Günter Grass: A colossus reborn

From Germany to Germany: Diary, 1990 - review.

Günter Grass in 2001
Günter Grass in 2001. Photograph: Getty Images

From Germany to Germany: Diary, 1990
Günter Grass
Harvill Secker, 272pp, £15.99

The prospect of German reunification, which became real with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, filled Günter Grass with horror. To Grass, the division of Germany was both a way of protecting Germany from itself and a kind of an eternal punishment for Auschwitz. To challenge the division of Germany, he seemed to suggest, meant forgetting German history and, in particular, the Holocaust.

Throughout 1990, Grass kept a diary, now published in English. Because it starts in January, the reader has no sense of whether Grass – then in his early sixties – felt any initial joy at the democratic revolution in East Germany. Certainly, by the beginning of 1990, he seems no longer to see anything positive in the transformation taking place.

In a series of articles and speeches, Grass tries to “demonstrate that the alleged right to Germany unity, in the form of a reunited state, is refuted by Auschwitz”. But he is hopelessly out of step with the mood in Germany – so much so that passers-by yell “Traitor!” at him. By mid-February, he writes that he has “a powerful premonition of disaster”. “Will it still be ‘my Germany’?” he wonders.

In March, in the first (and last) democratic elections in the GDR, East Germans voted overwhelmingly
for the Christian Democrats and thus endorsed reunification and ended the possibility of the “third way” between capitalism and communism for which Grass, like some others on the West German left, had hoped. As the pace of the transition towards an Einheitsstaat, or unitary state, quickens in the spring, he becomes increasingly resigned.

Grass, a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), had supported Willy Brandt in the 1960s and published another diary about the 1969 election campaign. Yet he is dismayed to see Brandt, too, supporting reunification. Although Oskar Lafontaine, at the time the SPD’s candidate for chancellor, opposed reunification, Grass is frustrated by his failure to articulate an alternative to the “annexation” of East Germany. He repeatedly threatens to leave the party in protest (he finally quit in 1992 after the SPD agreed to tighten Germany’s asylum law, following a series of horrific racial attacks).

By August, Grass says he is exhausted by the new Germany that is taking shape. “Why does it always have to be so grand, so Wagnerian?” he asks. In October, a couple of weeks after reunification takes place, he writes that he is suffering from a massive depression. As the tumultuous year comes to an end, Chancellor Kohl –whom Grass compares to Goebbels – is triumphantly re-elected in the first all-German election in December and Grass undergoes a hernia operation. It’s Germany “ad nauseam”, as he puts it at one point.

In retrospect, many of Grass’s fears now seem slightly absurd. And yet, two decades after reunification, it is now clear that a very different Germany has emerged, as he predicted it would – though in a different way than he imagined. Kohl pressed ahead with European integration and actually gave up the Deutschmark – which Grass had seen as driving reunification – in exchange for the euro. Rather than constraining Germany as some hoped, the single currency has amplified German power in Europe and helped create the “colossus” that Grass feared. What is still not clear is how the story will end.