TWO STATES -- ONE NATION?
By Gunter Grass
Translated from the German by Krishna Winston with A.S. Wensinger
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 123 pp. $18.95
Every time I have sewed a thread of concern about the wisdom of German reunification into a newspaper story, I've heard from one or another exasperated German politician or academic, whose final stroke of argument is always that "the only people who are against unification are Gunter Grass and his kind."
And indeed from the first weeks after the crowds began pouring through the holes in the Berlin Wall, Grass, author of "The Tin Drum" and a persistent burr in the side of the German establishment, has been agitating against the re-creation of a greater Germany. He minces no words: After Auschwitz, the Germans simply do not deserve a united country.
Now, when the point is purely academic, Grass has produced a thin collection of speeches and interview transcripts that sadly detracts from the power of the view he has held ever since the day in 1945 when American soldiers, in their "educational zeal," forced the disbelieving 17-year-old Hitler Youth worker to look at photos of mounds of shoes, mounds of hair, mounds of bodies.
Six of the 10 pieces in "Two States -- One Nation?" were written before the Wall fell; many are painfully dated, and presented here without revision. Together, they are embarrassingly repetitive.
And together they fall short of proving Grass's central argument, that Germany, reunited, is "doomed to failure." Grass's fears begin logically: There is too much amnesia about the Holocaust, there is a young generation that knows no personal connection to the Nazi era and resents the constant reminders on television and in the classrooms, where liberal teachers trained in the confrontations of the '60s try to pass on their own struggle with guilt and responsibility.
Auschwitz, Grass writes, speaks "even against the right to self-determination granted to other peoples without hesitation. Auschwitz speaks against all this because one of the preconditions for the terrible thing that happened was a strong, unified Germany. We have every reason to fear ourselves as a unit."
In a way, Grass says, Auschwitz is a positive gain for Germans. "It has made possible this insight: Finally we know ourselves."
But then Grass steps beyond. Eventually, he says, "because enough is never enough, we'll succeed ... in subjugating economically a large chunk of Silesia and a small chunk of Pomerania," pieces of the German Reich that have been part of Poland for more than four decades.
Grass says out loud what many nervous critics of the new German power only mutter. After all, Chancellor Helmut Kohl did waffle for a dangerously long time before agreeing to guarantee the German-Polish border. But Grass's skepticism about his own nation has a fatal flaw: His startlingly blunt dismissal of Germany is aimed not at the people, nor at a particular government in Bonn or Berlin, but at the nation as concept, as if there were a mystical force called Germany that menaces the world ipso facto.
That jump -- blind to West Germany's 40 years of relative success with democracy, blind to the changes in its deeply Westernized populace -- robs Grass's legitimate concerns of credibility. The simplistic idea that history is a Xerox machine requires Grass to paint Kohl -- an uninspiring but clever power politician -- as venal, with only scanty evidence. In a short dialogue with East German author Stefan Heym, Grass sounds like a politician on the stump while Heym probes deeper, asking why foreigners picture Germans as always standing at attention, wondering about the Germans' internal tolerance of a distressing lack of freedom.
Grass is a prisoner of his socialist ideology. Like his Social Democratic Party, which appears ready to lose the first all-German elections by a record margin, he failed to understand that the East German revolution was as much a vote for VCRs and Volkswagens as it was a shout against communism. Grass finds more to fear from the West's smug materialism than from the East Germans' long acceptance of limited freedom. But it is the East Germans who are emerging from back-to-back dictatorships, their nationalist attitudes unleavened by the democratic experience of the West Germans.
His ideological blinders on the politics of the day are doubly frustrating because Grass's literature makes a point of abandoning absolutes. Grass is so busy fulminating about Helmut Kohl's swollen chest and self-satisfied grin that he fails to notice that, so far at least, the German people have taken to unification with a refreshing mixture of resignation and boredom.
The reviewer is Bonn and Berlin correspondent of The Washington Post.