A purpose in the past

December 21, 2001

The child of a mixed marriage, Günter Grass argues that his Polish-Slav and German roots may have had an impact on his development as a writer.

My mother was of Kaschubian origin, my father a German - so there has always been a conflict of interests inside me that has continued to this very day. Add to this the fact that I was born in a suburb of Danzig - the free state of Danzig, neither truly Polish nor German but a highly desirable territory that both countries would be eager to acquire - and you have all the ingredients for a double portion of identity crisis.

There were good historical reasons why the rich commercial centre of Danzig was chosen for such an experiment. The city had freed itself from the patronage of the German Order of Knights in the Middle Ages by tearing down their castle, and afterwards had existed for some 300 years as fiercely independent, yet subject also to the Polish crown. As an affiliate to the Hanseatic League, the region remained cosmopolitan, and as a provider of revenue to the Polish crown it was endowed with various privileges. The region's downfall began when the glorious and yet occasionally autocratic Danzig was awarded to the Prussian kingdom after the third division of Poland.

Gone were the days of Hanseatic splendour, self-government and republican dreams. Now Prussian order was the abiding feature of everyday life. Prussia continued to rule Danzig for as long as Poland did not exist as a country. In fact, this continued until the bone of contention that was Danzig was exposed once again to the covetousness of Germany and Poland at the time of the rebirth of Poland as a state.

To grow up in such a place had its advantages for a future writer. Repeatedly expelled from one secondary school after another, I soon got to know the town and its suburbs, its many alleyways and nooks and crannies. I also got to know the Kaschubians, that ancient Slavic people, as a direct result of keeping in touch with my mother's relatives. They still lived near Danzig, but in Poland, farming a few acres of potatoes - at least until the war years forced a halt to this humble activity. Despised by the Germans, recognised only reluctantly as a minority by the central Polish government, the Kaschubians truly lived between the devil and the deep blue sea. But they were used to that - after all they had been living thus for many hundreds of years, even before Germany and Poland existed. They could truly be called survivors.

It is very likely that my long-lasting and deeply felt support for minorities - such as the Gypsies - stems from these early experiences. And precisely because I am the product of a mixed marriage, I know just how absurd the concepts of "pure German" or "pure Pole" really are. Moreover, I can tell you from experience just how fertile such a mixture can be, especially in the field of cultural achievement.

In the past century the relationship between Germans and Poles has had at its heart the original crime. The German Wehrmacht's attack on Poland on September 1 1939 was a disgraceful act, albeit one carried out with great military expertise. This date will never be forgotten. The Germans set up a despotic regime that led to the deprivation of rights, expulsions, expropriation of property and goods, murder and, eventually, genocide. The extent of these crimes, which has left us with such a terrible legacy, spreads throughout the whole of Poland and is still impossible to comprehend even now. No amount of well-meaning attempts at compensation, atonement or reparations will ever begin to make amends.

Those children who grew up during or shortly after the war, blameless of any involvement in it, have been left an oppressive legacy by their fathers and grandfathers (not forgetting mothers and grandmothers). This legacy, unlike any other, has not diminished over the years. It is part of German history and will belong forever to our self-image; if any German thinks otherwise he is deluding himself.

With the end of the war in sight, the occupying forces ceased their violations and the boot was on the other foot as about 10 million Germans were forced to move amid a fresh round of injustices. An eye for an eye, as the saying goes, this bore all the hallmarks of true "ethnic cleansing". It would be futile and unjust to play the numbers game, but one thing is certain - both peoples, Germans and Poles, eye the other with mistrust. The older generation do this from experience, the younger because of prejudice handed down over the years. And even if we set aside the old clichés - the proverbial German sense of order, the proverbial Polish economy - and consider with amusement the increasing tendency of German trains to run late, even an upturn in the Polish balance of trade, the old mistrust between these two neighbours will never be far from the surface. The old scars are not yet healed.

So much for my review of the horrors of the present that is striving in vain to become the past. But was the relationship between Germans and Poles always so antagonistic? I have my doubts.

Let us delve back in time. There have been some absurd happenings. For instance, the German Order of Knights was invited into the country by the Polish king. This task force, specialists in forcing Christianity onto heathens, systematically wiped out the heathen Prussians in the name of German/Polish interests, the Prussians being the original inhabitants of the area later known as East Prussia. The coexistence of Poles and Germans had been made possible for many centuries by this colourful, mildly antagonistic, sometimes harmonious relationship that never descended into mutual hate - that is until the division of Poland and the emergence of nation states.

I maintain that only by remembering how things used to be, even if we are talking of many, many years ago, can we now begin to soften some of the hardened attitudes we see today. We recognise that we are mutually better off than we perhaps wanted to admit previously. We are closely related, as can be seen by a cursory glance at the surnames in our respective telephone directories. Two strangely gifted hybrid peoples whose occasional stupidity causes them to make mention of pure German or pure Polish. Speaking of which - I don't doubt the existence of these pure Poles or Germans, but I prefer not to confront either one or the other.

These are our fears. We rake over them like embers in the fire and they sometimes flare up again. Some of these fears, both long-standing and new, are eminently understandable.

To my utter astonishment I have discovered that a south German newspaper, the Passauer Neue Presse , which already owns a large number of Czech newspapers, has managed to acquire a whole raft of newspaper titles in Poland. A single title may appear harmless, but too many titles in the hands of one owner soon become a powerful tool.

No, Poles and Germans will not forge closer ties in this way. The expanded European Union will also not have the stomach to bring together two such countries that themselves have been unsuccessful in achieving cooperation. The desired relationship between good neighbours will not come about as the result of well-meaning speeches. We need real bridge-building, not rhetoric.

The hateful argument over the disputed ownership of works of art, for instance, can only be brought to a conclusion if Germans and Poles are prepared to set aside nationalistic considerations and build a museum where all the pictures, sculptures, manuscripts, scores and book collections can be housed permanently under one roof. Such a museum should be close to the border, if possible on both banks of the Oder, and why not actually span the river? Art does not belong to nations. Works of art by their very nature cross all borders. They must no longer be allowed to be spoils of war.

Günter Grass was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1999. This article is an edited version of a recent speech and was translated from German by Greg Swain.

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