On the campaign trail with Gunter Grass

HALLE, Germany — In depressed, eastern German market towns like Halle, public visits by VIPs of any sort, much less Nobel Prize winners, are rare events. This is exactly why Germany's internationally acclaimed novelist, Gunter Grass, has come to Halle in the final stretch of Germany's nationwide election campaign. Grass, 82, is stumping for his lifelong party, the Social Democrats.

The consummate public intellectual, Grass has been engaged in the knock-down-drag-out of German public life since the 1950s. His postwar classic "The Tin Drum," published in 1959, thrust Germans' atonement for the crimes of the Nazi era into West Germany’s discourse. With unflagging moral tenacity and a stubborn streak that infuriates even his allies, he has since weighed in on just about every major issue affecting Germany — and every four years he takes to the campaign trail. Even though his old friend Willy Brandt, the great postwar Social Democrat, is no longer alive, Grass has remained true to the party and its egalitarian ideals. At a modest little beer garden alongside one of Halle's parks, Grass is obviously the center of attention. The native of the Free City of Danzig (today Gdansk, Poland) exudes an aura of thoughtfulness and wisdom, drawing occasionally on his mahogany pipe as he chats with the local politicos. Wearing attire straight out of the postwar decades, he looks the way Germans have long come to know Grass, with a mustard-color tweed sport jacket, baggy wide-wale corduroys and a maroon v-neck sweater over a collared shirt. He still has a full head of naturally black hair and a bushy, down-turned moustache.

“I like the campaign trail," says Grass in his gravelly, northern German brogue. He looks me right in the eye, thin plastic glasses perched on his generous outcrop of a nose. “I get to go places I otherwise wouldn’t, and talk with people about what matters to them.”

Even though his public spats with the Social Democrats have often been bruising — such as over the party’s role in cancelling Germany’s liberal asylum law — he lobbies for the flagging party with brio. At the lecturn in the jam-packed Burgerhaus auditorium in Halle, he doesn’t hesitate to draw on history’s lessons: The Weimar Republic of the 1930s, he reminds Halle’s voters, was brought down when the Social Democrats were sabotaged from the left and the right. This, though he doesn’t say it, opened the way for Hitler’s reign of terror.

This election, Grass preaches at every stop, is particularly critical: “If the Christian Democrats and the Liberals pull off a victory,“ he waves a finger in the air, “we’ll have in power the same free-market radicalism responsible for the global economic crisis. It’ll be like putting the wolf in charge of the sheep!”

The venues of Grass’ tour are conspicuous: Berlin, Eberswalde, Neuenhagen, Stettin, Halle. They are all eastern German towns, and most, like Halle, are down-at-the-heels places that have never rebounded from the body blow of unification. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the socialist-era industries went under, joblessness soared, and most everyone with skills or an education picked up and left. Since then, Halle has lost a third of its population to economic flight.

In the aftermath of the Berlin Wall's fall, Grass toured the newly liberated regions of eastern Germany. During his travels, he observed and spoke with the people from the “other Germany” who had lived their entire lives under communism, in a dictatorship that Grass had always called by that name.

Grass also weighed in prominently on the raging international debate over the fate of the two Germanys in the wake of the Eastern Bloc’s collapse. Like many West German leftists, he was deeply skeptical about the prospects for a reunited Germany smack in the middle of Europe. He warned of the dangers of a bellicose, resurgent German nationalism, untethered from its Cold War moorings and left to its own devices. Above all, Grass condemned the one-sided takeover of eastern Germany by the mighty Federal Republic. He winced at the West Germans’ vast arrogance and the East Germans’ glorification of the Deutsche Mark, as if it were the answer to all of their problems. In the euphoric months leading up to unification in October 1990, the German media lambasted Grass as “pessimist of the nation” and “Germany’s Cassandra.”

Today, Grass says he feels mostly vindicated. “Of course,” he says, “I was wrong about the nationalism. Germany had come further than I had thought.” But just take a look at Halle, he says: “All the jobs are gone, all the factories are closed. All the people here could do was hope someone from the West would come and buy them. But they didn’t.”

Yet, contrary to Grass’ dark prophesies, other urban centers and regions in the east have experienced economic upswings. Cities like Dresden and Chemnitz (formerly Karl Marx Stadt) are boom towns, with per capita incomes higher than in some places in the west. Unemployment has tapered off, as has economic flight. Although the far left and the far right are stronger than in the west, there are no longer street protests against the state's economic belt-tightening, as there were just five years ago. Democracy isn’t faltering like it did during the latter years of the Weimar Republic.

So is Gunter Grass just preaching to the choir? Is he visiting places like Halle because they prove him right? “No,” he says, shaking his large head slowly, “these are places where the Social Democrats need help.” A woman comes up to him with a brand new copy of "The Tin Drum." He pauses as he signs it for her and then finishes his thought, “I do what I can.”