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The Odious Musings of Gunter Grass

This week, the editors of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, a liberal Munich newspaper, published a diatribe—in the form of a poem—by the well-known German author Gunter Grass. Entitled “Was gesagt werden muss” (“What must be said”), the poem denounced a possible Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Grass wrote that “my origin” in Germany is “laden with a never to be overcome burden,” namely the crimes of the Nazi regime against the Jews, and that he had therefore been “silent” about the policies of Israel, “a country to which I am bound and will remain bound.” But, Grass explained, he was now willing to break that silence and say that the “nuclear power Israel” threatens world peace—because if he waited any longer to speak out “it could be too late.” Suggesting that Israel was contemplating a “first strike” with nuclear weapons against Iran—which “could extinguish the Iranian people”—and that a submarine which Israel had received, or will receive, from Germany would be used for such a first strike, Grass said that Germany could be “deliverer of a crime” and would thus share in the guilt of this possible crime. He criticized the German government for providing the submarine, “whose specialty consists in the ability to deliver all-annihilating warheads to a country in which the existence of even a single atom bomb remains unproven.”

Here is a rough translation of several verses of “Was gesagt werden muss”:

Why do I remain silent, silent for so long
about what is obvious and has been practiced in military games
at whose end we would all be footnotes as survivors?
It is the assertion of a right to a first strike,
which could extinguish the Iranian people, who have been oppressed
by show-offs and manipulated to participate in organized cheering, because
in their power sphere there are suspicions that an atom bomb is being built.
Further, why do I refrain from calling another country by its name,
one in which for years a nuclear potential has been growing, in secret,
beyond control because no examinations are allowed?
I feel that the general silence about this state of affairs,
of which my silence is a part, is a burdening lie and compulsion.
It is the prospect that one faces punishment and will be immediately despised:
the verdict of “anti-Semitism” is familiar.
Now, however, I am saying what must be said because my country is the country of  crime without comparison.
More and more, my country is confronted with this crime.
But now in a calculated commercial transaction
with a smooth talking manner in which it invokes the discourse of restitution [for the crimes of the Nazi era]
it will deliver another submarine to Israel.
Its specialty consists in the ability to deliver all-annihilating warheads to a country
in which the existence of even a single atom bomb remains unproven.
In this situation fear and suspicion displace evidence.

The poem is, to put it bluntly, morally obtuse and politically embarrassing. Having reversed the arrows of causation, Grass says nothing about the hatred of Israel that the Iranian regime has publicly expressed since 1979, about its specific threats to “wipe it off the map” in the past decade, or the vicious Jew-hatred that is a steady diet of its propaganda. Apparently he has not read the most recent reports of the International Atomic Energy Agency that confirm Iran’s efforts to build nuclear weapons. Nor does Grass understand that the purpose of missile-carrying submarines is to ensure the credibility of a second strike should Iran or any other power attack Israel first. These submarines are essential for a stable system of deterrence. No Israeli leader has spoken about delivering a first strike with nuclear weapons that would “extinguish” the Iranian people. All of this comes from a man who was “silent” for five decades of his very successful literary career about the fact that as a young man he was a member of the Waffen SS at the end of World War II.

The idea, put forward by Grass, that there is a taboo in German intellectual and political life about criticizing Israel and its policies has been a favorite theme of Israel’s critics since the 1960s. But the taboo does not exist. There has been no silence in Germany, especially in such places as Der Spiegel or the Süddeutsche Zeitung, not to mention among intellectual and political forces to their left, for many decades. On the contrary, hostility to both Israel and the United States, and the view that these two countries are the major threat to world peace, became embedded in the German left-wing and left-liberal mainstream many decades ago. In this sense, Grass’s diatribe is part of a long established conventional wisdom. It takes neither courage nor intelligence to run with the mob. Grass’s poem seeks to make the mob yell even louder.

Fortunately, Grass has a significant number of critics in Germany. Henryk Broder, author of a recent and incisive polemic entitled “Forget Auschwitz: On the Final Solution of the Israel Question,” correctly describes Grass as the “prototype of an educated anti-Semite,” one who presents himself as a friend of the Jews yet seeks to undermine Israel’s capacity to defend itself. Richard Herzinger, in a withering essay in Die Welt, dissects the strategic ignorance in Grass’s poem and compares Grass’s argument to Nazism’s presentation of the Jews as advocates of mass murder. Josef Joffe in Die Zeit sets the record straight regarding the German delivery of a submarine to Israel and sees the Grass publication as evidence that the anti-Semitic argument that “the Jew is guilty” is again part of public discussion in Germany. Grass critics also include Frank Schirmmacher, the editor of the cultural pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung; Clemens Wergin, in Die Welt; and Michael Naumann and Malte Lehming, both in the Berlin-based Tagesspiegel.

It is important to recall that Grass’s confusions about international politics are a matter of long standing. During the heated debate in the 1980s about whether or not to proceed with NATO’s deployments of intermediate-range nuclear weapons in West Germany, Grass called for “resistance” against the United States. At a national conference of the Social Democratic Party in 1983, he said that “there is no great difference between the cynical disregard of basic ethical values” that took place at the Wannsee Conference (which laid the basis for implementing the “final solution”) and “the cynicism that in our day produces war games simulating nuclear combat with projections of here fifty, there eighty million dead.” Agreement to deployments on German soil, he said, would commit West Germany to “nothing less than calculated genocide.”

In 1983, as in 2012, Grass’s offensive analysis disregarded the chains of causation that led to a political crisis. Then, he ignored the Soviet pressure created by its nuclear build-up just as he now ignores the significance of the Iranian threats to Israel. Then, he claimed that it was the United States and the Western alliance that was the cause of a possible genocide; now, he blames Israel for threatening world peace and planning a genocide of the Iranian people. Now, as 30 years ago, he suggests that democracies seeking to defend themselves against dictatorships are the cause of crises which could be overcome if only they would turn away from dangerous policies. In both cases, he did not say “what must be said” about the real threats to peace and freedom.

Jeffrey Herf, a professor of modern European history at the University of Maryland in College Park, is the author most recently of Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World.

Correction: This article originally stated that Grass concealed his membership in an SS youth group. In fact, he concealed his membership in the Waffen SS. We regret the error.