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On the campaign trail with Gunter Grass

One of Germany's foremost public intellectuals "does what he can" to boost the Social Democrats.

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.”