The Politics of Günter Grass

The Politics of Günter Grass 129 by Michael Harrington

Words Into Skin by Laurence Lieberman 131

The Landscape of Madness by William Jay Smith 133

The Peripatetic Reviewer by Edward Weeks 134

No Thrills, Lotta Laughs by Dan Wakefield 140

Ormandy’s Orchestra by Herbert Kupferberg 142

Short Reviews: Records by Herbert Kupferberg 144

Short Reviews: Books by Phoebe Adams 145

by Michael Harrington

Günter Grass is best known to Americans as the most serious comic genius of the postwar period, a Rabelaisian surrealist who has incarnated the Hitler years and their frantic aftermath in profound fantasies. That, one might say, is accomplishment enough, for it places him in the very front rank of the contemporary imagination. Yet, as his new collection of essays, Speak Out!, makes clear, Grass is more than a brilliant writer; he is probably a great one. He also represents the very best of the German democratic tradition. It can be said without exaggeration that Günter Grass and men like him are the only hope that Germany will finally transcend the terrible, and still unresolved, heritage of Nazism.

Moreover, if the political content of his essays is important for an understanding of the almost quarter of a century since the fall of the Third Reich, it is particularly relevant to the present and immediate future. For German democracy is now challenged by militant, youthful critics on the confrontation left who insist that parliaments and elections are a hoax, and by a resurgent right with strong ties to the Nazi past in the National Democratic Party. And, at the very same time, Walter Ulbricht’s “Democratic Republic" has joined with the Russians in the imperialist suppression of the Czechoslovakian freedom movement and thus helped to reintroduce the mood of cold war into Central Europe. Under these circumstances, Günter Grass’s insights take on an imperative urgency.

Grass, as he himself recounts in his “Speech to a Young Voter,” was born in Danzig in 1927. At fourteen he was a member of the Hitler Youth, by seventeen he was serving in the Panzers, and at eighteen he was in an American prisoner-of-war camp. It was then that he began to understand the crimes which his generation committed in the name of the future. “When I was nineteen,'’ he writes, “I began to have an inkling of the guilt our people had knowingly and unknowingly accumulated, of the burden of responsibility which my generation and the next would have to bear.”

So Günter Grass is not the “good German” who seeks to avoid any responsibility for the Nazi horrors by claiming that he did not know about them. He voluntarily assumes a tragic responsibility for crimes which he did not himself commit but in which he feels himself, and his country, implicated. And it is that clear and moral rejection of the unspeakable horrors of Hitlerism which makes him an opponent of the established powers in both Germanys and, indeed, throughout the world.

For that matter, Grass’s summary survey of postwar politics posits a sort of symbiotic relationship between capitalist West and Communist East:

For, more than twenty years every attempt to free Western democracy from its reactionary straitjacket was defamed as open Communism—or crypto-Communism. The anti-Communism. enthroned in the West is the greatest triumph Communism could have achieved. It struck keensighted democrats blind. . . . This explains why parliamentary democracies have supported a corrupt feudal system in Persia, this is what made it possible for the anachronistic dictators of Spain and Portugal to stand side by side with Konrad Adenauer on the platform of anticommunism; while today the United States and its sullen satellites support the dictator Ky merely because he calls himself an anti-Communist, just as the Soviet Union and its equally sullen satellites support the dictator Nasser merely because he represents himself as socialist, anticapitalist, anti-imperialist. . .. A corrupted Communism that has developed into a dictatorship of the bureaucracy is confronted by democracies whose parliaments are subservient to lobbies, whose formerly free elections have more and more become a farce.

Günter Grass has applied these uncompromising critical categories to his own country. Americans who thought of Germany as an “economic miracle” in which God, capitalism, and anti-Communism triumphed have been shocked and surprised by some of the events of the past several years: riots on the left and electoral progress by the neoNazi right.

As an active participant in his country’s democratic left—the Social Democratic Party (SPD) —Grass, as these essays show, was aware of these disturbing, even explosive, tendencies all along.

