From Germany to Germany: Diary 1990, by Günter Grass, translated by Krishna Winston, Harvill Secker, RRP£15.99/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, RRP$24, 272 pages
Roads to Berlin, by Cees Nooteboom, translated by Laura Watkinson, MacLehose Press, RRP£20, 400 pages
Helmut Kohl: Eine politische Biographie, by Hans-Peter Schwarz, Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, RRP€34.99, 1,056 pages
Not once but twice last week Helmut Kohl, the “chancellor of German unity” and the once-mighty politician known in his homeland as the “father of the euro”, was feted in Berlin. Ringing words of tribute were delivered in the German Bundestag, and then again in the courtyard of the German Historical Museum, in the heart of the city that is – not least thanks to Kohl – the capital of a united Germany today. Angela Merkel, his one-time East German protégé who now occupies the chancellor’s office, delivered the laudatio in his honour.
The celebrations were organised by his party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), to mark the 30th anniversary of his accession as German chancellor in 1982. Yet both occasions were curiously bittersweet. For a start, Kohl is a shadow of the towering figure who dominated German and European politics in the 1980s and 1990s. He is wheelchair-bound and his speech is slurred, resulting from a stroke and a fall in 2008.
More troubling, behind the festivities was the uncomfortable awareness that the former chancellor left politics under a cloud. He was never loved, and now the admiration is tainted. After he lost power in 1998, he was embroiled in a scandal over secret political contributions. The CDU was humbled, and Kohl was stripped of his title as honorary chairman. Merkel was the politician behind the putsch.
All that was politely forgotten as the party faithful turned out to celebrate his two crowning achievements: Germany’s reunification 22 years ago this week, and the creation of the euro as a common European currency.
Yet there are still mixed feelings in Germany on those scores, too. The eurozone crisis has revived the lobby that never wanted to abandon the mighty Deutschmark and regrets the advent of the euro. As for reunification, very few would try to turn the clock back, but the wounds of that traumatic process have not yet healed, and its consequences are still being felt across the continent.
Cees Nooteboom, a Dutch poet, novelist and travel writer, lived in Berlin through the extraordinary years of 1989 and 1990, when the Berlin Wall was breached and communist East Germany collapsed into the arms of the capitalist Federal Republic in the west. It was called “reunification”, a word that suggests an easy and harmonious return to the previous state of unity. It was anything but.
Reunification was a chaotic period of mixed emotions, political upheaval and economic collapse. Joyful celebration – above all at the freedom to travel and the freedom to speak – was compounded by bitterness and resentment at the human and economic cost on both sides. Nooteboom wrote a diary of his experiences then, describing the unreal “Life of the Other” in the former German Democratic Republic, how both sides that had grown apart over 40 years misunderstood and mistrusted each other. It takes an outsider, as so often, to make some sense of it.
In spite of the pedestrian title, Roads to Berlin is not a travel book, nor is it quite a diary. It is a wonderful voyage of self-discovery, and a psychological exploration of a nation in turmoil. It is about memory and forgetfulness, and an investigation of the historical process. It is an attempt to understand what makes Germany, Europe’s most powerful, confused and confusing nation, tick.
Nooteboom reminds us of the sheer exuberance that took over the streets of Leipzig, Dresden and Berlin as the revolution that started in Moscow finally reached the cities of its most loyal and disciplined satellite. “Torches, endless processions, cheering, laughing people, leaders on a podium, waving and laughing. We were not born yesterday; we know what a laugh looks like, we recognise the signs of real joy, and that is what I saw,” he writes.
The occasion was when Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, sealed the fate of Erich Honecker, his East German ally, with a kiss. “This is no Judas kiss – you can see that too. And yet this kiss seals the downfall of one of the men, and maybe the other.”
Uprising in the east caused as much alarm as enthusiasm in the west. “I ask a German friend whether the people in the two countries feel some sort of Heimweh, homesickness, nostalgia, for one another. What is reunion? An illusion, a desire, a possibility? Not a possibility, he says, because there is no desire and no nostalgia.” United Germany had existed for less than a century, only after Bismarck forged it from the Prussian empire.
