“What wonders I have done, all Germany can witness. . . . “
Anyone who has lived in Germany eventually realizes that Germany is a nation of hypochondriacs. Germans spend far more than Americans on nostrums, vitamins, tranquilizers, and elixers; Americans may watch “Dynasty,” but the most popular TV show in the Federal Republic is “Black Forest Clinic.” A similar obsession prevails in politics: Germans are always questioning the health of their society and their politics, just as they constantly question the health of their bodies. What they usually examine themselves for now, of course, is political instability and the antidemocratic disease. Given their history, this is hardly surprising. And the Germans’ political hypochondria is catching: it soon affects outside observers of the German scene. This is hardly surprising, either. The Germans’ political past, and their vital importance to the Western alliance, makes obsession with the political and social health of the country understandable. The problem, however, is to know when the hypochondriac is really sick: Luther, after all, terrified his audiences with the prediction that society was so iniquitous that the Day of Judgment would come before the end of summer 1541.
In Germany Today, Walter Laqueur gives the Federal Republic his own close examination. Born and reared in Germany, Laqueur has written much first-rate work on German history. He is also a leading neoconservative thinker who has been much concerned with the direction Europe has been taking ever since the 1970’s. Germany Today is a beautifully written and almost encyclopedic description of the condition of the Federal Republic as it stood in 1982-1984.
Laqueur ends up giving the West Germans an almost clean bill of health. Or rather, assertions of basic political, social, economic, and cultural health are placed at the beginning and end of chapters whose content, to some readers, will not seem all that encouraging. Space precludes more than a few examples.
One of the best essays in Germany Today is Laqueur’s chapter on what he calls “the cultural revolution”: that is, the sea-change in the perception of bourgeois-democratic society and values among the West German cultural elite. The radicals'”Generation of 1968″ utterly failed to shift German society off its bourgeois-democratic base politically, but in the sphere of education and culture its triumph has been just about complete. The administration of universities and secondary schools was “democratized,” curriculums were watered down, radical graduate students were “bought off” with well-paying jobs within the system. But many of the latter are now tenured professors (often on the basis of very shoddy work) in a system that allows tenured professors enormous power. And these people have absolutely no scruples about using their power to indoctrinate students: as a radical British academic once put it, “the phrase ‘scholarly objectivity’ is a powerful weapon of bourgeois class domination.” The result is what the older generation calls the Bildungskatastrophe: sharply falling standards of educational accomplishment mixed with highly politicized pedagogy.
Well, how important really are the politics of the German professoriat? The answer, of course, is that they are the people responsible for training the next generation of leaders of the country. That next generation is being taught (for instance) that the Marshall Plan was simply a plot of American big business to capture postwar European markets. It is being taught that the greatest threat to Germany is American world policy and American cultural imperialism. (The left-wing ideologist Thomas Schmid fumes at the “imperialist de-Nazification of the god-damn Yankees who have prescribed democracy for our country.”)
That next generation is also being taught that bourgeois-democratic society, politics, and values trivialize all of life and life’s emotions, whereas the revolutionary moment is being held up as a shining example of “wholeness” and “authenticity.” In 1982 two leaders of the Green Party were moved to declare: “We entered [Qaddafi’s] tent reverently and paid rapt attention to his words. In contrast to the petty bourgeois fussiness of our own Bundeskanzler [Helmut Schmidt], Qaddafi radiates a ceremonial dignity.” Finally, the next generation is being taught that unilateral disarmament and withdrawal from the Western alliance is Germany’s one route to safety in an irrational world. As far as the Soviet Union is concerned, what is necessary is Entfeindung: getting rid of the image, indeed, the very concept, of an enemy.
Yet even as he chronicles in detail this upheaval in German educational-social values, Laqueur urges us not to worry overmuch. Youth revolt is a German generational constant, and the youth in revolt usually ends up settling down to becoming a solid, useful citizen. Final judgment ought to be reserved on the generation that produced the huge antidefense protests of 1983—and even on the Generation of 1968, since hardly any of them supported the overthrow of German bourgeois society by violence, as advocated by the Baader-Meinhoff terrorists of the 70’s. Moreover, the very fact that the German economy is currently going through difficult times militates against the growth of radicalism among the young, because many more young people have become concerned simply with economic survival (getting a job). Perhaps Laqueur is right: a recent article in the New York Times reported on a new, conservative trend among the youth of the Federal Republic. It is often the fate of professors not to be listened to.
