Gunter Grass takes aim at a familiar target.

Gunter Grass

Alison Flood’s piece in the Guardian, Gunter Grass poem praises Mordechai Vanunu‘, Oct. 1, begins thus:

Germany‘s Nobel literature laureate Günter Grass, who earlier this year was barred from Israel for criticising its nuclear policy, has written a poem praising the nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu.”

Actually, Grass was declared ‘persona non-grata’ in Israel specifically because he’s a former member of the Nazi Waffen SS who wrote a poem suggesting Israel was contemplating a nuclear strike to annihilate the Iranian people, and represents a threat to world peace.  

Here’s the poem, written by the “liberal” German poet, and Nobel Laureate:

What must be said

Why have I kept silent, held back so long,

on something openly practiced in

war games, at the end of which those of us

who survive will at best be footnotes?

It’s the alleged right to a first strike

that could destroy an Iranian people

subjugated by a loudmouth

and gathered in organized rallies,

because an atom bomb may be being

developed within his arc of power.

Yet why do I hesitate to name

that other land in which

for years—although kept secret—

a growing nuclear power has existed

beyond supervision or verification,

subject to no inspection of any kind?

This general silence on the facts,

before which my own silence has bowed,

seems to me a troubling lie, and compels

me toward a likely punishment

the moment it’s flouted:

the verdict “Anti-semitism” falls easily.

But now that my own country,

brought in time after time

for questioning about its own crimes,

profound and beyond compare,

is said to be the departure point,

(on what is merely business,

though easily declared an act of reparation)

for yet another submarine equipped

to transport nuclear warheads

to Israel, where not a single atom bomb

has yet been proved to exist, with fear alone

the only evidence, I’ll say what must be said.

But why have I kept silent till now?

Because I thought my own origins,

Tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,

meant I could not expect Israel, a land

to which I am, and always will be, attached,

to accept this open declaration of the truth.

Why only now, grown old,

and with what ink remains, do I say:

Israel’s atomic power endangers

an already fragile world peace?

Because what must be said

may be too late tomorrow;

and because—burdend enough as Germans—

we may be providing material for a crime

that is foreseeable, so that our complicity

will not be expunged by any

of the usual excuses.

And granted: I’ve broken my silence

because I’m sick of the West’s hypocrisy;

and I hope too that many may be freed

from their silence, may demand

that those responsible for the open danger

we face renounce the use of force,

may insist that the governments of

both Iran and Israel allow an international authority

free and open inspection of

the nuclear potential and capability of both.

No other course offers help

to Israelis and Palestinians alike,

to all those living side by side in emnity

in this region occupied by illusions,

and ultimately, to all of us.

Grass’s attempt at political lyricism is nearly farcical, conveying the following:

  • The classic antisemitic victimological conceit: that criticism of Jews will bring unfair “punishment” over false claims of antisemitism, and that such critiques of every conceivable sin, real and imagined, of the Jewish state are brave and, yes, rare. Grass is “breaking the silence”!
  • The pure fiction that Israel is considering a nuclear strike against Iran. (Anyone following the issue would surely know that the only thing Israel is contemplating is a conventional attack specifically targeting Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities).
  •  It is only Israel’s atomic power which “endangers an already fragile world peace”. (There are at least nine nations with nuclear weapons, yet Grass’s poem is strangely concerned with the nuclear capabilities of just one of those countries.)

Further, as SPIEGEL ONLINE columnist Jan Fleischhauer wroteon both the poem and the author’s likely motivation:

“One needs a fair bit of fantasy to portray Iran as the victim of Israeli extermination plans, but such a spin follows a tortured logic. If the Jews are the real aggressors, then one’s own guilt isn’t as great. This moral shift grants one a clear conscience to provide moral instruction to others.”

Near the end of her story, the Guardian columnist decided to finally note Grass’s background:

 “Grass, who won the Nobel in 1999, served as a teenager in the Waffen SS during the second world war, a fact he revealed in 2006.”

