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The call of the toad

Gunter Grass's 1990 diary has just been published. Former East German writer Monika Maron looks at how blinded Grass was by his own preconceptions.

On January 1st 1990, Günter Grass decided to start keeping a diary. After the fall of the Wall, so many unusual things were happening that he felt it was his duty to keep a record. He wrote of his intentions to make repeated forays across the border between the two German states and of his plans to get involved in the forthcoming elections. Now, twenty years after the fall of the Wall, he reveals the results of his duty-fulfilment: not in order to admit how many things he misjudged, not to celebrate the fact that the catastrophe he predicted never happened, but to prove that his warnings and his ominous predictions were right, then, later on and still today. He warned about practically everything that he saw on the horizon of German unity. And of course if you warn about absolutely everything you have a decent chance of being right about something: the centralised and opaque structures of the Treuhand (the agency that privatised East German enterprises) did indeed abet speculation and insider dealing; the unrealistic 1:1 exchange rate effectively ensured the failure of the GDR economy and mass job losses.

This is not new and nor, after the chaos of the early years, is it particularly interesting. More interesting, though, is the way Grass viewed the GDR and its inhabitants. Either he encountered no one on his travels who was optimistic about reunification despite the injustices and difficulties it would inevitably entail, or there was no space for such views in a picture that had been completed in advance. In Grass's eyes, the population of the GDR is a betrayed, misguided, colonised mass or a lot of depressed civil rights activists whose dream of a German-German confederation, one shared by Grass himself, had been brutally dashed by the West German colonial masters.

There is not a single self-confident, smart, strong East German - someone on a par with Grass himself - in the entire book, not even in the form of a reunification sceptic. Even the East German writers are portrayed as victims. Either, as in the case of Christa Wolf, as victims of the West Germans, or as victims of their own weaknesses exaggerated by the new conditions: Heiner Müller is half-hearted and routinely cynical; Rolf Schneider is well-informed but neither fish nor fowl; Jurek Becker did not respond nearly strongly enough when the critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki laid into Christa Wolf; Erich Loest and Günter der Bruyn are accused of attention-seeking after making a point of disagreeing with Grass during an event in the Petri Church - as if there could only be dishonourable and no good reasons for not sharing his opinion.

When, in September 1990, Aufbau Verlag was on the brink of being sold (the Holtzbrinck media group seemed to be the likely buyers), which would have presented a threat to Luchterhand as the publisher of numerous GDR writers, Grass wrote: How will Christa Wolf and Christoph Hein react? If even well-known writers don't dare to stand up to the grabbing hands of the Western colonial powers, how can the rest of the population be expected to show courage?

In the meantime we know how Christa Wolf and Christoph Hein reacted: they both became Suhrkamp authors, voluntarily it seems. But what was Günter Grass thinking? That East German writers would stay with East German publishers, that East German businesses belonged exclusively to East German people and that only Saxon professors should teach at universities in Saxony while Volkswagen was opening factories in Asia, America and anywhere else for that matter, while the Federal Republic was trying to attract Indian IT experts, and the entire world was, as Günter Grass would put it, mutually colonising itself?

It is almost impossible to even begin to understand the construction of Grass's political-theoretical thinking without continually worrying about the political sanity of the architect, and more specifically about his ability or readiness to perceive realities not to his liking. And part of the reality of 1990 was that the price of a German confederation would have been a completely depopulated GDR. Unless, that is, the Wall was re-erected - by the West Germans.

But the private Günter Grass, the father, traveller and partner of the various mothers of his children, certainly managed to retain a realistic view of things: A trip to Dresden elicits an almost depressive diary entry: Alone in the first class cabin of the train. The dirty windows, the godforsaken grey country, with its dilapidated industrial plants and cowering villages, remnants of another age. A sudden shower of snow. A sudden desire to be among my Portuguese cacti, which are closer to me than this cold strangeness.

And while on a visit to Brandenburg's Uckermark region, where one of the mothers of his children had recently bought a house very inexpensively, Grass notes: Swimming in the lake. The people on the bank look like leftovers from the 1950s. Lots of young but already overweight women have planted themselves like sea-cows. In the late afternoon went through the Randowbruch with a fat female agricultural-collective director to look at a paddock of Haflinger horses. Should I buy a Wallach for Nele who is horse-crazy like Laura used to be? I like the gently rolling landscape here, poor, sandy, seemingly forgotten and unlikely ever to see prosperity.

At the same time he insinuates that the inhabitants of this region (the one condemned to eternal poverty) some of whom are German expellees from Szczecin, are now certain that as a consequence of German unification Szczecin will belong to "us" again. History as regressive process: the call of the toad.

But the toad got it wrong. The borders between Szczecin and its surrounding region have become porous again, but it was the people of Szczecin who bought and renovated the Western Pomeranian villages and empty houses, who started businesses and created jobs, and it was the Germans who worked illegally on Szczecin's building sites, just as Polish builders do in Berlin.