When we turn from the educational-cultural scene to politics, Laqueur is similarly sanguine. He discounts the importance of the Green Party, doubts the Party’s staying power. Indeed, already since the publication of Germany Today, the Greens have become split between those who are willing to work within the system and form strong alliances with the established Social Democratic Party (the old left wing), and those who see this as a betrayal of radical purity. Given the bitterness of the split within the Greens, they may not even continue to receive the necessary votes for representation in the Federal Parliament. Yet the very existence of the Greens has shifted the Social Democrats themselves radically further to the left. Laqueur plays down the fevered anti-NATO statements of new Social Democratic leaders like Egon Bahr and Oscar Lafontaine as rhetorical ploys. Like the words of the Generation of 1968, they will never be matched by real deeds. No matter what they are saying now, if the Social Democrats ever come back into power (as they were in power, throughout the 70’s), they will act responsibly, for they will then be the government. Meanwhile, the more conservative Christian Democratic Union, the old party of Konrad Adenauer, remains in control of West German policy. The Christian Democrats, under Chancellor Helmut Kohl, are a stodgy and unimaginative lot. They have little appeal to the young (which raises questions about the ultimate future of the party), but their political power is still substantial among the middle classes, and they may well remain the government for a long time to come.
Laqueur therefore sees a political situation bearing significant signs of stability. In fact, the West Germans have done far better, over four decades, than anyone had a right to expect. This latter point is illuminating, important, and encouraging. Nevertheless, Germany Today consistently delineates what may be deep structural changes in German politics, society, and (especially) intellectual culture— dangerous changes, with possible very negative long-range impact. We can’t know for certain (it’s difficult to discern when the hypochondriac is really ill), but while reading this book I sometimes had a sense of après Kohl le déluge.
Despite Walter Laqueur’s optimistic prognosis for German political, social, and cultural health, any sense of foreboding about developments in the Federal Republic will only be increased by reading Günter Grass’s latest collection of essays: On Writing and Politics, 1967-1983.
Günter Grass is one of the two writers who has dominated the German intellectual scene since the 1960’s (the other colossus is the Nobel Prize winning Heinrich Böll). Grass’s prominence gives his utterances an enormous impact on the German political-cultural scene. Grass’s most celebrated work is the anti-Nazi novel The Tin Drum, and he has been a leader among German intellectuals in fully accepting the guilt for the Nazi past (“I was 17 in 1945, too young to participate in the crimes, innocent through no fault of my own”). By the 1960’s, Grass had also emerged as a leading, truly democratic socialist thinker. Though as a participant in the intellectual culture he was naturally alienated from the prosperous bourgeois Germany of the Wirtschaftswunder (“banal and empty”), he was also scaldingly hostile to Communist totalitarianism and contemptuous as well of the apocalyptic, amateur radicalism of the Generation of 1968. Instead of radicalism, Grass espoused sober and gradual reform by means of hard work within the system—the democratic system of the Federal Republic, the Social Democratic Party of Willy Brandt.
The single best essay in the current collection comes from this period. In “Erfurt 1891 and 1970,” Grass proudly accepts the title “revisionist.” He points out that the bitter epithet “revisionist” was first used by Marxist revolutionaries to attack the reform-minded socialist thinker Eduard Bernstein. The basis of Bernstein’s “Erfurt Program” was the realization that capitalism was compatible with democratic change and that it was adaptable to workers’ demands: violent revolution was therefore unnecessary. The Erfurt Program thus marked an epochal split in the European left between violent revolutionaries and democratic reformers, a split that has endured down to our own day. “Erfurt 1891 and 1970” is a hymn of praise to Bernstein—a man who, as Grass pointedly remarks, was also one of the earliest and most perceptive critics of Leninist atrocities.
This vigorous and thoughtful essay, and others like it, were written under the combined impact of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968) and the electoral triumph of the Social Democrats in Germany (1969). Yet even here, it is striking that Grass never even tries to deal with the basic self-contradiction that even a “democratic” socialist regime implies a huge increase in the power of the state over society and the individual, which is something that Grass clearly opposes. His socialist vision therefore remains a mere romantic blur.