In fact, Grass revealed his Waffen SS service more than sixty years after WWII, and after continually falsely claiming, throughout his career, that he was conscripted into a German air defense unit late in the war. Grass, Germany’s post-war “moral authority“, who had spent a lifetime urging Germans to face up to their Nazi past, himself had kept silent for decades about his own SS service.

While the issue of responsibility for the generations of Germans born after the Holocaust is certainly a complex one, those living in the modern, democratic German state certainly bear much less of a moral burden than those Germans who directly participated in the Nazi killing machine and their willing accomplices.

While Grass is, of course, free to say and write what he wishes, it seems reasonable to expect that former Nazis consider showing a bit of humility – even an ounce of shame – the next time they consider waxing poetical on the sins of Israel, or lecturing Jews on their dangerous lack of morality.

Former Nazi Gunter Grass & a ‘liberal’ broadsheet called the Guardian (Analysis of coverage)

As I noted in a previous post, an 84 year old former Waffen SS Nazi named Gunter Grass published a poem falsely accusing Israel of contemplating a nuclear assault on Iran, and therefore a threat to “already fragile” world peace.

I advanced a few arguments in the piece, the most basic of which were these:

That the spectacle of a former Nazi, a German who was complicit with history’s most lethal movement, is about the last person on earth to lecture Jews on morality; that it’s shameful to characterize as “brave” his promotion of the intellectually and morally unserious charge that the Jewish state represents a threat to world peace; and that Germans, if nothing else, have a profound responsibility to guard against the resurgence of Judeophobic discourse within their society.

You’d think even the Guardian would report the story in a manner.

However, they’ve published eight pieces on the row thus far, little of which suggest genuine moral outrage at Grass, and much of which vilify Israel for its’ reaction to the poem.

Here are some highlights:

1. Gunter Grass barred from Israel over poem, April 8, by Harriet Sherwood.

What title and narrative of piece evoke

Israel repressing freedom of expression, unfairly barring someone from entering the state due merely to an offensive poem.

Relevant passages, representative of story’s theme

Some Israeli commentators said Grass had raised an important issue and that criticism of Israeli policies was routinely portrayed as antisemitism.

Writing on the +972 website, Larry Derfner said: “Günter Grass told the truth, he was brave in telling it, he was brave in admitting that he’d been drafted into the Waffen SS as a teenager, and by speaking out against an Israeli attack on Iran, he’s doing this country a great service at some personal cost while most Israelis and American Jews are safely following the herd behind Bibi [Netanyahu] over the cliff.”

Gideon Levy, the Haaretz columnist, wrote that Grass and other critics of Israeli policies were “not anti-Semites, they are expressing the opinions of many people”. “Instead of accusing them, we should consider what we did that led them to express it,” he said.

By ending with two defenses of Grass, which characterize him as more deserving of moral sympathy than Israeli leaders, Sherwood is providing implicit support (or at least, legitimization) for such opinions.  The broader message is that Israel is the guilty party, not Gunter Grass. 

2. Letters: Israel, Gunter Grass and the right to artistic license, April 8

While there were two letters critical of Grass, there were also four strongly defending him and vilifying Israel: by Tim Llewellyn, John Severs, John Severs, Catherine Boswell. 

Tim Llewellyn: Zionist conspiracies, the tragically misunderstood Republic of Iran, and a compliant media that is manipulated into denigrating the great Grass.

“What is so exceptional about Günter Grass’s verse that it should provoke such political and media hysteria? He merely points out what anyone who studies the Middle East knows: that Israel is trying to bounce the United States into war with Iran by wildly exaggerating Iran’s alleged “existential” threat to Israel, regardless of the cataclysmic consequences.

Israel has nuclear weapons; Iran does not. Iran has not seriously threatened Israel: even rhetorically, the textual evidence of any real menace to Israel from Ahmadinejad is overinterpreted and exaggerated. Conversely, Israel is certainly threatening Iran.

