Commentary Magazine


Two States-One Nation?, by Giinter Grass

The German Question

Two States—One Nation?
by Günter Grass.
Translated by Krishna Winston with A.S. Wensinger. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 95 pp. $18.95.

His country’s most famous writer, Günter Grass is nothing if not consistent. For decades, as this collection of essays, speeches, and interviews shows, he minimized, warned against, and poured scorn on the idea that the Germans ever could or should live in one nation-state again. “Reunification is a word devoid of meaning,” he told the Bonn press club in 1967. Of course, as soon as the Wall came down, it was clear that reunification would follow. And indeed, this has come about even faster than its champions hoped for. But the events of the last year do not seem to have changed Grass’s viewpoint at all.

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The author of The Tin Drum has always stressed two reasons why his countrymen, unlike any other ethnic-linguistic group in the world, must not elect one parliament. First, a united Germany was and is bound to be a menace. Grass put it this way in a speech to a Social Democratic party congress after the storming of the Wall: “No one in his right mind and cursed with memory can allow so much power to be concentrated in the center of Europe again.” Second, a united Germany means the Federal Republic with its Deutschmarks swallowing the so-called Democratic Republic, which is a shame, since Grass believes East Germany had its own distinctive character and achievements well worth preserving.

To be sure, Grass characterizes the East German set-up in practice as a Prussian-Stalinist prison. Yet for him it was never just that, never beyond reforming and redeeming itself with a little help from its friends in the other, the free-market Germany belonging to NATO where Grass himself lived, wrote, voted, and agitated. A better, a truly democratic Democratic Republic was both desirable and possible. A self-reformed East Germany would have blazed a Third Way, Grass said, would have created a form of socialism with a human face which West Germans too could learn from and emulate. And his compatriots on this side of the Wall certainly had a lot of room for improvement.

He never gave high grades in anything to the state founded by Konrad Adenauer and the Western allies. Its constitution might be exemplary, but its conscience was too easy, its belly too swollen, its irredentist fantasies too slyly pandered to by Christian Democratic politicians, and there were altogether too many Nazis at large, of whom Kurt Kiesinger and Hans Globke were among the higher-placed. Grass’s first, and best, novels implied all this. Having become famous, he plunged into West German politics. His writing naturally suffered. He beat the drum for the Social Democrats and their leader, Willy Brandt, a man who had actually deserted the Third Reich to become a Norwegian citizen.

Brandt’s immaculate past appealed to Grass. Equally important, the ex-mayor of embattled West Berlin not only favored recognizing the East German state, but was for renouncing all claims to the Lost Lands east of the Oder-Neisse—i.e., Silesia, Pomerania, East Prussia, and Grass’s native Danzig. This recognition and renunciation were the cornerstones of Brandt’s Ostpolitik, a policy Grass energetically backed before and during Brandt’s chancellorship. The goal was normality. If the policy had been carried out in full, it would have meant West Germany’s making a separate peace with the Soviet satellite system, and explicitly granting the legitimacy and permanency of the state-behind-the-wall.

Ostpolitik was presumably Realpolitik. Neither Brandt nor Grass cared to be known as naive, or soft. Grass in a lecture in 1970, reprinted here, was categorical—West Germany would never go Communist, East Germany would never go capitalist, so why not face the facts and proceed from there? His preposterous, dangerous, real-life villains were always men like the publisher Axel Springer and the politician Franz-Josef Strauss, who insisted that the other Germany was illegitimate, and that if it were treated as such, it would eventually collapse. Neither Springer nor Strauss lived to witness it, but if anyone has been vindicated by what has happened, in the last year, they have been.

Grass will not admit it. Worse, he has not taken the opportunity to do a post-mortem, to analyze the origins and therefore the character and prospects of the defunct Democratic Republic. In fact, as is now blindingly obvious, it was little more than that part of Germany occupied by the Red Army in 1945 but not handed to the Poles. Its longevity depended on the readiness of the Soviets to bring their tanks into the streets of East Berlin. Someone like Grass, who wrote a play about the 1953 uprising in which he crucifies his fellow writer Bertolt Brecht for his slavish devotion to the Communist regime, should really have understood this. And he should understand that the Wall finally fell, not thanks to “the revolutionary will of the [East German] people,” but because word got out that Mikhail Gorbachev, for his own reasons, had told East Germany’s Communist boss Erich Honecker to forget about the tanks.

