The Berlin Fall: Germany's Great Skeptic Looks Back in Scorn on 20 Years of Reunification

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On a cold winter morning in late 1989, when a young man approached Gunter Grass at the central train station in Hamburg and accused Germany's most famous living writer of being a "traitor to his fatherland" (Vaterlandsverrater), 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. …

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