyst for the peaceful revolution of autumn 1989. The conservative landslide sets the stage for unification, thereafter a question of how and not whether. Grass shakes his head in disbelief as his good friend Willy Brandt, the world-famous Social Democrat and elder statesman, welcomes German unity, even appearing publicly alongside Kohl. Clearly, Germans are on a fast track to a one-sided unification.

Initially, Grass objects outright to settling the greatest of all German questions—the nation’s proper borders—with a one-state solution. Now long forgotten, there was an array of options for the two Germanys under discussion in early 1990, including ideas of an independent, democratic GDR that coexisted alongside the mighty Federal Republic. Germany still owes a debt to humanity, Grass argued, namely the one it incurred as perpetrator of the Holocaust. Germany’s division is the price it pays for Auschwitz. Like Brandt’s drop to his knees at the Warsaw Uprising Memorial in 1970, division symbolizes Germany’s guilt and ever-present acknowledgment of its wrongdoing.

More to the point, Grass doesn’t trust a resurgent Germany in the heart of Europe. Like the Poles he grew up with, he fears the reemergence of a bellicose patria, one that might even dare to return its capital to Berlin, to once again fly its national colors without shame, and even to send Bundeswehr troops into foreign wars. (There were mainstream voices in the ruling Christian Democrats who wanted to renegotiate Germany’s eastern border with Poland in order to grab back territories lost in the war.)

But as the year 1990 advances, unification of some sort becomes inevitable. Grass adjusts to the possibility of a loose German federation composed of both Germanys’ federal states, under a new liberal constitution and geostrategically neutral. Yet this concept, too, bandied about briefly, is soon plowed under by the juggernaut of history, steered by Kohl and Bush. Grass is disgusted with his own Social Democrats’ inability to formulate a viable alternative to the chancellor’s Anschluss.

More than anything, the west’s triumphal manner and the veneration of the deutschmark über alles galls Grass. He watches eastern Germans buy into Kohl’s promise of “blossoming vistas” that are supposed to replace the grim wastelands of socialism. The easterners submit all too passively, he comments, merely exchanging one provider for another. The west’s politicos shamelessly forgo the bare minimum of mutual respect: the promulgation of a new all-German constitution, something explicitly stipulated in West Germany’s Grundgesetz in case of unification. The overnight introduction of the western currency—instead of the gradual transition Grass, among many others, advocated—exposes the shaky, in-transition eastern firms to competition they can’t withstand. The state-run companies begin to go under one after another, unemployment skyrocketing before the ink is dry on the treaty.

On October 3, 1990, Grass writes sardonically, “Even a full moon on the Day of German Unification. Kohl gets his way on absolutely everything!” Grass—the “pessimist of the nation,” as he is now called—appears on a prominent talk show that evening, the only reserved voice among the guests. “It was right to spit on their jolly unification parade,” he remarks to his diary.

So, twenty years down the road, is it not obvious who was right and who was wrong—Grass, Germany’s Cassandra, or unification’s makers?

The first decade of unity turned out, as Grass predicted, to be a fiasco. Joblessness soared. Soon there were gaping “black holes,” desperate regions with 35 percent unemployment, galloping depopulation, and plunging birthrates. Instead of an aboveboard privatization of state enterprises, they were sold off for a song; most never resumed operation. The buyers’ origins told the story: 85 percent were western Germans, 10 percent were foreigners, and only 5 percent were easterners. On top of this, the Ossis were blamed for the mess, for being too dull-witted to pick up the tricks of the free market. (Indeed, the very name Ossi, which simply means “people from the east,” became something of a pejorative.) Unification’s real cost, an astronomical bill that the west’s taxpayers would foot, was only beginning to come into focus.

The second decade of unification, however, saw a more vigorous economic upturn in much of the east, a result in part of enormous subsidized investments in infrastructure. Joblessness, though still higher than in most of the west, has tapered off and fallen, though the black holes still exist. Cities like Dresden and Chemnitz (formerly Karl-Marx-Stadt) are boomtowns, with comparable per capita incomes to districts of western Berlin and the Ruhrgebiet. There is no hint of political instability even though the reform communist party has made a surprising comeback as part of the new Left Party. It capitalizes on the lingering resentment that sits deep among easterners across the political spectrum. The far right, too, though on the margins, musters support among the have-nots in those depressed regions where anybody with skills or an education picked up and left in the 1990s.

Grass’s gloomy prophecies about a sinister German nationalism proved off the mark. There was never a popular appetite in 1989 or 1990 to snatch back swathes of Poland or centralize the state in the Prussian style. Postwar democracy and the processes of introspection set into motion by critically minded intellectuals like Grass (his 1959-published Tin Drum was a defining moment) had civilized German nationalism and undermined its expansionist logic. In fact, one could even argue that Germany is the model nation in coming to terms with an unsavory past. Neither Italy, Spain, nor Japan, to say nothing of the likes of Romania and Slovakia, has begun to confront its fascist collaboration the way Germany has, even if the process transpired in fits and starts, nudged along by intellectuals like Grass. Germans do wave flags now—and no one cares. NATO allies demand they send more troops to Afghanistan’s war zones, and it is the Germans who object.

Improbably, at the ripe age of eighty-two, this autumn Günter Grass undertook another tour of eastern Germany. In the hardest hit of backwater ex-socialist towns, where crumbling housing blocks and empty storefronts still line the streets, he reads from his 1990 diaries and even does a little stumping for the Social Democrats. Still the hardheaded contrarian, he feels largely vindicated in his dark prophecies from twenty years ago. Germany may be united on paper, he argues, but resentment and income disparity still divide the nation. He sees the glass as half full, at best. Clearly, after more than five decades, Citizen Grass refuses to give Germany’s powerful a free ride.


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Paul Hockenos is a writer living in Berlin, Germany. His latest book is Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany.
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