Poets' broadside springs from Germany's guilty conscience, says Tel Aviv

During his long literary career, Gunter Grass has been many things. Author, playwright, sculptor and, unquestionably, Germany's most famous living writer. There is the 1999 Nobel Prize and Mr. Grass's broader post-war role as the country's moral conscience — albeit a claim badly undermined in 2006 when it emerged that the teenage Mr. Grass had served in the Waffen SS. But at the ripe old age of 84, Mr. Grass has triggered a furious row with a poem criticising Israel.

Entitled What Must Be Said and published in the Suddeutsche Zeitung, the lyric warns of a looming Israeli aggression against Iran. It argues that Germany should no longer deliver nuclear submarines to Israel that might carry “all-destroying warheads”.

‘My silence'

Mr. Grass also takes aim at Germany's reluctance to offend Israel — reproaching himself for “my silence” on the subject, and acknowledging that he will inevitably face accusations of anti-semitism.

He muses: “Why do I only speak out now/Aged and with my last drop of ink:/Israel's nuclear power is endangering/Our already fragile world peace?” He supplies his own apocalyptic answer: it must be said because “tomorrow might be too late”.

Mr. Grass also calls for “unhindered and permanent monitoring of Israel's nuclear facility and Iran's nuclear facility through an international entity”. Ultimately, he suggests, this would help everybody in this “delusional” region, including the Germans — or “us”, as he puts it.

Hardly surprising, then, that Mr. Grass's controversial late lyric has provoked indignation. The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, led the attack, asserting: “Gunter Grass's shameful moral equivalence between Israel and Iran ... says little about Israel and much about Mr. Grass.” Mr. Netanyahu described Iran as “a regime that denied the Holocaust and threatens to annihilate Israel”. He added: “It is Iran, not Israel, that is a threat to the peace and security of the world.” Mr. Netanyahu's attack then became more personal: “For six decades, Mr. Grass hid the fact that he had been a member of the Waffen SS.

“So for him to cast the one and only Jewish state as the greatest threat to world peace and to oppose giving Israel the means to defend itself is perhaps not surprising.” The Israeli embassy in Berlin took the format of Mr. Grass's poem and flung it back at him: “What must be said is that it is a European tradition to accuse the Jews before the Passover festival of ritual murder.” It concluded that Mr. Grass's broadside sprung from Germany's guilty conscience — “part of the German people's efforts to come to terms with the past”.

German response

German politicians from both Left and Right have traditionally been supportive of Israel, for obvious historical reasons. Several have criticised Mr. Grass, describing his work as “abominable”, “irritating” and “over the top”. Bild, a paper better known for its topless models, complained of “confused poesie”. And writing in Die Welt, the Jewish writer Henryk Border dubbed Mr. Grass “the prototype of the educated anti-semite”. He added that Mr. Grass was “completely nuts”.

All this forced Mr. Grass to offer his own pained reply. In an interview with North German Radio, the author complained on Friday that the tone of the criticism “didn't just concentrate on the contents of the poem” but amounted to a scurrilous campaign to say that his reputation “had been damaged for all time”.

Some commentators, however, offered a more convincing critique: that Mr. Grass wasn't anti-semitic, but simply didn't know what he was talking about. True, the Nobel Prize winner describes Iran's leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a “bigmouth”, or “Maulheld”. But otherwise, critics say, he offers a less than convincing analysis of the situation in the Middle East — failing to acknowledge, for example, Iran's regular threats to wipe Israel out. Instead Mr. Grass raises the unlikely spectre of Israel “annihilating” the Iranian people — using a German verb, ausloschen, which comes dangerously close to evoking the Holocaust.

“The poem is more interesting to Grassologists than to strategic analysts,” the Israeli historian Tom Segev, who has interviewed Mr. Grass, told the Guardian. Mr. Segev called the lyric “rather pathetic”.

He said it was “idiotic” to describe the writer as an anti-semite, but said Mr. Grass would be better served expending his last ink on a different creative project. “He's a great writer. He's 84. I hope he uses his last drops to write a good book.” He added that the writer appeared to have “some inner psychological need to be accused wrongly”.