Why do our commentators fall such easy prey to the machinations of the Israeli state and its supporters, and denigrate a great and wise writer who, after all, is only trying to give us due warning of a disaster in the making?”

Published by the Guardian: Conspiratorial narrative of a Jewish state so powerful it can goad an unwilling world super power into war with Iran; An incomprehensible lie that Iran has not threatened Israel; and the notion that commentators are manipulated by Zionists into denigrating a great and wise former Nazi.

John Severs: Three cheers, or more, to Gunter Grass!

Three cheers, or more, to Günter Grass for exposing the hypocrisy of Israel’s stance and continuing complaints, with no evidence, about Iran developing nuclear weapon capability. Israel has significant nuclear-warhead capability, and it is constantly threatening to bomb Iran or organise land-based raids, thus creating mayhem across the Middle East. Grass might well have also mentioned the shocking Israeli blockade of Gaza and their illegal appropriation of land and water, and destruction of huge tracts of olive groves and orchards on the West Bank.

I note that, once again, a critic of Israeli policy is branded anti-Jewish. Is it no longer possible to criticise Israel as a nation without being accused of being antisemitic?

The brave Gunter Grass, who speaks truth to power, and says what must be said: Iran is the victim of Israeli aggression, a Jewish state which not only threatens world peace but destroys olive groves as well!  Plus, bonus claim: Poor former Nazis are silenced, and can’t even level hysterical warnings of a Jewish state representing the greatest threat to world peace without being called antisemitic. 

Catherine Boswell: The Mossad targeted my husband for being critical of Israel!

“My late husband, the German poet Erich Fried, was a colleague of Grass. In 1974 Erich published a whole book of poems about the Arab-Israeli conflict entitled Höre Israel, which has been republished recently by Melzer Verlag.

Grass’s admission that he served in the Waffen SS in his teens serves as ready ammunition for the Zionists to use against him; for Erich it was the fact of being a Jew. For taking a critical stance of Israeli policies, he was dubbed an antisemite and even targeted by Mossad for a few years. It amazes me how this shameful – not to say quite illogical – equivalence can be so widely accepted.”

This letter is more proof you can engage in the most bizarre, unhinged, conspiratorial anti Zionist rhetoric and get published in the Guardian.  The notion that the Mossad was targeting her husband for engaging in criticism of Israel is so ludicrous as to be almost a parody.  

3. Gunter Grass and changing German attitudes towards Israel, April 5, by Hans Kundnani

Theme of commentary:

Grass’ poetical attack on Israel is not an isolated view in Germany, and represents increasing German anger at the Jewish state, due to its move right, and Germans’ feeling that they’re not allowed to say what they really think. (Kundnani doesn’t necessarily endorse such German and equivocates by use of words such as “rightly or wrongly” this is what Germans think.)

Key passages:

what makes the publication of the poem significant is that it expresses a sense of anger against Israel that – justified or not – many Germans seem increasingly to share. This anger is partly a response to Israel’s rightward shift during the past decade. But it seems also to be a product of developments in Germany and in particular the way that the Holocaust has receded in significance during the last decade. Increasingly, Germans seem to see themselves as victims rather than perpetrators.

A poll in January 2009 – during the Gaza war – suggested that German attitudes to Israel were in flux. Nearly half of respondents said they saw Israel as an “aggressive country” and only around a third of respondents said they felt Germany had a special responsibility towards Israel. Sixty per cent said Germany had no special responsibility (the figure was even higher among younger Germans and among those living in the former East Germany).

This anger against Israel is exacerbated by the sense some Germans have of not being able to say what they really think – as Grass suggests in the poem. This has created a pent-up resentment towards Israel that could at some point explode.

Last year, Germany voted in favour of a UN resolution demanding a halt to Israeli settlement expansion – an unusual break with Israel. Later in the year, Germany opposed the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN. But according to one poll, 84% of Germans supported Palestinian statehood and 76% believed Germany should act to recognise it – an even higher proportion in each case than in France or the UK.

