Thursday, 12 April 2012

Günter Grass and Israel

Last week, the German Nobel Literature Prize Winner, Günter Grass, published what he described as a poem, “Was gesagt werden muss [What must be said],” (you can read it here) in which he criticises the right claimed by Israel to carry out a nuclear first strike, should it feel the threat posed by Iran make this necessary, Germany for providing Israel with submarines which could be used as launching platforms for that strike, and the West, more generally, for its hypocrisy regarding the whole subject.

The result has been a storm of controversy, in which Grass has been accused by many of anti-Semitism. The Israeli Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, has responded by declaring Grass persona non grata in Israel. But Grass is not without more nuanced defenders, even in Israel.

The issue is made vastly more complex by the fact that Grass is Germany’s most prominent living writer and because of his own personal history. Grass defined himself throughout his whole public life as one of the primary voices of Germany’s conscience with respect to the Third Reich, and the country’s shameful past and its consequences have been his most central literary theme – most famously in his acknowledged masterpiece, The Tin Drum. He has described his work as “writing against forgetting.” He has also been someone who has consistently and publicly identified himself as an intellectual with left-wing sympathies – to such an extent that he publicly campaigned for Willi Brandt in the sixties. He has commented, often controversially, about many issues of German public life; from reunification to Germany’s relations with Poland. It was, therefore, a sensation when he admitted six year ago that he had, as a 17 year old, in autumn 1944, joined the Waffen SS. This was a biographical fact he had managed to conceal for over sixty years.

Declared intellectuals, as a group in any country, are not particularly noted for charitable, forgiving and understanding dealings with one another, and the German intelligentsia has quite a reputation for being particularly vicious with each other. It was no surprise then when his confession about his past led to widespread excoriation, particularly from many who had previously experienced the caustic character of comments about them by Grass. In a more detached way, the influence of his own guilt and embarrassment about his past provides a fascinating new aspect in an analysis of the roots of his literary and public personality, his writings and his utterances.

What makes any considered comment about his poem so difficult is the fact that it conflates three complex issues, winding them into a ghastly Gordian knot. They are: (i) The person of Günter Grass himself and what he actually wrote, (ii) The question of the extent to which it is acceptable for Germans to criticise Israel, and (iii) The particular question of certain current Israeli policies and actions and the wider issue of anti-Semitism.

(i) Grass and his poem
“The general silence …, which my silence has been subordinated to, … promises punishment as soon as it is broached; the common verdict: "anti-Semitism".”

In his poem, Grass himself predicts that he will be accused of anti-Semitism and this has indeed happened. It is, in my view, not justified – though one of the basic flaws in the piece is his general reference to “Israel,” rather than “particular policies pursued by the present Israeli government,” a weakness which the author himself has admitted to since publication. But, even then, the question remains as to the legitimacy of the automatic equation of any and every criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, a point which I shall take up later.

But Grass’s piece has other major weaknesses. The form he chooses for it is, frankly, a mistake. He himself calls it a “poem” but, apart from the blank verse form he chooses for it, it has little if any poetic characteristics. The very title calls to mind, particularly in the German context where there is a tradition of such things [Stammtisch], a diatribe uttered by an ignorant man, sitting late in the evening with friends in a bar, after the consumption of too much alcohol. He states his entire argument in 382 words, a little more than half of what I have already written here. Though he is normally not a man especially known for succinct pithiness, he seems to have been suddenly afflicted with an extreme fear of the often hasty internet judgement, tl;dr; as a result he fails to do the complexity of the subject justice, something fatal in anything to do with Israel, its history, its present political situation, and its tangled relationship with all its proximate and not so proximate neighbours in the Middle East. It would have been much better for the author – and all who feel moved to comment on his views – if he had expressed them in a longer, more closely argued essay.

Beyond this, given his own biography, it can also be asked whether it was wise of Grass to publish on this subject at all. Even if his membership of the Waffen SS was short, though he was never involved in any of the activities of that sinister organisation which were related to its major role in Hitler’s Final Solution, though he was very young in that chaotic, hopeless last year of the war, it remains a part of his biography which might make him pause to think before publicly taking any position on anything to do with Israel, particularly given the fact that he only admitted it six years ago. Given the sensitive complexity which still permeates the question of how Germans should express their relationship to Israel, it would probably have been better if Grass – a German with an especially ambiguous past – had just this once kept his mouth shut.

(ii) Germany and Israel – guilt, history and responsibility
The philosophy and actions of Nazi Germany with regard to the Jews remain unparalleled in history – all the ghastly aspects of the Shoah – and were one of the factors which led to the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. The Federal Republic of Germany was founded a year later and since then has seen itself as having a historic and moral responsibility to support Israel.

Germans and Israelis are bound together in their identities by what the Germans did to the Jews between 1933 and 1945. The question of how they regard their historic responsibility for the Nazi period and particularly the Shoah, remains a central and continually developing theme in the definition of German identity. As the generation involved in the war has largely died, and even those who can even remember it as children are now over 70, new questions arise in the discussion of the nature of this historical responsibility for younger Germans. I remember reading somewhere that the legendary Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, once said that it would be a major mistake for Jews to assign Germans the same kind of personal and historical guilt for the holocaust as Christians assigned to the Jews for nearly two thousand years for the death of Jesus.