What is disturbing about On Writing and Politics is to see how this retreat into romanticism and away from sober practical polities accelerates over time. During the 1970’s, Grass seems to have lost his earlier appreciation of and patience with the democratic process of the Federal Republic; he became instead an increasingly hysterical apocalyptist (pollution, technology, technocracy, above all, the Bomb). Laqueur suggests that at least one reason for Grass’s change of heart was the replacement of Willy Brandt by Helmut Schmidt as head of the Social Democrats: Brandt respected the intellectuals, sought their advice, and even occasionally followed it; Schmidt did not.
Whatever the cause of Grass’s radicalization, the effect is all too obvious in these essays. During the 1970’s Grass became one of the leading West German proponents of moral equivalence. At first. Grass held this position on the grounds that the West, for reasons of “security,” sometimes supports unsavory, undemocratic regimes. In a 1973 essay. Grass equates the Greece of the Colonels and Franco Spain with the Czechoslovakia of Gustav Husak. But as we all know, Greece and Spain both reverted to democracy in the mid-1970’s, while the Czech regime has not loosened its totalitarian grip.
Yet such developments did not disturb Grass’s belief in “moral equivalence”—they just meant that his grounds for that belief had to shift somewhat. The shift: Grass now began to devalue the reality and importance of “formal democracy” itself Thus in a 1983 essay. Grass holds that West and East are morally equivalent because the potential “dictatorship” of a computerized Western society equals the actual police-state totalitarianism east of the Elbe. Again, Grass equates the 1983 electoral victory of Helmut Kohl’s conservatives with the coming of the society of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to the Federal Republic. But such essays are worse than childish. When a great writer chooses the 10th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia to say that “the two technocracies” are the morally equal executors of the vision of Franz Kafka, we are dealing with a man who has lost his moral compass.
The moral and intellectual degeneration is most glaringly apparent in Grass’s discussion of Nicaragua, which closes On Writing and Politics. Written in 1982—immediately after the crushing of Solidarity by the Polish Communist government—this essay actually equates Solidarity with the Sandinista regime: both, you see, are basically peaceful Catholic socialist movements. Similarly, Grass equates American support of anti-Sandinista forces with the Communist suppression of Solidarnosc. Like Geraldine Ferraro in her 1984 TV debate with George Bush, Grass believes that all the Sandinistas need is help towards a democracy they fervently desire but are inexplicably blundering away from. He fails to see that what the Communists did to Solidarity is what the Sandinistas themselves are trying to do to the independent Nicaraguan labor movement, a movement which was an integral part of the original Nicaraguan revolution. He even knows that the Sandinistas officially approved of the crushing of Solidarity, but this is glossed over as a strange “misunderstanding” on their part.
It is hard to believe that this appalling (and one suspects willful) naiveté towards a Leninist regime would have been shared for very long by Grass’s earlier hero, Eduard Bernstein. Indeed, Grass in this essay becomes a political pilgrim of the worst sort, gushing over a show-prison in Managua of the type that existed in Moscow in 1933 and Havana in 1963, gushing over the show-camps built to house the “displaced” Miskito Indians. Nor has Grass’s attitude been changed by the eventual total suppression of civil rights in Nicaragua. On the contrary: in January 1986 he took the lead in welcoming Omar Cabezas, the Sandinista Minister of the Interior, to an international writers’ conference in New York (Gabezas is partially responsible for the functioning of the Sandinistas’ censorship system). It would seem that, having lost faith and patience in staid democratic reform, Grass has finally fallen in love with the delirium of Revolution. In other words, he has become precisely the sort of irresponsible left-wing littérateur he was warning us against in the late 60’s. And, like many on the German left, he is now explicit that he wants the Federal Republic to withdraw from NATO. Neutralism, of course, is the ultimate political effect of the theory of “moral equivalence”—which is why “moral equivalence” is more than just a bitter joke, but something very dangerous indeed.
When West German intellectuals lose faith in the sober democracy of the Federal Republic and become apologists for totalitarianism, then the observers of the West German scene are justified in expressing concern for the future. Unfortunately, neutralism, irrational though it is, has become in some European quarters a means of national self-assertion (this is certainly true in Grass’s case). If the neutralist trend continues, as Grass hopes, then prospects for the West seem bleak. Alienated and “romantic” intellectuals who no longer thought “formal democracy” worth defending were among the foremost gravediggers of the Weimar Republic.
[Germany Today, by Walter Laqueur (Boston: Little, Brown) $19.95]
[On Writing and Politics, 1967-1983, by Günter Grass; translated by Ralph Manheim (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) $16.95]