An Israeli military strike on Iran could create a sudden rupture between Germany and Israel in the way that the Iraq war did between Germany and the US. My sense is that were Israel to launch a military strike on Iran, what remaining sympathy there is in Germany for Israel would evaporate almost overnight.

Again, in addition to the disturbing fact that, evidently, Germans now see themselves as victims, notice that Grass’ victimological conceit (that Germans can’t say what they truly feel about Jews and Israel without opprobrium) is, per the writer, arguably true, and shared by a large percentage of Germans.

4. Hit Gunter Grass with poetry not a travel ban, April 10, by , a blogger at the far left site (and Guardian partner blog) Liberal Conspiracy.

Major Theme: 

Banning Grass from traveling to Israel amounts to state censorship

Relevant passages:

On Sunday, the controversy surrounding Günter Grass’s poem Was Gesagt Werden Muss (What Must Be Said) escalated, with Israeli interior minister Eli Yishai confirming Grass was now considered a persona non grata in Israel, which amounts to a travel ban. This is a form of state censorship against an author, purely because of what he has written, which is wrong and an infringement on free speech.

Agree or disagree with the travel ban, such a restriction has absolutely nothing to do with censorship or free speech, which would be an apt description if, for instance, Grass’ poems were banned in Israel.  Grass is not a citizen of Israel and has no right to be allowed entry. His former role in the Nazi Waffen SS is enough moral justification for keeping him out of the country.

5. Pass notes No 3,156: Günter Grass, April 10 (no author cited)

Finally, the Guardian published a quite whimsical take on the row over the former Nazi’s poem. Here’s a sense of the light-hearted take on the topic: a brief bio of Grass, and a series of short answers to the questions surrounding the row:

Age: 84.

Appearance: Like a potato.

That’s a little unkind: OK, a potato with a pipe.

Occupation: Writer, sage, controversialist.

Most telling passage:

Do read: His early novels The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, and Dog Years (the “Danzig trilogy”, named after his birthplace), published in the late 1950s and early 60s.

Don’t read: All his other stuff.

That’s a ridiculous thing to say. Hey, this is Pass Notes, not the LRB. Like the Israeli government, in this case, we specialise in kneejerk reactions and blanket condemnation.

Israel, home to roughly 180,000 Holocaust survivors, is characterized (in the context of their condemnation of Grass’ poem) as a country specializing in “knee-jerk reactions and blanket condemnations”!

Overall conclusion of Guardian’s coverage: Main points.

  • Exceedingly more criticism of Israel’s reaction to Grass’ poem than of the former Nazi’s atrocious vilification of Israel.
  • No commentary on the antisemitic undertones of Grass’ characterization of the Jewish state as the biggest threat to world peace.
  • A paltry amount of outrage at Grass, and the fact that he hid his Nazi past for sixty years while assuming the role of moral “conscience” of Germany.
  • Israel’s travel ban on Grass characterized as “censorship” and a threat to free speech.
  • Publishing (editorial sanctioning) of letters not only supporting Grass, but containing thinly veiled antisemitic and anti Zionist conspiracy theories.

You’d think that, as a paper which fancies itself a liberal voice, the Guardian would be cautious in defending a former Nazi (who hid his role as a member of a Nazi unit, singled out by the Nuremberg Trials for engaging in crimes against humanity, for sixty years) who engaged in a scurrilous attack on the Jewish state – a moral inversion which juxtaposed Iranian “loudmouths” with sinister Israelis contemplating genocide.

Finally, the coverage of the incident again demonstrates that, for the Guardian, criticizing Israel provides impunity to even the most morally compromised commentators.  

What must be said: A former Nazi named Gunter Grass and what Germany owes the Jews

I’ve never believed that children inherit the sins of their ancestors.

In the American context, the history of slavery and segregation (de facto and de jure) doesn’t impute guilt to Americans several generations removed from such hideous institutions, nor does it absolve the nation completely of the profound responsibility of “never again”.

Never again will the U.S. allow any form of institutional racism to reign within its shores.

