SPIEGEL Interview with Günter Grass 'The Nobel Prize Doesn't Inhibit Me in My Writing'
Part 3: 'I Didn't Volunteer for the Waffen-SS'
SPIEGEL: What prompted you to go there?
Grass: I was a firm believer in the concept of a united cultural nation. As part of it, we authors from the West and the East met in private apartments in East Berlin and read from our manuscripts. I doubt that the informers working for the Stasi (editor's note: the East German secret police) even understood what I was after. They couldn't comprehend that someone could be critical toward two different sides. Or at least that was the impression I got when I read my Stasi file.
SPIEGEL: How did you feel when you were reading it?
Grass: Bored, mostly. For a long time I refused to read the stuff at all, and I never filed a request. There are more than 2,000 pages. In the end, Ms. Birthler (editor's note: Marianne Birthler, the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives) handed them over to me, but I had asked that all the passages where informers are named be blacked out. I didn't want to know who had spied on me. It's no longer important today, 20 years after reunification.
SPIEGEL: You argued vehemently against reunification. What's your verdict today?
Grass: I still believe, as I did in the past, that we shouldn't have annexed East Germany in that overhasty way. It's absurd that we missed such a huge opportunity. We should not have stifled that moment, in which, after two dictatorships, democratic self-awareness blossomed in those four famous words: "We are the people!" (Editor's note: "Wir sind das Volk!" -- "we are the people!" -- was a slogan chanted by pro-democracy protesters in East Germany in the months before the Berlin Wall fell.) Before long, the country and its industry were liquidated, while the Treuhand (editor's note: the agency that privatized East Germany's state-owned enterprises) sold off its assets for next to nothing. During the long postwar period, those 17 million people (in East Germany) had to bear alone the main burden of a war that was waged and lost by all Germans.
SPIEGEL: What would you have done?
Grass: I would have sharply increased taxes and would not have pursued reunification with borrowed funds. There is quite a bit of self-deception in the notion that now, in the year of the 20th anniversary of reunification, we are congratulating ourselves on how wonderfully everything has turned out. The facts say otherwise: the high unemployment, the depopulated areas. And the phenomenon that people call "the Wall in our minds" still exists. The way the Party of Democratic Socialism was handled contributed to this mindset. It was downright showered with praise and made popular, because, despite being the successor party to the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (editor's note: the East German communist party), it was not held accountable (for the actions of the East German state). In fact, it was given a free pass, and this approach harmed the Social Democratic Party.
SPIEGEL: Does the loss of significance of the SPD trouble you? The traditionally left-wing German party has a long and respectable history, but it lost popularity when it moved toward the center in recent years, during the Gerhard Schröder era.
Grass: Well, the Social Democratic Party signifies an element of continuity. That's the reason I cling to it. We have little continuity in Germany, and the SPD is about to turn 150. It's made many mistakes and has gone through a lot. But its social principles, which are rooted in the European labor movement of the 19th century, were and still are of fundamental importance to our country. Although many younger Social Democrats are far removed from the history of their party, that's something the SPD will also outlive.
SPIEGEL: In "Grimms' Words," you make no mention of possible mistakes in your political opinions. Haven't you ever been wrong?
Grass: After reunification, I was afraid that a sort of Greater Germany with a centralized power in Berlin could develop. But fortunately German federalism has been strong enough to offset any such tendencies. As inconvenient as it often is, I believe that the counterbalance through the states is the best option for Germany, after all.
SPIEGEL: Can you think of any other mistakes you have made during your life?
Grass: In my case, as everyone knows, I was seduced by the Hitler Youth in my younger years. I make this abundantly clear in my book "Peeling the Onion." I suppose I derived a certain immunity to any ideological posturing from that mistake.
SPIEGEL: In "Grimms' Words," you address your time with the Waffen-SS once again, and you describe your swearing-in on a clear, cold winter's night. You were 17 at the time. Do you also count that moment among the mistakes in your life?
Grass: It was not a misdeed on my part. I was drafted, as many thousands of others were. I didn't volunteer for the Waffen-SS. The end of the war liberated me from the pledge of blind obedience. After that, I knew that I would never take an oath again.