Yet the process became unstoppable: “Reunification resembles a natural phenomenon, and any politician who knows what is good for him swims with the floodwaters while pretending to control the flow.”
Kohl knew that instinctively. He understood the sweep of history, and seized the moment. He produced his 10-point plan for reunification, and it became a reality. On the detailed implementation, he later admitted to making mistakes. But he never admitted the “tax lie” that his opponents accused him of – insisting that reunification could happen without a big tax increase, and massive transfers from west to east.
Günter Grass, the angry old man of German letters, was the mirror image of Kohl: he misread the history, ignored the unstoppable movement to reunification, and tried vainly to fight it. However, as we see in his diary of 1990, From Germany to Germany, the fears he had for what might go wrong were often justified.
A brilliant novelist he may be but, unlike Nooteboom, Grass makes no attempt in his diary to explain or understand. Written as he rushes round both halves of Germany to book-readings, art shows, broadcasts and political gatherings, it is rather a series of loose ends – a tale of an increasingly frustrated man who has decided reunification should not happen, and yet can do nothing to stop it.
He is bitter about erstwhile friends who have embraced what is happening. “A suspicious number of my fellow writers who used to be able to rattle off their new-found anti-fascist credo … are now brimming with nationalist sentiment to the point of idiocy,” he says. Rudolf Augstein, publisher of Der Spiegel, was “a confirmed cynic … unravelling into a nationalist.”
It is German nationalism that worries him, and the colonial instincts of West Germans, all too ready to snap up eastern enterprises at bargain basement prices. He believes that a country that was guilty of the atrocity of Auschwitz does not deserve to be rewarded by this belated unification. In fact, he does not like or trust his own country. “It is gradually becoming dangerous to speak out against this most recent insanity,” he declares. “If I keep saying no, it is not out of defiance; rather – aside from and in spite of all the arguments in favour – I have a powerful premonition of disaster.”
The trouble was that businesses in the west did not rush to snap up cheap eastern factories. They did not want them. Helmut Kohl: Eine politische Biographie, by Hans-Peter Schwarz, a magisterial biography published to coincide with the former chancellor’s anniversary, analyses the unstoppable process. Kohl saw the GDR’s enterprises collapsing, unemployment soaring, 2,500 easterners streaming west every day. He feared a communist coup in Moscow that would remove Gorbachev and close the “window of opportunity” for reunification. He had to act.
He was also a political tactician: he wanted to win the first post-unification election. So he closed his eyes to the soaring cost, promised a 1:1 conversion of devalued Ostmarks into valuable Deutschmarks, and let himself be persuaded that West Germany’s generous wages and social benefits must very largely be transferred to the east. The short-term benefits simply compounded the looming bankruptcy.
Nooteboom found the sort of fears that Grass expresses everywhere. “One question was on everyone’s mind at the time, and by everyone, I mean Germans themselves most of all: ‘What kind of country are we becoming?’” he writes. “Students at my readings would ask, ‘Aren’t you frightened of us?’ No, I wasn’t, but I was concerned that they thought I should be, as though they did not trust their own country.”
Why not? Germany’s history certainly plays a role. “Never again” shall there be a Hitler, a Nazi revival, a nightmare such as Auschwitz, is the constant refrain that colours German political debate. But there is something else. “Germany is unfinished,” he says. “It is ancient, but it is still being made, and that ambiguity makes it fascinating.”
Citing the belief of Johann Gottfried Herder, the Enlightenment writer and philosopher, that “nations develop at different rates, like people”, Nooteboom argues: “If you subscribe to that idea, you could say that France and England are fully formed, adult: we know them. But do we know Germany? Does Germany know itself? Does this country know what it wants to be when big?”
Reunification may have made those questions more urgent. It has not yet provided the answers.
Quentin Peel is the FT’s Berlin bureau chief