Book review: From Germany to Germany: Diary 1990 by Günter Grass

East Germans rally against reunification in October 1990. Picture: AFP/Getty
East Germans rally against reunification in October 1990. Picture: AFP/Getty
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THE first curiosity about this diary of the year that began with the fall of the Berlin War and led to the reunification of Germany is that it was not published in Germany till 2009.

From Germany to Germany: Diary 1990 by Günter Grass

Harvill Secker, 272pp, £15.99

The second is that this English translation by Krishna Winston appears when, for many, Grass’s reputation was severely damaged by the publication, a few months ago of a poem severely critical of Israel. This led to his being barred from that country, and to accusations of anti-Semitism. His service, as a boy of 18, in the Waffen SS in the last months of the war – something which he had belatedly revealed in his memoir, Peeling the Onion, was recalled; and there were many quick to assert that his long silence on the subject had been not only hypocritical, but was evidence that in his youth he had indeed been a committed Nazi.

These accusations were the more damaging because, in fiction, journalism, speeches and interviews, Grass, a member of the SDP (Social Democratic Party), had insisted that Germany must face up to its war-guilt and to the enormity of the Holocaust. Yet, even if as an ignorant German teenager Grass had subscribed in any way to Nazi ideology, he had surely redeemed himself by his adult commitment to democracy and decency.

That commitment is evident throughout this journal. Grass was opposed to the reunification of Germany because he thought it would lead to a revival of German nationalism. He also believed that the rich West would rip off the economically backward East – as indeed it was to do for at least the first decade of reunion. He initially hoped that there would still be two states, joined in a very loose way; then, when it became apparent that the pressure for reunification was intense, he argued for a Confederation. “A prequisite would be a constitutional convention, with intellectuals and artists also taking part, that would reinforce the federative elements, thereby enabling Germany to be shaped into a cultural nation, with cultural sovereignty residing in the individual states.”

There was never much chance of this happening. Driven on by Chancellor Helmut Kohl, whom Grass despised, the new Germany was to be the old FDR writ large. All Grass’s eloquence and arguments were ultimately futile.

The journal traces his developing dismay and sense of hopelessness. Much of what he writes now seems futile, because he was battling against the prevailing wind. There are few things as dead as accounts of lost political battles and disappointed hopes, no matter how engagingly they are recounted. Even so, there are disturbing moments of prophecy: “Probably capitalism, now that it has been deprived of its enemy stereotype will go ideological, and, logically, destroy itself.” This was perceptive. Capitalism did indeed become ideological – despising social democracy – and, if it hasn’t yet destroyed itself, it has at least hovered on the brink of doing so.

Much of the diary is inevitably of interest only to people already interested, or willing to be interested, in German politics.

But, though Grass spent much of the year engaged in political argument – with others and with himself – there is much else in the book. It is first the record of a man possessed of extraordinary energy, both physical and mental. He is always on the move: I lost count of the number of flights, and train or car journeys he took; this in a year when he suffered recurrent olds, fevers, bouts of flu, tiredness, and insomnia, and was eventually required to have a hernia operation. (He found the hospital “deathly boring”, but “the interior view of one’s own colon startlingly interesting: a delicately tinted tunnel”.)

There is also much about his family (hard to keep track of the members and their relationships) and about cooking, eating (he is excellent on food, especially fish, fungi and fruit), drinking and gardening. He draws most days and the book is illustrated with pen-and-ink or pencil sketches.

He toys with ideas for two novels, sketching out the course they may take, changing his mind and starting again; these are passages which must be of particular interest to other writers. One cannot but admire his zest for life.

Sometimes he may seem a little absurd to English-speaking readers. It is a long time, after all, since we decided there was no role for intellectuals, artists and mere writers in politics. The idea that politics should be the subject of intellectual argument rather than sound-bites and photo-opportunities is regarded as ridiculously out-of-date. Even here in Scotland our arguments about the relative merits of independence or union are for the most part conducted in shallow and banal terms. There is little, if any room, for someone like Grass in the English-speaking world. Are we the better for this?

The book, full of interest as it is, would have benefited from an introduction setting out both the historical-political background and Grass’s own political biography.

For readers under 40 – and for many older ones too – it will be like being thrown into the deep end of a pool without a single swimming lesson.