Friday, July 18, 2008

Grass in the Gaeltacht

I got a copy of Gunter Grass’s autobiography, Peeling The Onion (Harcourt), on offer and took it with me on holidays in the Gaeltacht. Grass’s novella, Crabwalk, is brilliant but I find much of his other work very hard going. Peeling The Onion is, however, a very good and honest book in which he tells about his early years in Danzig – now Gdansk – and of his experiences in the war. The book caused some controversy when first published because Grass admitted that he had served in the SS – though the account Grass gives shows that while he wore the SS uniform he didn’t actually fire a shot in anger. He was wounded by the Russians and was very lucky to survive the war at all.

Aside from that, Grass’s account of the war years and its aftermath is moving and compelling and yes, I did manage, to find a little passage that pertains to here. Grass was working as a miner after the war and writes about the political mix amongst the workers. There were three main groups: Communists, former Nazi supporters and Social Democrats – or Socis – as Grass calls them.

The Communists “predicted the imminent demise of capitalism and the victory of the proletariat and had a pat answer to every question and a predilection for clenched fists”; the Nazispeak group would “hum the Horst Wessel Song and indulge in speculations and maledictions of the “If the Fuhrer were alive today, he’d round up the lot of you …”

As for the Socis, Grass writes that “when push came to shove came to shove the communists inevitably teamed up with the Nazis to shout down the Social Democratic remainder. Mortal enemies as they were, they made a red and brown front against the Socis … The driver of my locomotive … was a Soci; he explained the odd-bedfellows alliance to me as we were leaving the locker room after our shift one evening. “The same thing happened just before Hitler came to power in ’33: the Commies and the Browns [Nazis] ganged up on us. Till then the Browns were out to liquidate the Commies; then they switched to us. And that was the end of solidarity. When will they ever learn? All or nothing, that’s what they want and they hate us Socis because we’ll take only half if need be…”

(Is it just me or does some of this seem very familiar to us Here?)

Grass also writes about attending a Social Democrat meeting which was addressed by Kurt Schumacher, a politician who had been imprisoned by the Nazis for his social democratic beliefs. Gradually, Grass saw the sense of social democracy and “began to fall into step with the Social Democrats in the sense of Willy Brandt’s “policy of small steps”. And it was not until years later, in the Diary of a Snail, that I prescribed crawling shoes for the ills of progress. The snail’s track, not the fast track.”

I suspect that few voters here know much about the history of social democracy in Germany. (I know I don’t.) Yet it strikes me that it is a subject that would be well worth an essay or two on the SDLP’s site on the basis that it would provide a European insight into what social democracy is and what it can achieve.

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