If Charles Powell had been marginally more imaginative and a bit less insular he would have invited Günter Grass to the notorious Chequers teach-in on Germany. True, it would have meant abandoning foolish fifth-form prejudices and avoiding banal generalities on German ‘character’, but the Prime Minister might have found it an instructive lesson in history from Germany’s foremost novelist. Grass would have talked ‘about the narrow-mindedness of this man [Kohl], his refusal to learn, his obtrusive know-it-all attitude – this man is simply unbearable as federal chancellor.’
The essays brought together in this volume are both timely and stimulating. The ‘German Question’ dominates Europe once again and this fact depresses Grass a great deal. He has consistently opposed reunification, arguing instead for a Confederation of two German states. For speaking these thoughts aloud, for saying that after Auschwitz Germans had forfeited their precious unity forever and remarks of this sort, he has been vilified. ‘Traitor to the Fatherland!’ ‘Rootless cosmopolitan.’ Time to do away with the likes of him.
Grass has a strong case. He reminds us that a unified German state existed for only seventy-five years: under the Prussians, in the embrace of the rickety Weimar Republic and finally the Third Reich. ‘The crime of genocide, summed up in the concept of Auschwitz and inexcusable under any circumstances, weighs on the conscience of this unified state.’ For Grass to repeat this formula ad nauseam has made him a hate figure in modern Germany, where a school of revisionist historians have been whitewashing the crimes of Hitler under the benign gaze of Chancellor Kohl.
Only recently during the East German elections, the supposedly liberal German magazine Der Spiegel published a cover with a caricature of the East German reform communist leader, Gregor Gysi. The portrait was anti-Semitic. The message below it: ‘The Enemy in our Midst’ took one back to the propaganda of the Third Reich prior to Auschwitz. The following issue of the magazine was flooded with angry letters, but no apology was forthcoming. This episode, to my recollection, found no echo in the British press, but it enraged Grass and other decent people in Germany. How does he explain this phenomena?
‘These days the Frankfurter Allegmeine Zeidetung is making short work of those people it categorically labels leftist intellectuals. The paper’s publishers aren’t satisfied to see that Communism is bankrupt: they want democratic socialism to be done for, including Dubcek’s dream of socialism with a human face. Capitalists and Communists have always had one thing in common: they condemn out of hand a Third Way.’
For Grass, the East German state after its revolution should have been encouraged to exist as a model social-democracy, with a regulated market and a more democratized version of the welfare state that already existed. He argues that West German capitalists saw such a model as a threat and pushed Kohl into outright annexation with the backing of the rest of Western Europe. ‘If worse comes to worst, they threaten to use the torture instruments of the market economy. If you don’t come to heel, you won’t get a thing. Not even bananas …’
The author sees this act of an ‘obscenely bragging fatherland, fattened by this swoop-and-grab action’ as a dangerous and short-sighted move which could create a serious crisis for the new Germany and the continent. The reports emanating from Berlin on the growing discontent of the new unemployed as the exchanged Deutsche Marks begin to vanish tend to substantiate Grass’s grim prognosis.
In ‘Writing After Auschwitz’ Grass describes his own literary and political evolution with an enviable elegance, but without any frills. No attempts to conceal his years in the Hitler Youth or to pretend that he was a resister even at that time. The shame must not be repressed through fantasy. Instead all writers have to understand Theodor Adorno’s dictum: ‘To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbarous, and also eats away at our insight into why it has become impossible to write poems nowadays.’ This injunction, Grass suggests, is not intended to be taken literally. Adorno is not calling for a ban on poetry. He is merely pushing writers into a sense of commitment which will never let Auschwitz happen again.
These essays represent, in their own way, how Grass took Adorno’s advice to heart. He has constantly battled against German nationalism and conservatism for he understands better than most that Hitler’s victory was only made possible by Kohl’s political fathers. And yet … And yet there is a problem. Grass’s commendable ‘third way’ has not found favour with the leaders of German social-democracy. They have consistently tended to make blocks with the Christian-democrats than forces on their left or on a similar wave-length. When, one wonders, will Günter Grass pen a public call to order directed against the pusillanimous leaders of the Party to which he has given unstinted support. The forthcoming elections might be a useful time for the novelist to demand some answers in the open.