"Victory Brings Foolhardiness"
Gunter Grass, 75, on the war in Iraq, his generation and the Second World War, the erotic in literature and his new poetry volume "Last Dance"
[This interview is translated abridged from the German in: Der Spiegel 35/2003.]
Grass: ... The experiences of the war and the end of the war have far-reaching significance for us. This theme is prescribed to us.
Spiegel: Was that clear to you right from the start?
Grass: At first I avoided the theme and did my artistic balancing act. I actually didn't intend to write prose poems. Then the "Tin Drum" came and the prose continued. What unites me with the authors of my generation is something I call obsessive writing. Ending this isn't simple.
Spiegel: Christa Wolf wrote once in the novel "Childhood Model" (Kindheitsmuster): "The war despite everything is not explained and adequately discussed today." Is that true today despite the post-war novels of Ball, Grass and Lenz?
Grass: These books focus more on the consequences of war. Other nations may resolve rightly or wrongly: enough has been said, that is now past! For Germans, this is different. Our past overtakes us again and again. A defeat, even an absolute defeat as we experienced, also brings advantages. This is not without irony.
Spiegel: What do you mean?
Grass: Victory sometimes brings foolhardiness. Reflection on what leads to war is dismissed as unnecessary. The chance of learning from defeat doesn't arise. With all the disaster connected with that, we left behind an enormous burden. This little but considerable advantage is that we were forced again and again in phases to begin again from another perspective or point of view for reconsidering the past and confronting again and again what we inflicted...
Grass At 13 or 14, I learned to dance... In the immediate post-war time, there was a dance craze that people can't understand any more. That dance craze passed into the erotic, even if not very far as with young persons nowadays. At that time the erotic was only desired...
Spiegel: Three years ago you said with regard to exile and the bomb war: "One injustice replaced another." Was too little said about the suffering of the German population in the Second World War?
Grass: For legitimate reasons, my generation, older writers, turn energetically to the crimes committed by Germans. I never looked away from the "Tin Drum" on...
Spiegel: Are you against a memorial to expellees in Berlin?
Grass: I am very much for that memorial documenting what the 20th century entailed, these horrible barbaric expulsions. This is a European task, not a German task... The Poles, the Czechs, the Greeks, Turks and Armenians were involved. Everything began with the expulsions. The destruction of the Armenians was an unparalleled disaster. The next steps in the twenties were the expulsion of Greeks from Asia Minor and conversely Turks from Greece. These were all forced resettlements with countless dead...
Spiegel: The chancellor sees this similarly. Have you spoken with him?
Grass: He knows my opinion. He seeks dialogue and another way of looking at things. My observation is that he can listen.
Spiegel: Are you occupied on the Danish island Mon with the German reform debate?
Grass: I am amazed at everything that is called "reform" today. The cancellation of reforms is carried out. The country can hardly be governed; everything blocks everything else. I didn't imagine that one day I would stand on the side of those who say: More State! Making important political decisions outside the elected political groups is dangerous. No changes occur if industry and the lobbies do not approve them. The superior strength of lobbyists damages democracy.
Spiegel: Is the goal of social democracy past?
Grass: That is nonsense. One shouldn't be beguiled. As long as there are social injustices, and no end is in sight, there must be a party that accepts this problematic. I have always been a Bernsteiner [The author and politician Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932) participated in the Gothaer program of the socialist workers' party in Germany (1875) and sought to bridge the gap between revolutionary theory and reformist practice for social democrats.] I accept the necessity of revisionism. For me, Schroeder is also a revisionist in this sense.
Spiegel: That sounds like a complement.
Grass: Schroeder faces a great challenge. There are many possibilities of failure.
Spiegel: The general secretary of the SPD now proposes drawing up a new party program without "social justice" and "democratic socialism". What is your reaction?
Grass: That is rubbish. I still hope that pragmatic and long-term goals can be reconciled. I don't restrict this hope to Europe. There is worldwide poverty, an injustice between poor and rich countries. The deep reason for the increasing terrorism lies in the disappointment of these poor countries capsizing into hatred.
Spiegel: The terrorists of September 11 came mainly from wealthy families. Do you think that terrorism arises through poverty?
Grass: In any case war is the wrong reaction to terrorism. One should ask: Why are young persons ready to commit suicide assassinations? The power of conquering hunger exists. This lies in Canadian-American hands... The dependence of the poor countries becomes greater and greater.
Spiegel: "Victory brings foolhardiness", you said at the beginning of the interview. Is that true regarding the situation of Americans?
Grass: I don't describe that situation as triumph. Seeing how a great overpowering country learns nothing from its little defeats like the Vietnam War is grievous. This deficient learning capacity is one reason that people don't react differently to present crises...