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Once it no longer flowed from the muzzle of a T-72, East Germany passed into history with astonishing speed. Astonishing, and, for some West Germans like Grass, also with disappointing speed. For to the end, Grass wished the other Germany, brandishing its “new, nonviolent, revolutionary idealism,” to be given every chance of survival. His sleek, fat part of Germany must provide a subsidy without insisting that the other part go to a market economy. He did not explain why West German capitalists and taxpayers would wish to bankroll a Third Way—especially when the East Germans themselves were fleeing west at an accelerated tempo through the holes in the Wall.

But if Grass is disappointed, it is not with the bankers of Frankfurt who insisted on their terms for aid. It is with his own party, which, after first resisting reunification as he urged, embraced the idea, believing it could profit at the ballot box. And he is disappointed with the erstwhile East Germans, who in their first genuine elections mostly preferred Mammon to idealism and voted Christian Democratic, trading their “painfully fought-for . . . identity” for annexation and a mess of hard currency. This disappointment is not less vivid for being implicit. As is the pathos, in retrospect, of Grass’s call to the Social Democrats, only a year ago, to take credit for the fall of the Wall, to seize the future and “show the will to shape the course of political events.” This is, in its misguided way, a brave book.

And one with a pedigree. There is, after all, the patriotic tradition of Lessing and Heine, of writers who fashioned an enlightened German culture while distrusting, if not actively disliking, their romantic, sentimental, brutal compatriots. Grass puts himself explicitly in this tradition. That is, he does not deny that the Germans constitute a single, self-conscious ethnic-linguistic group—on the contrary, he admits and asserts it. “The GDR,” he wrote in 1984, “has not succeeded in creating its own national literature.” But rather than necessitating a single state, this single culture ought to be enough for the Germans. “I believe,” Grass explained in 1984, “that culture . . . can provide a sufficiently solid foundation for us to redefine the concept of the nation, down to the practical details.”

He foundered on these “details.” Were the two Germanys to be preserved by preserving the Wall? No, it was, for Grass, a “vile border.” The two states would, instead, join in “confederation,” each reserving enough sovereignty so that both could “fulfill [their] obligations to their respective alliances.” This plea for the Warsaw Pact was delivered last year, in a “Short Speech by a Rootless Cosmopolitan.” Twenty-three years ago Grass offered a different model: the Swiss, “an example of a confederation that does not preclude a sense of nationhood.” Well, the Swiss speak four languages. And the Warsaw Pact died when the Wall did. Grass knows these things but cannot bring himself to agree that nothing but self-determination and a single nation-state were in the cards for his people the moment the postwar order dissolved.

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Above all, if Grass wanted the Germans to form no more or less than a “cultural nation in confederative pluralism,” it was because he distrusts them, fears them when they are united. He points out, correctly, that for most of their history the Germans have not lived in a single country, and that both times when they did they finished by bringing “grief” and “misfortune” down on their neighbors and themselves. “In a mere seventy-five years,” he says, “. . . our unified state filled the history books of the world with suffering, ruin, defeat, millions of refugees, millions of dead, and a burden of crimes we will never be able to throw off.” So the fact of Auschwitz cancels the German “right to self-determination granted to other peoples without hesitation.”

Thus spoke Grass to university students in Frankfurt a year or so ago, and the fact that he could is another demonstration of West German democracy. Yet though he deserves respect for it, his reading of history is debatable. “We have every reason to fear ourselves as a unit,” he told the students. Does this mean that when Germans are divided into several units, when they are separated from each other, they are to be feared less? Hitler made hay with the Versailles Treaty, which among other things accorded self-determination and political unity to all the peoples of Europe, except the poor Germans, A refugee at Oxford in 1939, the Czech liberal nationalist Eduard Beneš told his hosts, Churchillite dons all, that he and Thomas Masaryk had made a deadly mistake in 1919, when they got the Allies to include the Sudetenland and its Germans in Czechoslovakia.

“I fear a Germany simplified from two states into one,” Grass said before the latest simplification. He hoped “our neighbors would put their foot down.” They never even tried. But is it clear that a Germany somehow kept divided by the other Europeans, abnormally discriminated against and resentful about it, would be safer than the present colossus of 80 million? A question for academics and prophets. All an ordinary citizen of the world can do is mention some facts and hope for the best.

As a matter of fact, the present West German government of Kohl and Genscher, which moved heaven and earth to speed reunification, has formally renounced the Lost Lands. It can reasonably be hoped that German colonization of Central and Eastern Europe will be benign this time. It can also be hoped that, in swallowing East Germany, the democratic, anti-militaristic West will smother the old, jobless secret police and the young, jobless neo-Nazis. Which is not to say that the Germans, now that they have been relieved of their chains and stigma, do not bear watching. They do, especially if times turn bad. Though history seems to have run over Grass like a train over a cartoon figure, only the years will tell whether this little book of his goes down as a curiosity or a cry in the wilderness.

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