Similarly, I don’t, in most respects, view modern Germany through a Nazi lens. When I backpacked through Europe in my 20s, and interacted with Germans who must have seen the Star of David prominently displayed beneath my chin, I saw modern, liberal, democratic Europeans unburdened by the bondage of a Judeophobic ethos.

Here’s a poem by a “liberal” German writer named Gunter Grass, dutifully published at the Guardian.

Grass revealed in 2006, 60 years after WWII, that he had been a member of the Nazi Waffen SS during the war.

What must be said

Why have I kept silent, held back so long,

on something openly practiced in

war games, at the end of which those of us

who survive will at best be footnotes?

It’s the alleged right to a first strike

that could destroy an Iranian people

subjugated by a loudmouth

and gathered in organized rallies,

because an atom bomb may be being

developed within his arc of power.

Yet why do I hesitate to name

that other land in which

for years—although kept secret—

a growing nuclear power has existed

beyond supervision or verification,

subject to no inspection of any kind?

This general silence on the facts,

before which my own silence has bowed,

seems to me a troubling lie, and compels

me toward a likely punishment

the moment it’s flouted:

the verdict “Anti-semitism” falls easily.

But now that my own country,

brought in time after time

for questioning about its own crimes,

profound and beyond compare,

is said to be the departure point,

(on what is merely business,

though easily declared an act of reparation)

for yet another submarine equipped

to transport nuclear warheads

to Israel, where not a single atom bomb

has yet been proved to exist, with fear alone

the only evidence, I’ll say what must be said.

But why have I kept silent till now?

Because I thought my own origins,

Tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,

meant I could not expect Israel, a land

to which I am, and always will be, attached,

to accept this open declaration of the truth.

Why only now, grown old,

and with what ink remains, do I say:

Israel’s atomic power endangers

an already fragile world peace?

Because what must be said

may be too late tomorrow;

and because—burdend enough as Germans—

we may be providing material for a crime

that is foreseeable, so that our complicity

will not be expunged by any

of the usual excuses.

And granted: I’ve broken my silence

because I’m sick of the West’s hypocrisy;

and I hope too that many may be freed

from their silence, may demand

that those responsible for the open danger

we face renounce the use of force,

may insist that the governments of

both Iran and Israel allow an international authority

free and open inspection of

the nuclear potential and capability of both.

No other course offers help

to Israelis and Palestinians alike,

to all those living side by side in emnity

in this region occupied by illusions,

and ultimately, to all of us.

There’s so much pathos in Grass’ political “lyricism” its difficult to know where to begin.

  • The Holocaust denying Iranian President who openly seeks the end of the Jewish state – representative of a regime which has provided religious and moral justification for genocide against Israel, a fatwa on the lives of millions of Jews – as merely a “loudmouth”.
  • The classic antisemitic victimological conceit: that criticism of Jews will bring unfair “punishment” over false claims of antisemitism…and, that such critiques of every conceivable sin, real and imagined, of the Jewish state are brave and, yes, rare. Grass is breaking the silence“!
  • The fiction that Israel is considering a nuclear “first strike” against Iran. Anyone following the issue would surely know that the only thing Israel (and, it should be noted, the U.S.) is contemplating is a strike (with conventional weapons) specifically targeting Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities.
  • There are at least nine nations with nuclear weapons, yet Grass’ poem is strangely concerned with the nuclear capabilities of just one of those countries – not North Korea, not Pakistan, and not the U.S. (which possesses the largest nuclear arsenal by far with over 5,000 warheads, and the capacity to strike any target in the world).
  • Finally, it is only “Israel’s atomic power [which] endangers an already fragile world peace.

Its truly hard, especially in the context of Grass’ past, not to contextualize this grotesque caricature of a Jewish state which threatens world peace with the Nazi fear of world Jewry, whose very existence was similarly seen as a threat to humanity.

