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  • GUNTER GRASS

  • Saturday 13 February 1993 01:02





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Indy/Life

Last Summer, my wife and I visited the small Danish island of Mon. We have been going there for years and by now have learnt that to travel such a small distance offers no real escape from the news, particularly in the crisis month of August. The previous year the attempted coup in the disintegrating Soviet Union kept us huddled round the radio; the year before it was blanket coverage of the Gulf crisis; last year it was Germany.

The island of Mon has plenty to offer. It is a stopping-off place for a thousand and more grey geese, and in August there is heavy air traffic on the wide grazing pastures sheltered by Baltic dunes. All day long the geese practise take-off and landing. Sometimes herons will suddenly plunge and scatter them: wild consternation that gradually abates. The sky above the dunes and sea is always full of their formations.

Last August, though, the sky was empty but for a few seagulls. The dry summer had parched the grazing grounds, and there were no geese on the great airfields. Only the crises still arrived punctually by wireless. Two events arrived together: the sporting successes and failures of Barcelona and the war in Bosnia. The news overlapped. Events happening at the same time became the same events. The Olympic Games were being held in Sarajevo; the stadium was within reach of Serbian artillery. Here they totted up medals, there it was casualties. Terror became an Olympic discipline. A younger writer than me, with a lighter touch, would have found words to cover both arenas in one epic narrative: snipers and Ladies’ Epee; beta-blockers and blockade runners; abridged national anthems and the 17th pointless ceasefire; one lot of fireworks here, another there . . .

But all I noted down were thoughts about Germany. My confounded leaden- footedness] On our grey-goose island, we tried to avoid the disruptions of the crisis month; after all, blackberries abounded and there was fresh fish every day. But even between the chopped-off flounder heads – wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper – there was room for small print


and scraps of headlines.

What is it that desensitises sensitive people? We were irritable, but also dulled. Too much was happening at once. Can we blame the surfeit of information for our apathetic society? One person stares at the hole in the ozone layer, another harps on about the cost of health insurance. Spend too long wailing about the misery of the Bosnian refugees, and you forget to think about Somalia, where people starve every day. Is the world out of joint, or is it only the stock market going crazy again?

When the Olympic Games were over, Sarajevo had the headlines all to herself for a while, until even that nightmare no longer frightened us. Then came news from Germany, and we knew it was truly August.


In a way, it was nothing new, just the old story again. More than 500 right-wing extremists repeatedly stormed a refugee hostel in Rostock-Lichtenhagen. From nearby windows, the citizenry looked on and applauded as stones and Molotov cocktails hit their targets. The police respected the display of popular will and kept well back. Shortly afterwards, they enthusiastically set off to arrest left-wing counter-demonstrators: to avoid possible escalation, as they said. On our radio we heard the politicians vying with one another in their well-rehearsed expressions of dismay.

But then more and more people watched the refugee hostels burning. The chanting was filmed and syndicated abroad. The ‘ugly face of Germany’ had been rediscovered.

There were no distractions this time, not the Olympics, not Kabul, not Sarajevo. ROSTOCK, it said in big letters, wherever you looked. And on my holiday island in Denmark – a country not overly fond of foreigners, but a place where recourse to the murderous hatred of Rostock is barely imaginable – I jotted down some questions: Is there no end to German recidivism? Do Germans necessarily botch everything, even the unification that was handed to us on a plate? Are we condemned to relive our history? Are we, even now, incapable of humane treatment of one another? What do we lack, with all our wealth?

Since Rostock, Germany has changed. We now know that all the assurances of those unification-happy days were hollow. The newspapers trumpeted the end of the post-war era, the beginning of a new chapter in our history – a dozen eager historians stood by to write it. But now all the repugnant triumphalist din has stopped, and the past has tapped us on the shoulder.

Not that the shock of being collared silenced us quite. There have been protests, demonstrations to prove our capacity to fight back; but the politics responsible for our lapse into barbarism over the last three years have remained on course: the individual right to asylum – the jewel of our constitution] – continues to be sacrificed to the god of popular feeling; the process of unification without unity accelerates; and neither government nor opposition is willing or able to call a halt to the shameless auctioning-off of the bankrupt GDR and think about how the burden might be shared.