I'm not saying that to err is shameful. Indeed Grass's diary could be seen as a testament to the fears of a man who has learned from history, and who saw Germany's state unity as a disaster waiting in the wings and which, luckily for him and the rest of us, never did. For Günter Grass, though, it is proof of his prophetic powers, or more modestly perhaps, of his political vision, or it quite simply shows that he was right, yet again.

But in actual fact, he is doing precisely what he accuses others of doing: he is colonising, if only mentally. He decides whose opinions are valid, he knows what's right for those gullible, backwards, Deutsch-Mark crazed East Germans, what they should want and idiotically don't want, and he steps up to intercede in their best interests, as if they were too stupid to articulate them themselves. He decides what succeeded and what failed. And German reunification was a failure for Grass, today and 18 years ago when, on 13 January 1991, finally reunited with his beloved Portuguese cacti he writes. Should, if have time and energy, take stock again next October 3rd in my usual 'dogmatic' way.

And this is exactly what he did. On October 2, 1991 Günter Grass rattled off a speech in Bitterfeld about bargains, victors, the reunification treaty as colonial order, the failure of unification. But the emphasis was on the stupidity of having ignored his, Grass's, suggestions for a cautious rapprochement and a later confederation of the two states. No, this unity is not worth celebrating, Grass said. ...Which of history's devils has ridden us, driving us to botch the gift of a possible confederation, and instead to hammer together a unity that supports nothing but its own ends.
Twelve months after reunification Grass explained to the people of Bitterfeld, who had been catapulted out of all certainties and habits, that German reunification had failed, that they themselves had been betrayed, robbed and colonised and, what's more, they were idiotic enough to have voted for this unfortunate mess.

In Bitterfeld-Wolfen after 1990, 50,000 people lost their jobs in one fell swoop. Air pollution sank 92 percent within two years, after factories closed. The people of Bitterfeld paid for air quality with their jobs, just as before they had paid for their jobs with their health. By 1996 the Treuhand had invested 850 million marks in demolition and renovation to open the way for new business. Today the chemicals park in Bitterfeld-Wolfen has 360 businesses and employes 11,000 people. And the saviour of the chemical triangle in Saxony and Saxony Anhalt is none other than the master of all colonisers, Helmut Kohl, who in 1991 promised to save the chemical region. Elf Aquitaine built an oil refinery in Leuna and Bayer located to Bitterfeld to make Aspirin.

In the year 2000, four solar enthusiasts from Berlin invested 60,000 DM of private capital in the village of Thalhaim, today a district of Bitterfeld Wolfen, to build a solar-cell plant for 40 employees. Now it is the world's largest solar cell manufacturer Q-cells which has attracted other solar companies, built a research and training centre, sponsored a chair for photovoltaics at the university of Halle and started up a joint training programme with the polytechnic college in Köthen. By now, around 3,500 people work in the solar valley of Bitterfeld-Wolfen. When Q-Cells went public, all the Bitterfelders who had been involved in building up the factory became shareholders and have since made more money than they would ever have dreamed was possible. The united city of Bitterfeld-Wolfen has adopted the emblem of the sun into its coat of arms.

His worst predictions have been exceeded, Günther Grass told die Zeit. And were he to return to Bitterfeld-Wolfen today, he would no doubt complain that the owner of the chemical park hails from Minden, that Bayer comes from Leverkusen, Guardian from the USA; his rancour would probably not even be blown away by the sight of blue sky over Bitterfeld, or even Lake Goitsche, a huge flooded mine, or the bright, rust-free facades of the clinker constructions and the huge building site of Solar Valley.

Of course he could also be asking himself what, in those days after the first year of reunification, would have been better than to end the relentless poisoning of the city and its inhabitants, which of course meant closing the clapped-out factories, tearing down the deteriorating buildings and decontaminating the soil - because otherwise Guardian, Bayer, Q-Cells and the rest of them would have avoided the place like the plague. He could ask himself how the city would be faring as part of an independent confederated GDR in a globalised world economy, armed with an equalisation of burdens, as Grass had suggested, instead of solidarity contributions and the federal budget.

He might also remember that in 1945, when 12 million expellees flooded into the bombed, demoralised and debt-ridden country, the Germans were not any nicer to each other then, and that it had taken almost 60 years before people started talking about the injury and humiliation inflicted on the unwelcome influx of people from the East. Forty-five years after the war, the East Germans have signed up, voluntarily, to be part of this rich, democratic country. But it will take longer than many people, myself included, hoped, before the sinews and nerve cords of the ruptured German organism can grow back together again, before the different experiences in East and West consolidate into a common German history. This is something that Günter Grass, with his background, his experiences and his sometimes delayed insights, could be expected to have known.


This article originally appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 7 February, 2009

Monika Maron is a writer who lived and worked in the GDR until 1988 when she emigrated to Hamburg.

Translation:lp - let's talk european