 
 
Modern day anti-Zionist imagery includes similar tropes:

Trafalgar Square, London, 2011: Al Quds Day rally organised by the Islamic Human Rights Commission

It would be easy to dismiss Grass’ contempt for the Jewish state as a one-off, the musings of a perhaps senile octogenarian former Nazi, but, as a recent essay in ‘Comment is Free’ by Hans Kundnani (editorial director at the European Council on foreign relations) argued, the poem can reasonably be seen in the context  of Germany’s increasing anger at Israel:

what makes the…the poem significant is that it expresses a sense of anger against Israel that – justified or not – many Germans seem increasingly to share. This anger is partly a response to Israel’s rightward shift during the past decade.  But it seems also to be a product of developments in Germany and in particular the way that the Holocaust has receded in significance during the last decade. Increasingly, Germans seem to see themselves as victims rather than perpetrators.

Nearly half of respondents said they saw Israel as an “aggressive country” and only around a third of respondents said they felt Germany had a special responsibility towards Israel. Sixty per cent said Germany had no special responsibility…This anger against Israel is exacerbated by the sense some Germans have of not being able to say what they really think… [emphasis added]

Please, any Germans out there within range of this post, by all means tell me what you think.

We can start off by telling you what I (a Jewish citizen of Israel) really think about what responsibility you have towards us – what you owe the Jews.

To those of you without ancestors who were complicit in Nazi crimes – those who simply inherited the shared national legacy of German’s attempt to annihilate the Jews, all you owe us is a passionate commitment to defend against even the slightest resurgence of antisemitism in your country, and moral seriousness in the face of similar (often murderous) Judeophobia in the larger world (whether from the radical left, the radical right, Islamist movements, or the Republic of Iran.)  That’s what “never again” should mean to you.

To those of you whose parents or grandparents were complicit in the Nazi’s murder of one out of every three Jews on the face of the earth, I think its fair to say that, although you don’t inherit the sins of your fathers, neither can you ignore them.  You have a greater responsibility.

Perhaps, an understanding of what I mean can be derived from a particular Jewish tradition.  

The most profound Jewish principle I came across during my time of study (on the traditions of death and mourning with Judaism) following my father’s death in 1997, and one which I still find relevant and inspiring, was “The merit of the children“.  What this means, according to Jewish tradition, is that the surviving child, by living a moral, just, and purposeful life, can, in the eyes of G-d, redeem the imperfect life of his deceased parent.

At first, the ethical connection between my current life and my father’s previous life (a quite counterintuitive moral calculus) eluded me. How could what I do now in any way effect how the life he once lived is judged? After some time, however, the inspired moral logic became apparent. The way I live my life is necessarily connected to the way he lived his life – serving as a living testament to who he was, as a father, and as a man. For, I am the living embodiment of the sum of his moral life. My virtue inherently emanates from his virtue. I am, after all, and will always be, my father’s son.

So, to Germans struggling with how to deal with the sins of your fathers, the merit you achieve in this world necessarily reflects both on you and your family. It doesn’t provide posthumous moral atonement, but how ethically you behave and the values you teach your children is a powerful testament to the redemption of your family’s name, your country’s honor.

The historical context of your national T’shuvah (recognizing and repenting for a sin) necessarily must involve a responsibility to living Jews, not simply the millions of souls who were murdered (in death camps named Auschwitz, Sobibor, and Treblinka) 65 years ago.

This is what you owe us: a rigorous duty to never again succumb to classic (and still supremely dangerous) antisemitic narratives of Jewish villainy.

And, finally, a quick word to Gunter Grass, who, in your own life, and out of your own volition, was guilty of complicity with indescribable evil:

If this ever gets translated to German I sure hope the admittedly far less than lofty prose I’m about to employ is properly expressed in a manner which native German-speakers can understand.

If you served in the Nazi Waffen SS killing machine, perhaps the best thing you can do when contemplating lecturing Jews on morality – what you owe us, and the world,  if you have even a shred of decency remaining in your soul – is to show humility, feel a healthy degree of shame, and, to please, whatever you do, keep your damn mouth shut!

Gunter Grass' POW record