The Gravest Generation
By GÜNTER GRASS
Published: May 7, 2005
TOMORROW, it will be 60 years to the day since the German Reich's unconditional surrender. That is equivalent to a working life with a pension to look forward to. It goes so far back that memory, that wide-meshed sieve, is in danger of forgetting it.
Sixty years ago, after being wounded in the chaotic retreat in Lausitz, I lay in a hospital with a flesh wound in my right thigh and a bean-sized shell splinter in my right shoulder. The hospital was in Marienbad, a military hospital town that had been occupied by American soldiers a few days earlier, at the same time as Soviet forces were occupying the neighboring town of Karlsbad. In Marienbad, on May 8, I was a naïve 17-year-old who had believed in the ultimate victory right to the end. Those who had survived the mass murder in the German concentration camps could regard themselves as liberated, although they were in no physical condition to enjoy their freedom. But for me it was not the hour of liberation; rather, I was beset by the empty feeling of humiliation following total defeat.
When May 8 comes round again and is celebrated in complacent official speeches as liberation day, this can only be in hindsight, especially as we Germans did little if anything for our liberation. In the initial postwar years our lives were determined by hunger and cold, the misery of refugees, the displaced and bombed-out. In all four zones occupied by the wartime allies - Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States - the only way to manage the ever increasing crush of the more than 12 million Germans who had fled from, or been driven out of, East and West Prussia, Pomerania, Silesia and the Sudetenland, was to force them into our own cramped living rooms.
Whenever the question is posed, "What can we Germans be proud of?", the first thing we should mention is this essential achievement - even though it was forced on us. We had hardly become used to freedom when compulsion had to be applied. As a result, in both German states, huge long-term camps for refugees and displaced persons were avoided. The risk of building up feelings of hate was thereby diverted, as was the desire for revenge engendered by years of camp life, which, as today's world shows, can result in terrorism and counterterrorism.
Even then there were spokesmen for the rhetoric of liberation. So many self-appointed anti-fascists suddenly set the tone, so much so that one was entitled to ask: how had Hitler been able to make headway against such strong resistance? Dirty linen was quickly washed clean, with people being absolved of all responsibility. Counterfeiters were busy coining new expressions and putting them into circulation. "Unconditional surrender" was changed to "collapse." Although in business, law and in the rapidly re-emerging schools and universities, even the diplomatic service, many former National Socialists maintained their hereditary wealth, stayed in office, continued to hold onto their university chairs and eventually continued their careers in politics, it was claimed that we were starting from "zero hour" or square one.
A particularly infamous distortion of facts can be seen even today in speeches and publications, with the crimes perpetrated by Germans described as "misdeeds perpetrated in the name of the German people." In addition, language was used in two different ways to herald the future division of the country. In the Soviet-occupied zone, the Red Army had liberated Germany from the fascist terror all by itself; in the Western occupied zones, the honor of having freed not only Germany but the whole of Europe from Nazi domination was shared exclusively by the Americans, the British and the French.
In the cold war that quickly followed, German states that had existed since 1949 consistently fell to one or other power bloc, whereupon the governments of both national entities sought to present themselves as model pupils of their respective dominating powers. Forty years later, during the glasnost period, it was in fact the Soviet Union that broke up the Democratic Republic, which had by that point become a burden. The Federal Republic's almost unconditional subservience to the United States was broken for the first time when the Social Democratic-Green ruling coalition decided to make use of the freedom given to us in sovereign terms 60 years ago, by refusing to allow German soldiers to participate in the Iraq war.
THE question today, then, is have we dealt carefully with the freedom that we did not win, but was given to us? Have the citizens of West Germany properly compensated the citizens of the former Democratic Republic, who, after all, had to bear the main burden of the war begun and lost by all Germans? And a further question: is our parliamentary democracy still sufficiently sovereign as a guarantor of freedom of action to act on the problems facing us in the 21st century?
Fifteen years after signing the treaty on unification, we can no longer conceal that despite the financial achievements, German unity has essentially been a failure. Petty calculation prevented the government of the time from submitting to the citizens of both states a new constitution relevant to the endeavors of Germany as a whole. It is therefore hardly surprising that people in the former East Germany should regard themselves as second-class Germans.
The jobless rate is twice as high as in the former West Germany. West German arrogance had no respect for people with East German résumés. The mass migration, feared from the beginning, is happening now, daily. Whole areas of the country, its cities and its villages, are being emptied. After the Treuhandanstalt, the entity responsible for privatizing East Germany, had completed its bargain sales, West German industry and banks withheld the necessary investment and loans and, consequently, no jobs were created. Here, fine exhortations have been of little use. To right this skewed situation, only Parliament, the lawmakers, can help. Which brings us back to the question of whether parliamentary democracy is able to act.
Now, I believe that our freely elected members of Parliament are no longer free to decide. The customary party pressures are not particularly present in Germany; it is, rather, the ring of lobbyists with their multifarious interests that constricts and influences the Federal Parliament and its democratically elected members, placing them under pressure and forcing them into disharmony, even when framing and deciding the content of laws. Consequently, Parliament is no longer sovereign in its decisions. It is steered by the banks and multinational corporations - which are not subject to any democratic control.
