Most of all, however, Grass bristled at the lazy triumphalism of his fellow citizens. This was not simply an aesthetic judgment. Grass was sure that the giddy public discourse cultivated in 1990 was incapable of addressing the weighty issues confronting the country. The refrain in those days was that "the train has left the station"—reunification was beyond anyone's control to stop. In a February 1990 letter to the editor of Der Spiegel, Grass pointedly asked whether anyone else had noticed the foreboding quality of the metaphor. "A train that can't be stopped, that can't respond to signals," Grass wrote, "is destined for a catastrophic accident."
Today, Germany finds itself picking through the wreckage of the accident that Grass saw coming. East Germany's landscapes have not "bloomed," as Kohl promised. Instead, its economy is stagnant, its prospects are precarious, and its mood is foul. The region is trapped in a downward spiral of residential and commercial flight westward. East Germany's shrinking cities have proven a boon not only for the urban planners charged with managing their slow-motion collapse, but also for the extremist neo-Nazi groups and neo-Communist parties that have amply recruited from their stranded populations.
It's not that the German government hasn't tried to spark the economy of its Eastern annex. For the past 20 years, West German residents have transferred about 5 percent of their annual national GDP to their fellow citizens as part of the stimulus-cum-infrastructure project dubbed "Building Up the East" (Aufbau Ost). And the infrastructure throughout the former German Democratic Republic is now indeed first-rate: The four-hour car ride from Hamburg to Berlin that Grass took in 1990 over uneven East German roads has been replaced by a 90-minute high-speed commuter rail line.
But Grass's argument that reunification was motivated by the West's desire to flip the East like a dilapidated apartment building has now become a damning truism, unwelcome as it was at the time. Indeed, the East's continued lag in economic development has less to do with the quality of the area's concrete or currency than with the country's straining solidarity. Today's East and West Germans harbor deep mutual suspicion. The stereotypes are deeply ingrained and readily conjured: "Ossis" are racist, lazy, and self-pitying, while "Wessis" are self-centered, money-obsessed, and arrogant. Statistics show that Germans from opposite sides of the former border rarely marry, and they sometimes seem to make efforts to avoid mingling socially. As the German parliamentary president admitted in 2007, "The fact of the matter is, ‘Ossis' and ‘Wessis' can't stand each other."[[BREAK]]
It shouldn't have to be this way. Easterners are fortunate that among the few symbols testifying to the potential of their region is the country's current chancellor, Angela Merkel, who grew up in Templin, a town in the countryside of the former East. Even beyond Merkel's election to the chancellorship—which for East Germans had something of the meaning that Barack Obama's election as U.S. president had for African Americans—former East Germans have more than earned the respect of their fellow citizens for their very real accomplishment 20 years ago in peacefully bringing about the end of the dictatorship, contributing to German history its only example of a successful democratic revolution.
Despite these opportunities for creating a narrative of mutual respect and reconciliation, Grass has not tempered his critique; if anything, the sold-out speaking tour he has undertaken around the two Germanys this year for the book (which Grass's publisher says has sold well for a collection of journal entries, if nothing on the scale of The Tin Drum) has reinforced the apocalyptic prophecies he made two decades ago. His only concession is that his judgments might not have been pointed enough: "Sometimes I ask myself if I should have been clearer with my criticisms," he said at a reading at a university in Munich in April. Here, Grass's judgment shows signs of being faulty: Although they accord him respect for his intellectual courage and his demonstrated prescience, few Germans are clamoring for a less restrained Grass. The country is aware that Grass's political judgment can sometimes be carried away by his moralism.
Eventually, someone will have to take the lead in fostering a conversation about reunification that moves past the black and white of Kohl's bluster and Grass's baiting, beyond the back-and-forth accusations of treason and imperialism. If Grass isn't the person to drive that train, however, he's at least the one who brought it to the station.