In Other Words

The Berlin Fall

Germany’s great skeptic looks back in scorn on 20 years of reunification.

On a cold winter morning in late 1989, when a young man approached Günter Grass at the central train station in Hamburg and accused Germany's most famous living writer of being a "traitor to his fatherland" (Vaterlandsverräter), he was expressing a nasty form of what was then a common sentiment. The Berlin Wall had fallen only weeks before, the reunification of the eastern and western halves of the country was on the horizon, and the public was enthused by the tides of history that finally seemed to be turning in its favor. Grass, however, wasn't just abstaining from the national celebration; he was doing his best to dampen it, arguing in speeches and articles that East Germany would do better to maintain its independence for a while, rather than rush into the arms of the West. For many Germans, this call for caution was an act of betrayal.

Twenty years later, Grass's journals from that fateful year, published in January under the title Unterwegs von Deutschland nach Deutschland (Journeys from Germany to Germany), elicit a different response. Throughout the book, Grass assumes the mantle of Cassandra, his dissenting voice opposed—or simply ignored—by a society giddily riding the crest of historic events. Today, however, Grass is no longer charged with treason when he recounts his efforts to slow the march toward reunification. Regardless of which part of the country he is in, his public readings are now accompanied by nods of recognition.

Indeed, the national consensus on reunification has met Grass's skepticism more than halfway, and it's worth noting the great distance it traveled in doing so. That reunification would be a triumph was the conventional wisdom both in Germany and abroad. With a united Germany on the horizon in March 1990, the cover of Time magazine asked, "Should the World Be Worried?" British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did not hesitate to answer that question in the affirmative: In addition to her public efforts to halt reunification, she privately gathered the English-speaking world's most prominent German-history scholars to discuss how Europe should prepare for the renewed expression of Germany's war-making national character. The prevailing opinion throughout the West was that the new Germany would quickly surmount any economic hiccups and that the real challenge would lie in ensuring that the strengthened country remained cooperative on the international stage.

Enter Grass, a natural candidate to puncture those predictions. Grass won the Nobel Prize in 1999 for his work as a novelist, but in Germany he's more readily identified with a parallel career as his society's moral truth-teller, the self-styled embodiment of its national conscience. In his 50 years of public life, Grass has exposed his fellow citizens to countless jeremiads, targeting everything from militarism to acid rain, from mistreatment of immigrants to the exploitation of the working class.

Grass's literary sensibility, psychological acuity, and sensitivity to moral cant have helped him look clearly at his country's many self-delusions. His early critique of Chancellor Helmut Kohl now seems especially farsighted. In a 1990 essay, "A Bargain-Basement Deal Called East Germany," Grass argued that Kohl's government was encouraging Westerners to see the East not as a polity in need of justice but as an undervalued property to be bought low and, presumably, sold high later. Even at the time Grass was writing Journeys, evidence against Kohl was accruing: The one-to-one currency exchange that he offered won many votes from Easterners whose purchasing power suddenly multiplied, but it also multiplied the debts of Eastern industries, condemning many of them to immediate bankruptcy. As Grass notes in his journal, many Easterners quickly regretted the votes they cast for Kohl's plan, some even fatalistically pleading that they were too ignorant of the laws of capitalism and democracy to avoid succumbing to the allure of Kohl's promised shortcut.

Grass's criticism extends to Kohl's heavy-handed mechanism for codifying reunification. The West German government arranged for East Germany to be annexed under the West's existing constitution, dispensing with a reunification produced through cooperation by equal parties. Instead, the East was made to conform overnight to the West's laws, standards, and regulations. The process left no political room to articulate a defense for any positive aspect of life in East Germany, though there were plenty of arguments to be made in favor of the East's education and child-care systems and its fostering of gender equality. Grass shows a Federal Republic of Germany that is comfortable displaying nationalist swagger and materialist entitlement—a dismaying portrait.

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."

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.



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