The unfairness of that apportioning of the load has repeatedly driven me to speak out. For 40 years the second-class citizens of the GDR, exploited, walled in, spied on and spoken for, have had to pay for the war on behalf of the whole of Germany. Bad luck they didn’t make it to the West and freedom. Rather than acknowledging our debt, we in the West gave them more big-brothering. On 18 December 1989, at the Social Democrats’ party congress in Berlin, I called for ‘a complete programme of burden-sharing, to begin immediately and without further preconditions’. It should, I suggested, be financed out of arms cuts and a special graded income tax; but my comrades still preferred to believe in Willy Brandt’s attractive phrase, ‘what belongs together will grow together’, even though it was clear, not many weeks after the collapse of the Wall, that not a lot was growing except a great many undesirable weeds. After 40 years apart, all that we Germans have in common is the burden of a guilty past; even our language now divides us.

My speech about burden-sharing was quickly buried under a perfunctory round of applause. Since then, I have been a voice in the wilderness. On 2 February 1990, at a conference in Tutzing addressing ‘New Answers to the German Question’, I argued that ‘whoever thinks about Germany now, and seeks answers for the German question, must include Auschwitz in his thoughts’.

That sentence, and further reflections of mine, warning against an over-hasty German unification and proposing a confederal structure for the two states, provoked a furore. I, the ‘self-proclaimed gloom-merchant of the nation’ and ‘notorious enemy of German unity’, had, I was told, tried to use Auschwitz to restrict the German right to self-determination.

I should like to know if my unification-drunk critics of the time thought the same when the so-called ‘Jewish barracks’ in Sachsenhausen were burnt to the ground? Or now that gypsies – nearly half a million Romany and Sinti people were murdered at Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau – are once again subjected to violence in Germany? Those critics – all of them parroting the silly stationmaster’s line, ‘The train has left the station’ – should have considered where their metaphorical train would terminate.

The time for warnings is long past. Yet still there is no political force willing or able to prevent this new wave of crimes. Far from it: it wasn’t the skinheads who first broke the democratic consensus. The recent agreement by the Interior Minister, Rudolf Seiters, with the Romanian government that provides for the repatriation of gypsies, and the stream of attacks on the asylum article in the constitution, are merely more elaborate versions of the slogan that presently unites all Germany: ‘Foreigners out]’

The Federal Republic and its constitution have been handed over to the tender mercies of a demolition company. When a Christian Democratic politician, a finance minister no less, ventures a look into the future from under his shaggy brows and proclaims that future elections can only be won right of centre; when the Free Democrats borrow a brownish-shirted populist Austrian to address their meetings; when the minister representing the arms lobby proposes to go to Peenemunde to celebrate the golden anniversary of the V2 rocket – and it takes protests from abroad to dissuade him – and when this whole slide to the right is dismissed as taproom chatter, then it’s time we Germans recognised the threat we pose once more, preferably before our neighbours do.

As I mentioned, in this hard, dry summer, the geese had stopped flying to our holiday island. I had no distractions. The bitter lees of two years of unity finally leaked out on to paper. My Danish notes insist that I speak personally, of Germany and myself. How I didn’t want to let go of the country. How it slipped from my grasp. What I miss. What I don’t. My losses.

I noted a long line of losses, which I will cut to a few representative examples. The first of them is the loss of my homeland. But that loss, painful though it was, was also justified. German culpability for the criminal conduct of the war, the genocide of Jews and gypsies, the murder of millions of prisoners of war and forced labourers, the crime of euthanasia, the sufferings we brought to our neighbours, especially the Polish people, when we occupied their countries, all that led to the loss of my homeland.

Compared to millions of refugees faced with the difficulties of settling in the West, I had a relatively easy time of it. Language didn’t compensate me for my loss, but by stringing words together I was able to make something in which my loss could be declared.

Most of my books invoke the old city of Danzig, its flat and hilly surroundings and the dull pulse of the Baltic; and with the years, Gdansk, too, has become a subject

for me. Loss has given me a voice. Only what is entirely lost demands to be endlessly named: there is a mania to call the lost thing until it returns. Without loss there would be no literature. (I could almost market that as a thesis.)

Furthermore, the loss of my homeland has offered me the opportunity of new loyalties. If you have a home, you tend to want to stay in it; but I am curious about the world and take delight in travelling. People without a homeland have broader horizons than those who live where their fathers and forefathers did. I needed no crutch of nationalism to feel myself to be German: I had my loss.

Other values became important to me. Their loss is harder to bear because the gaps they left can’t be filled. I am used to being controversial in what I write and say, but in the last three years – the length of time I’ve been critical of the bungled process of unification and warned of its mindless speed – I’ve been forced to realise that I’ve been writing and speaking in a vacuum. My own loyalty, not to the state but to its constitution, was unwanted.

