Who will applaud if Germany succeeds?: A so-called 'investigation' into the German people in the latest issue of 'Granta' reveals nothing more than the usual collection of prejudices

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The Independent Online
FOR AN example of the bias against understanding, try the latest issue of Granta, entitled Krauts], which its editor, Bill Buford, fondly imagines to be the 'most comprehensive investigation of its kind' (as if it were an investigation of any kind), and which has already caused some offence with its question: 'What is it about the German people that produces a nation so - what? So ugly. So dangerous. So predictable.'

Unlike, for instance, beautiful, safe, unpredictable America, France and Britain - countries that have never done harm to another country, countries which treat their immigrant populations with exemplary kindness. My quotations come from Buford's blurb. You can tell it was written by Buford, from the sentence 'Who, nine months ago, had even heard of Rostock?' which, translated into English, means: 'I, Bill Buford, had never heard of Rostock until nine months ago.' He declares that we have a new vocabulary for discussions of Germany. In the past three years, we have started using such terms as 'neo-Nazi', 'extreme right', 'asylum-seeker', 'hostel'.

The last three years] I worked in Germany in the late Seventies. Nothing was easier than to place a story with a neo- Nazi connection, nothing more familiar than the article expressing concern for the foreign worker in Germany. Circumstances have changed entirely, but the story has not. In those days it was widely thought and argued that the activities of the Baader-Meinhof Gang had revealed the West German state to be fascist either in fact or in tendency. The corporate-industrial superstructure was nothing other than the SS in disguise. This was the spirit of films, books and plays, of splashes on canvas and scrawls on walls. It was what we call a cliche, the product of a German culture of self-hate.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger, in his contribution to the Granta issue, says: 'This condition of self-loathing is evident not only in the hostility to foreigners, but also in the opposition to it . . . The immigrant is defended in a tone of utter moralising self-righteousness: 'Foreigners, don't leave us alone with the Germans]' or 'Never again in Germany]' Immigrants are idealised in a manner reminiscent of philo-Semitism. Self-hatred is projected on to others . . .' '

This home-grown product of self-hate provides a feast for the foreign (in this case the American, Bufordian) prejudice against Germany. How convenient that Heinrich Boll, though dead, has come up with a handy little article about how he despises a certain kind of German bluster prevalent in 1949. How convenient that, according to the novelist Klaus Schlesinger, a certain bearded, long- haired and unnamed hippie visited a certain town in East Germany, where he was treated with overwhelming hostility and eventually chased through the town by a drunkard who called him a Jew and that all this happened in 1975, 30 years after the fall of the Third Reich] Amazing] A drunkard was rude to a hippie in 1975] Unbelievable] The Italians, I recall, were prone to say the filthiest of things to hippies in the late Sixties, but I suppose they had got used to them by 1975.

Gunter Grass's contribution tells us how he came in for much criticism in early 1990 for saying that 'whoever thinks about Germany now, and seeks answers for the German question, must include Auschwitz in his thoughts'. He was arguing against over-hasty German reunification. The article printed here is a speech made in November last year, shortly after the firebomb that killed three Turkish women, and in it Grass rounds on his previous critics, asking what they think in the light of the recent attacks on foreigners. 'The time for warnings is long past,' he said, implying that in some measure his Auschwitz prediction has come true (for if it hasn't, it is surely well worth continuing to warn).

But the speech does not end there. Grass goes on to say that Germany should take in as many gypsies as it can. 'Let half a million or more Sinti and Romanies live among us,' he concludes. 'We need them. They could help us by irritating our rigid order a little. Something of their way of life could rub off on us.' It is astonishing that a man who thinks reunification has revived the spirit of Auschwitz should want more gypsies in Germany. You would think that anyone who saw such a peril would stand at the border shouting: turn back, it is dangerous here, for gypsies as for Jews.

Monika Maron, who moved from East to West Germany shortly before the demise of the communist regime, writes in some disgust at her fellow East Germans' attitudes today, and her piece makes an amusing counterpart to that of Boll. Her subject is not the attitude to foreigners but the self-pity of the easterners and their aggression in relation to the state. Maron thinks that if people feel let down by Chancellor Kohl, it is their own fault for having trusted him in the first place. 'You see, my former fellow-citizens believe that the rest of the world owes them something, most particularly their dignity. They have forgotten that until three years ago, they were perfectly prepared to treat their dignity in a pretty cavalier fashion, which is how they lost it in the first place. Now they think Helmut Kohl has found it but won't give it back.'

But Maron is glad about the basic fact of reunification, and just as short with its critics as with the Ossies who now feel let down by it. And this gladness after the fact seems to me the basis for any sane attitude to Germany. The next stage might be to look at what is in fact happening to the reunified country, but my guess is that, racial incidents apart, we will not learn much from our press about that until the Germans manage to turn the economy around. Then will come the opportunity for the next scare story. Germany reunification has worked] How threatening] How predictable] How ugly]

I was interested to flick through the little photo-essay in Granta designed to show the grimness of Halle and remembered by contrast how I had walked around the city last summer in some wonderment at the speed with which buildings were being restored and repainted. Then I remembered how I had once written a description of a run-down immigrant area of Cologne. The next time I visited the place, almost as if the article had been taken as a reproach,

the streets had been made thoroughly gemutlich. I felt disappointed, of course. I'd been slumming.

And what will become of Germany if, in the future, there is nowhere left to slum in? Wouldn't that be ugly, dangerous and predictable? Germany must not fail, thereby dragging the rest of Europe down, but it must not succeed to a degree that will excite the envy of less fortunate countries such as ours. A hard balance to achieve, I know, but life has a habit of tossing these conundrums in our lap.