He described Axel Cäsar Springer, the West German press lord, as a “co-chancellor, who is accountable to no Parliament, who cannot be voted out of office, and who has set up a state within the state. . . .”In 1965, when Willy Brandt, the SPD’s candidate for Chancellor, was vilified for having participated in the anti-Hitler emigration, Grass said that the resultant defeat meant that the Christian Democrats would lead the dance around the golden calf for another four years. And there is particular scorn, and even horror, for the Christian Democrats when they make a former commentator on the Nazi race laws, Hans Globke, a high administration official—or install a former Hitler Party member as the Chancellor of an officially anti-Hitler Germany.

All of these charges have, of course, been made by Walter Ulbricht and the East German Communists—only they do not apply the same standards of morality to themselves. Grass does it for them. The “Free German Youth” (FDJ) are likened to the Hitler Youth, the army is characterized as built upon Prussian militarism, and East Germany’s ossified Stalinism is invidiously compared to the yearning for freedom in Czechoslovakia.

Indeed, Grass is particularly outraged by the ways in which leaders on both sides of the German Iron Curtain falsified the heroic general strike and rising of the East German workers in 1953. For Grass, the event was a “workers’ rising of clearly social democratic nature.” For Ulbricht, it was a fascist putsch, and for the West Germans (with important exceptions like Willy Brandt), it was a “people’s movement” without class or political character. Where, Günter Grass asks, is his generation, which was so helpless in the face of this enormous sacrifice?

And yet Grass, for all of his active commitment to social democracy and the SPD, is not a party-liner of any kind. When Willy Brandt and the other leaders were preparing the Great Coalition with the Christian Democrats, he pleaded with them not thus to legitimate the foreign and domestic policies of Adenauer’s Germany. Yet, as he wrote in 1967 when the coalition had become official reality, it was not so much the cause as the consequence of the crisis of German democracy. The real roots were oligarchic domination of the parties, the powerful drive toward a political pragmatism which undermined parliamentary control and made special interests allpowerful.

Out of this understanding of the profoundly negative tendencies in his country’s recent history, Grass is able to come to terms with the New Left—and the New Right—in Germany today. The fact that the youth regard democracy as a fraud is a result of the structural hypocrisies of the society. And, says Grass, the disillusionment was sped by the Social Democratic attack on the youth from the right. In his May Day, 1968, speech he argues that there is no security from false prophets unless there is reform, including the democratization of the parties and the abrogation of the NATO Treaty through a general European peace agreement with the Warsaw Pact states.

And yet in thus underlining what is understandable—and valuable—in the youthful protest, Grass does not lose his faith in democracy. He believes that the SPD can, and should, give democratic expression to the unrest which has brought the students into the street. And throughout these essays that is perhaps the pervasive theme: the commitment to democracy and freedom as it is expressed in an honest confrontation with the realities of German politics.

In an earlier essay, Grass is seeking to answer the question “What is the German fatherland?" And his own response is:

Let us be builders of cities! . . . Thus will the question, “What is the German fatherland?” be realistically answered. We need only reason and something of that pioneer spirit which inspired the German immigrants in America who built their Frankfurt. Hamburg and Berlin in the Middle West. We must not seek after the lost provinces [of the old Germany] but rather to regain that essence which once was the German fatherland.

That is the authentic voice of the German democratic spirit which, in the tremendous achievements of its labor and socialist movements, once held out a marvelous promise to the entire world.

Indeed, there are some similarities between Grass and a great German novelist of the previous generation, Thomas Mann. Both started out on the right: Grass in the Hitler Youth, Mann as a pre-World War I conservative (his Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, published during World War I, is an attack on democracy itself). The peace drove Mann to the left until he eventually joined in a united front with the Social Democrats and, later, the Communists. Similarly, Grass was moved to active participation in the campaigns of the SPD. Yet for all Mann’s enormous accomplishments, he never really did find a political correlative to his philosophic opinions. He died filled with fear of the future but uncertain of how to resist the trends which frightened him. Grass has, I think, made a deeper, and certainly a more activist, commitment than Mann. And it goes beyond that periodic flurry of electoral activity which has involved American writers and intellectuals in recent years. It is more substantial and fundamental than that.

For all his criticisms of his own party and society, Günter Grass rightly concludes, “To the question: ‘Where do you stand today?’ I reply: ‘I remain a Social Democrat.’ ”