I have lived in Germany for more than a quarter of a century now and have been an observer of the difficult and fascinating process of the continuing development of German identity during this period. If there can be one lesson learnt from the current Grass controversy it is that even today, 67 years after the liberation of the concentration camps and the end of the war, it is still difficult to have a “normal” dialogue in Germany regarding the complex themes of Germany, Judaism, the Shoah and Israel. There has been little or no progress since the “Walser-Bubis Debate (1998), the “Jenninger Speech Debate (1988) or the “Historikerstreit (1986-89). It seems that there are many people, in Germany, in Israel and worldwide, who see the eternal shame of German history as denying Germans any right to comment negatively about any aspects of Israeli politics or actions.

If Grass’s poem has any merit, it may be to call attention to precisely this fact. It is, I suspect, the kind of thing which will have to go on recurring, a constant re-examination of the present state of the German “soul” and the relationship between Germans and Jews. It is a process which, I would hope, can finally achieve some kind of positive development.

The past half century has seen much positive development in Germans’ own dealing with their own past, from the convenient “forgetting” of the fifties and early sixties (against which Grass so effectively worked) to serious artistic attempts at honesty and catharsis in films like Der Untergang [Downfall] (2004). I can only hope that this could be mirrored in a more general maturing in the relationship between Germany and Israel, in which honest friendship would also admit respectful and honest criticism when you genuinely feel that your friend is doing something wrong.

(iii) Anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel
There can be no doubt that the ghastly phenomenon of anti-Semitism is alive and well worldwide; one only needs to listen to the lunatic ravings of Iran’s president, Ahmadinejad, to be unpleasantly reminded of this fact. But this does not mean that any criticism of Israel can automatically be labelled as such and unfortunately there is a tendency among certain Israelis and supporters of Israel world-wide to do just this.

I’m not going to even enter the snake-pit of discussion about the origins of the State of Israel, the Palestinian problem, etc. There is enough right and wrong to be shared out all over. It is a fact that Israel exists and, as such, cannot be made not to exist – which means that Israelis have a right to live in peace, within secure borders. It is a fact that the Palestinians exist – which means that they have a right to their own state and that the over sixty-year-old scandal of the refugees must be addressed and solved. But none of this means that either side has an automatic right to do anything they choose to protect what they see as their legitimate interests.

Israel is justly proud of its position as the only genuine, mature democracy in the region. But the basis of any democracy is open discussion. Those who instinctively reject any criticism of particular Israeli policies and actions as anti-Semitic do their own cause a disservice – and this includes Prime Minister Netanyahu, who dismissed Grass’s poem on this basis. If this is the case, then there are a large number of Israelis, who vocally criticise the policies of their government, who must also be seen as anti-Semitic.

To criticise the current Israeli settlement policies, for example, is not necessarily anti-Semitic. Nor is it anti-Semitic to be very worried about and afraid of a possible nuclear conflict in the Middle East. To Israel’s credit is the fact that it has possessed a nuclear-strike capacity for decades and has never used it, being content in the knowledge that its enemies know it and know that Israel will use it – as a last resort (the so called “Samson Option”). But even should Iran actually acquire a nuclear strike capability (and most experts agree that this is not yet the case), the Samson Option would still exist for Israel (particularly given a submarine-based launch capability), though in the slightly modified Mutually Assured Destruction mode. The current (nuclear-hinting) sabre-rattling which the Netanyahu regime is engaged in is dangerous, particularly because it is playing on the fact that the USA is moving into a presidential election campaign. This is a game with too many imponderables, and one false judgement could have dire consequences, not just for the region, but for the whole world.

There is nothing anti-Semitic about that worry.

* * * * *

Even as I finish this piece, reports have appeared that Grass will respond to his critics today in the Suddeutsche Zeitung. His reaction is bellicose, and he compares his banning by Israel to actions by the junta in Burma and the Stasi in East Germany. Obviously he feels deeply hurt and misunderstood. It’s a pity that his reaction – just like his original piece – is not more considered and nuanced.

Sadly, however, it seems that nearly everyone involved in any aspect of this whole question, whether the politics, the actions, or the discussions of these, is far more interested in pouring petrol on the fire rather than putting it out.

Pictures retrieved from:


  1. One does not need to see/hear the Grass grow.
    Grass is irrelevant, and so are Israel and Iran.
    Did I forget to mention China, Russia, USA et al.?

    Still, a fine essay, Francis. Chapeau.

  2. I'm not sure what I can say in response to your essay other than that I appreciate your elucidation. It seems to me that Zionism and not Judaism is a major problem for Israel in the same way that radical Christianity is becoming a danger to consensus government in the US. Gunther Grass may not have used his power as well as we'd have liked but there's no denying that he's a man of conscience speaking what the world knows to be the truth.


Your comments are, of course, welcome. I've had to reinstall captchas recently as - like most other bloggers - I was being plagued by spambots.


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