Two very different books have recently done their best to remind me that nobody knows just when “the new normal” became the very handy cliché it is. But it sure fits how quickly the Cold War went from potentially apocalyptic confrontation to historical curio once the Berlin Wall fell, Germany reunited and the Soviet Union (huh, whuzzat?) vanished from the geographical lexicon. Even to people who lived through it, the whole 44-year mishigoss reverberates very little today; the elephant left the room, and that was that. Well, at least once its hideous, messy Balkan aftermath was safely behind us too.
At least to Americans, as historian Jon Wiener says in How We Forgot The Cold War (University of California Press, $34.95), World War II still looms much larger in our collective—and by now, overwhelmingly secondhand—memory. (Full disclosure: though I don’t know him, we’re on friendly terms online, and the copy of his book that showed up in my mail in October was very nicely inscribed.) Wiener had the entertaining idea of checking out every memorial and tourist site commemorating the Cold War he could find, from how it’s represented in presidential libraries to Arizona’s Titan Missile Museum, whose visitors get to playfully turn the keys “launching” one. Not to mention Whittaker Chambers’s pumpkin patch, now a National Historical Landmark at conservatives’ insistence but visited by all of two people a year.
What fascinates Wiener is that few if any of these places have much to say when it comes to explaining what the whole scary, expensive farrago was about. Both the plant in Hanford, Washington, that produced plutonium for nuclear bombs, for instance, and the Nevada test site where U.S. troops used to be deliberately exposed to atomic blasts to see how they fared, now stress how safe and non-radioactive they are, not their original purpose. His larger thesis is that the lack of triumphalism or ideological claims for America’s anti-Soviet righteousness on display throughout this great land proves the failure of the conservative narrative of the Cold War—i.e., that it was good vs. evil, and Reagan won it.
Said thesis isn’t one I buy, I have to say. However glumly, I’m pretty sure that “It was good versus evil and Reagan won it” is what most Americans would rattle off if asked about the Cold War, right after heaving a mighty yawn and right before making excuses about needing to find the bar. Anyway, focusing exclusively on how the conflict is presented in museums and at historical sites to prove otherwise stacks the decks somewhat. Such places make a priority out of not boring or annoying anybody, after all, and Wiener doesn’t cite other data—polls, say, or how the Cold War is presented in textbooks—to back up his case. I could also wish he’d broadened his perspective (or maybe budget) to include one Cold War monument that would make almost any Yank, Brit, or Frenchman proud of which side we were on: the Airlift Memorial at Berlin’s Tempelhof airport.
That doesn’t take much away from How We Forgot The Cold War’s interest, however, let alone how enjoyable the book is. Starting with the enormous, absurd bunker built in Greenbrier, Virginia, to house Congress in the event of nuclear war—“the Graceland of Cold War tourism,” as one wag quoted by Wiener puts it—how many of us knew all this stuff existed and was open to the public? Speaking of Graceland, even Elvis Presley rates a chapter, thanks to exhibits at two different museums documenting his Army stint in Germany. Weiner didn’t get to see every site firsthand, and you can hardly blame him if he decided the monument in Grenada to Reagan’s heroic 1983 invasion wasn’t worth the plane fare. But his descriptions of the ones he did see, from bizarre sights and chatty tour guides to his own asides about what’s been omitted or distorted, are both trenchant and, for him, uncommonly frisky—and no, I’m not saying so just so he won’t unfriend me on Facebook. The Cold War junkie in me is the arbitrator here.
Admittedly, my jones for German politics may be even less widely shared, but that’s life and it’s my blog. Providing a serendipitous counterpart to Wiener’s book is Gunter Grass’s From Germany to Germany—a diary from 1990, the year of reunification, about which he had qualms-a-plenty in the crunch. The fascination here is the day-to-day importance to him and his compatriots of all sorts of wrangles, personalities (gee, remember Oskar Lafontaine?) and turbulence that, while not exactly trivial in hindsight, do acquire poignancy as lonely rebukes to history’s pastel version of what the Wall’s fall wrought.
That Grass kept a journal was no accident. Not a man to shy from his own Nobel Prize-winning avoirdupois, he decided that such a momentous year deserved a chronicle of his reactions to it. Yet thanks in part to the casual format, he’s much better company here than he was in his previous volume of autobiography, The Box, whose vanities tucked inside opacities wore out even Grassophiles. It’s both fun and smart for him to interlard his broodings about then West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s blunderbuss approach to reunification with tidbits about friends, cooking, his complicated domestic life (six children by four women, only two of whom he married), what he’s just planted in his garden and sketches for his satiric novel about German-Polish reconciliation, The Call of The Toad.
Once upon a time, Grass used to scold politicians for complacently accepting Germany’s division. But with reunification an imminent reality, he finds himself unable to sleep, “haunted by images of a Germany that can no longer be mine. This Kohlian abomination: egomaniacal, bombastic, jovial, tough, condescending, domineering, feigning harmlessness.” Though he’s in favor of relinking the two Germanies in some sort of loose confederation, he considers outright annexing the GDR both rash and potentially unconstitutional. He’s sick of naysayers like himself being told that “The train has left the station”—which, of course, it had. Somewhat less attractively for someone as well-off as he is—vacation home in Portugal, like that—he laments that the East Germans are having their heads turned by the prospect of access to Western consumer goodies.
While it wouldn’t be unfair to say that anguishing about Germany has been Grass’s literary stock-in-trade since The Tin Drum came out over half a century ago, here it’s particularized and vivid, not sententious. Upset by the colleagues who’ve gone from being fellow skeptics to crowing nationalists, he’s especially wounded by the shilly-shallying of his longtime political ally and hero: onetime Chancellor Willy Brandt, the grand old man of Grass’s beloved Social Democratic Party. When he writes, “It is all I can do to maintain my membership in the SPD,” old Grass fans will know things are serious.
Most of what he foresees as the consequences of reunification indeed came to pass, from resentment of the handout-dependent former East Germans by their affluent new co-citizens—though he doesn’t mention it, cruel T-shirts reading “Give Me Back My Wall” were soon selling like hotcakes in the West—to a newly unrepentant Germany finally securing the dominance over Europe through its powerhouse economy that it had failed to militarily. Boasts like “We are the paymasters of the European Community” and “As a major power, we must find a role” lead Grass to translate, “Left unspoken: ‘Now we have finally won the First and Second World Wars.’”
All true, of course; the way Angela Merkel has held Europe hostage to Deutschland’s purse-strings since 2008 is the ultimate (well, let’s hope) proof. Yet it’s obviously been less destructive than if Germany had won either World War at the time and by force instead of belatedly and without a shot being fired, just as the Cold War’s many iniquities—including its corrupting effect on American values, which we not only haven’t recovered from but have barely recognized—were nonetheless preferable to the big kaboom. Which makes me wonder: is apocalypse delayed the same as apocalypse denied? No doubt, the answer depends on how you define the long run.