‘A letter to the Editor'

The most interesting commentary came from the Suddeutsche Zeiting, which published the poem — German title Was gesagt werden muss — in a supplement. Mr. Grass had been writing poems since 1955 but his late ones weren't really poems at all, Thomas Steinfeld observed, and instead resembled pleas, complaints, or angry letters to the Editor. Of one lugubrious chunk he writes witheringly: “The only lyrical things here are the arbitary line breaks.” Interestingly, Mr. Steinfeld suggests that the award of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1999 may have contributed to Mr. Grass's political intervention. The prize transformed Mr. Grass from a national figure — “Germany's preceptor” — to an unashamedly global one — “a custodian of world politics”. He argues that Mr. Grass is the only winner who feels the urge to comment on global affairs. Gabriel Garcia Marquez has not become a literary—political representative of South America, he notes, nor has JM Coetzee become the voice of South Africa, or Derek Walcott that of the Caribbean. Nor has Mr. Grass, it might be added, written a poem on Greece, a crisis nearer to Germany's doorstep and wallet.

Mr. Grass last attracted this much attention back in 2006, when he revealed in his autobiography, Peeling the Onion, that he had briefly served as a 17-year-old in the Waffen SS at the end of the Second World War. The admission in itself wasn't remarkable: many other teenagers of his generation were forced to join the SS as the war entered its chaotic final phase. What irritated was the fact that Mr. Grass had taken so long to admit this — an inexplicable delay for someone who blamed others for their Nazi pasts and was seen to personify national atonement and self-criticism.

For some, this detail means that Mr. Grass forfeited the right to comment on the Jewish state. Ephraim Zuroff, director of the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Centre, described him as “totally compromised” and added: “The tin drum he is banging is not the one of moral conscience but of deep-seated prejudice against the Jewish people.” This is one view.

In fact Mr. Grass's critical opinions on Israel have surfaced before. In an interview with Spiegel Online in 2001, he described the “appropriation” of Palestinian territory by Israeli settlers as a “criminal activity”, adding: “That not only needs to be stopped — it also needs to be reversed.”

Moral obligation

It is certainly true that Germany's relationship with Israel is a problematic one, with the Holocaust taught in schools and the issue of historical guilt never far beneath the surface.

According to Constanze Stelzenmuller, senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, it is hardly surprising that Germany has a moral obligation to the state of Israel, given the country's past. “The German government has been very clear about this,” she said. Berlin has already supplied it with three Dolphin submarines, with two more being built, and a sixth in the pipeline.

But, Ms. Stelzenmuller says, Berlin has not been inhibited from criticising Israel, especially on the issue of Israeli settlements, last mentioned by Germany's Defence Minister two weeks ago. Of Mr. Grass, she said: “There's always been an anti-Zionist tendency in the European Left, including in the German left. It isn't pretty. Many modern thinkers on the centre-Left deplore this.”

Amid the criticism, a few voices came forward to defend Mr. Grass — the author, after all, of The Tin Drum, the great German novel of the Second World War and the rise of Nazism. “It's got to be possible to speak openly without being denounced as an enemy of Israel,” said Klaus Staeck, the president of the Berlin academy of art. He called the “reflexive condemnation” of Mr. Grass as an anti-semite inappropriate, and insisted that Mr. Grass was merely expressing his concern about developments in the Middle East. “A lot of people share this worry,” Mr. Staeck added.

Iran happy

Predictably, Iran warmly welcomed Mr. Grass's poem. Press TV, Iran's state-owned English-language satellite channel, hailed it as a literary sensation. “Never before in Germany's post-war history has a prominent intellectual attacked Israel in such a courageous way,” it said.

“Metaphorically speaking, the poet has launched a deadly lyrical strike against Israel.” The Press TV report also observed: “Israel is the only possessor of nuclear weapons in the Middle East and it has never allowed inspections of its nuclear facilities nor has it joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty based on its policy of nuclear ambiguity.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2012

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