Andrew Gimson

This Kohlian abomination

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From Germany to Germany: Journal of the Year 1990

Günter Grass

Harvill Secker, pp. 239, £

In the year when East and West Germany were being reunited Günter Grass felt he must start keeping a diary. He was sure what was taking place was a dreadful mistake:

At night I often toss and turn, haunted by images of a Germany that can no longer be mine. This Kohlian abomination: egomaniacal, bombastic, jovial, tough, condescending, domineering, feigning harmlessness.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl was a power politician of genius. Although taken by surprise by the fall of the Berlin wall in November 1989, he soon saw how to make himself the architect of reunification. Grass was dismayed to see how easily the Germans were led by this philistine.  On visiting Karl-Marx-Stadt, an East German city which was soon to regain its proper name of Chemnitz, Grass records with disgust:

Recently Kohl was here and asked the masses, in the style of Goebbels at the Berlin Sports Palace, ‘Do you want German unity? Do you want our prosperity?’ It does not get any more vulgar than that.

Grass is a man of the left, but his political insights are those of a writer with an ear for the bogus. After several days on a German delegation to Poland, he exclaims in Danzig, or Gdansk, the city where he was born: ‘Please, no more after-dinner speeches that assign every problem to a united Europe for solution.’

Kohl fell with joy on the project of European unification. It offered him a new and yet more bombastic opportunity to show off his architectural abilities. One result is the euro: a Kohlian abomination which falls outside the period covered by this diary, which runs from 1 January 1990 to 1 February 1991. But Grass did see the launch of an earlier currency union designed by Kohl, the one-for-one link between the East and West German marks, and comments that ‘the actual effect is worse, more botched, and uglier than my worst imaginings’. East Germany was impoverished in the way that southern Europe now is by the euro: the difference being that West Germans have been prepared, however reluctantly, to bail out the East Germans, and will not do the same for the Mediterranean members of the euro.

By November 1990, Grass feels he would rather be a Gypsy than a German. The problem is that his wife, Ute, ‘would not lend herself to being a Gypsy woman’. He knows his excursion into politics has been ‘futile’: his warnings against the creation of a Kohlian Germany have been overborne, and on a train journey someone shouts at him, ‘Hey there, traitor!’

In the greater part of the book, Grass pursues his other passions, for drawing, planting trees, cooking fish, planning novels, looking at frogs and spiders, gathering mushrooms and blackberries. Much of this is charming, an effect heightened by his drawings reproduced in the text.

But it does not make for a great diary. Grass himself recognises that he is not a natural diarist: that he is not indiscreet enough. We get accounts of his holidays in a Portugal that is being wrecked by road-building (‘Here in Portugal it is clear what land-destroying power emanates from the European Union’), but he cannot tell us much about ‘the chaotic phenomenon known as the extended family’, and wonders:

What is it that compels me to keep the most private things under wraps? Maybe the fear that naming them would disrupt this tolerable and (if I play my cards right) livable precarious equilibrium. In essence, this extended family of mine consists of eight children (six of them biological) and four mothers, to whom I am devoted and whom I greatly enjoy gathering around me in patriarchal fashion: the children can all fit under one umbrella, but not the mothers.

The patriarch does not repine. Nor does he show off: he has been a famous writer since the publication of his first novel, The Tin Drum, in 1959, but Kohlian bombast has not invaded him. I felt better disposed towards Grass after reading this diary. He dares to be unfashionable.