What's needed is a democratic desire to protect Parliament against the pressures of the lobbyists by making it inviolable. But are our parliamentarians still sufficiently free to make a decision that would bring radical democratic constraint? Or is our freedom now no more than a stock market profit?
We all are witnesses to the fact that production is being demolished worldwide, that so-called hostile and friendly takeovers are destroying thousands of jobs, that the mere announcement of measures like the dismissal of workers and employees makes share prices rise, and this is regarded unthinkingly as the price to be paid for "living in freedom."
The consequences of this development disguised as globalization are clearly coming to light and can be read from the statistics. With the consistently high number of jobless, which in Germany has now reached five million, and the equally constant refusal of industry to create jobs, despite demonstrably higher earnings, especially from exports, the hope of full employment has evaporated.
Older employees, who still had years of work left in them, are pushed into early retirement. Young people are denied the skills for entering the world of work. Even worse, with complaints that an aging population is a threat and simultaneous demands, repeated parrot-fashion, to do more for young people and education, the Federal Republic - still a rich country - is permitting, to a shameful extent, the growth of what is called "child poverty."
All this is now accepted as if divinely ordained, accompanied at most by the customary national grumbles. Worse, those who point to this state of affairs and to the people forced into social oblivion are at best ridiculed by slick young journalists as "social romantics," but usually vilified as "do-gooders." Questions about the reasons for the growing gap between rich and poor are dismissed as "the politics of envy." The desire for justice is ridiculed as utopian. The concept of "solidarity" is relegated to the dictionary's list of foreign words.
THOUGH we initially did not know what to do with our freedom when we were given it 60 years ago, we gradually made use of this gift. We learned democracy and in doing so proved star pupils, because after all we were incontrovertibly German. With the benefit of hindsight, what was crammed into us through lectures was enough to get us a reasonable end-of-term report. We learned the interplay between government and opposition, whereupon long periods of government ultimately proved arid. The much lauded and reviled generation of '68 produced a different kind of political leaders and ultimately also tolerance. We had to acknowledge that our burdens could not be cast aside, they are passed by parents to children and that our German past, however much we travel and export, comes back to haunt us. Neo-Nazis repeatedly brought us into disrepute. Even so, we felt that democracy was here to stay.
It had to withstand several challenges. After the debris had been cleared and disposed of in both German states, reconstruction in the East proceeded under the constraints of the Stalinist system; but in the West, it took place under favorable conditions. What retrospectively is called the "economic miracle" was not, however, the result of any individual achievement but was won by many. Included in that number are displaced persons and refugees, those who had in fact to start at square one in terms of material possessions. We must not forget the contribution of foreign workers, initially politely called "guest workers." In the rebuilding phase businessmen were exemplary in investing every penny of profit into job creation. The trade unions and businesses were clearly aware of the decay of the Weimar Republic, so they were forced to compromise and ensure social equality.
With so much toil and profit-chasing, however, the past was in danger of being forgotten. Only in the 60's did we meet the second challenge, when writers and then the student protest movement began to ask questions about everything that the war generation would sooner forget. The protest movement strove for revolution but was paid off with reform; without it, we would still be living in the claustrophobic fog of the postwar years under Adenauer.
The third challenge arose when the Berlin Wall fell. The two German states had existed for four decades more against than beside each other. As there was no willingness on the Western side to offer equal rights to the East, the unity of the country has so far existed only on paper. It was all done too hastily and without an understanding of what far-reaching consequences this haste would have.
Since then, the expanded country has stagnated. Neither the Kohl government nor the Schröder government succeeded in correcting the initial errors. Lately, perhaps too late, we have come to recognize that the threat to the state, or what should be regarded as Public Enemy No. 1, comes not from right-wing radicalism but rather, from the impotence of politics, which leaves citizens exposed and unprotected from the dictates of the economy. What is being destroyed, then, is not the state, which survives, but democracy.
When the German Reich unconditionally surrendered 60 years ago, a system of power and terror was thereby defeated. This system, which had caused fear throughout Europe for 12 years, still casts its shadow today. We Germans have repeatedly faced up to this inherited shame and have been forced to do so if we hesitated. The memory of the suffering that we caused others and ourselves has been kept alive through the generations. Compared with other nations which have to live with shame acquired elsewhere - I'm thinking of Japan, Turkey, the former European colonial powers - we have not shaken off the burden of our past. It will remain part of our history as a challenge.
We can only hope we will be able to cope with today's risk of a new totalitarianism, backed as it is by the world's last remaining ideology. As conscious democrats, we should freely resist the power of capital, which sees mankind as nothing more than something which consumes and produces. Those who treat their donated freedom as a stock market profit have failed to understand what May 8 teaches us every year.
Günter Grass, the author of "The Tin Drum" and, most recently, "Crabwalk," won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999.