I freely admit that this sense of talking in a vacuum is a new experience for me, and not one I particularly enjoy. Was it ever different? Yes] For a few years, when Willy Brandt was Chancellor, and tried to put the programme of his government – ‘Dare to be more democratic]’ – into effect. For Willy Brandt, contact with intellectuals was an essential stimulant: when still mayor of Berlin, he and his wife, Rut, hosted discussions that were critical and frank and shattered a few Berliner illusions. ‘Political culture’ is a hollow phrase nowadays, but for a time then it meant something, and we listened to one another – another one of Willy Brandt’s virtues.

When the writer Siegfried Lenz and I accompanied him as Chancellor to Warsaw in 1970, we felt we had more than an ornamental function: because Lenz and

I had both accepted the loss of our

homeland, we brought with us recognition of Poland’s western borders. Were we proud of Germany then? Yes, looking back I’m proud to have been with that party in Warsaw. But as I try to remember that brief, important time, I realise I’m talking about a lost era. With his death, Willy Brandt made the loss still clearer

to me.

More losses: what happened to diversity of opinion? Nowadays the editorial lines of the papers are indistinguishable; they save their trivial disagreements for coy sub-clauses. The huffy dismissal of the democratic left is part of the bon ton today. One Fatherland, one feuilleton.

Also in the list of losses I would cite the Bundestag’s decision to transfer the capital from Bonn to Berlin, and the tacit overturning of this decision by current Bonn practice. It is a circus in which the President of the Bundestag is the ringmaster, and the media are performers. The expensive hall for future debates has been inaugurated. But everything else goes on as before. Meanwhile, east of the Elbe, the child has fallen into the well.

The child has fallen into the well, and it is screaming. What is it screaming? It is screaming for more. People here in the west avert their ears. Have we Germans become so alienated from one another that all we care about are our own petty interests and possessions? And could it

be that the coolness between Germans has produced the current, disgraceful xenophobia directed against those other strangers whom we call foreigners?

I walked off my rage about Rostock on the Danish holiday island; later I tried to etch it into copper plates with a cold needle: scratching as therapy.

But when my rage cooled, sadness and anger still remained. And accordingly, my notes demanded: what have you done to my country? How did this failed union come about? What madness prompted the electorate to entrust this difficult and politically demanding task to a fat figure-masseur? What slick director turned our disunited land into a subject for chat shows? What dull-wittedness got us to pile the injustices of our capitalist system on top of those of ‘real socialism’? What’s the matter with us?

Perhaps we lack the very people we’re afraid of, because they are foreign to us and look foreign. Those whom, out of fear, we meet with hatred, which now daily turns to violence. And perhaps those we most lack are the ones we think of as the lowest of the low, the Romanies and the Sinti, the gypsies.

They have no allies. No politician represents their case, whether in the European Parliament or the Bundestag. No state they can appeal to would support their demands for compensation – pathetic, isn’t it? – for Auschwitz, or make them a national priority.

The Romanies and Sinti are the lowest of the low. ‘Expel them]’ says Herr Seiters and gets on the line to Romania. ‘Smoke them out]’ shout the skinheads. But in Romania, and everywhere else, gypsies are bottom of the heap as well. Why?

Because they are different. Because they steal, are restless, roam, have the evil eye and that stunning beauty that makes us ugly to ourselves. Because their mere existence puts our values into question. Because they are all very well in operas and operettas, but in reality – it sounds awful, reminds you of awfulness – they are antisocial, odd and don’t fit in. ‘Torch them]’ shout the skinheads.

When Heinrich Boll was laid to rest eight years ago, there was a gypsy band leading the pallbearers – Lev Kopelev, Gunter Wallraff, myself and Boll’s sons – and the mourners on the way to the graveyard. It was Boll’s wish. It was what he wanted to play him into the grave, that deeply tragic, despairingly gay music. It has taken me until now to understand him.

Let half a million and more Sinti and Romanies live among us. We need them. They could help us by irritating our rigid order a little. Something of their way of life could rub off on us. They could teach us how meaningless frontiers are: careless of boundaries, Romanies and Sinti are at home all over Europe. They are what we claim to be: born Europeans]

Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann. This piece appears in Granta 42 – ‘Krauts]’ – published on 4 March, price pounds 6.99.

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