Günter Grass's poem opens old wounds

In "What Must be Said," the German intellectual says Israel poses a threat to world peace

Poetry slammed

Michael Gottschalk/AFP/Getty Images

That Israel and Germany have forged such a close relationship within living memory of Auschwitz is a remarkable testament to reconciliation and forgiveness. And yet the shadow still cast by the Holocaust ensures that criticism of Israel by a prominent German will trigger an emotionally charged response in both countries.

Last week, the German author and Nobel laureate Günter Grass published a poem titled “What Must be Said” in which he claims, “The nuclear power Israel is endangering a world peace that is already fragile,” and condemns Germany for sending Israel submarines that could be used in a nuclear strike against Iran.

Grass is “one of the most important figures of German intellectual life,” says Jennifer Hosek, an associate professor of German studies at Queen’s University. He was part of a postwar group of Germans that urged their countrymen to take responsibility for Germany’s crimes during the Second World War. He has been called his nation’s conscience. But Grass also carried a wartime secret: he was drafted as a teenager into the Nazi Waffen SS during the war’s final months. Grass revealed this only in 2006.

Grass alludes to this in his poem. He writes of a personal stain that, along with the “unique and exclusive crimes” of his country, had caused him to stay silent. But now, he says, I won’t be silent / because I had enough of the Western hypocrisy.

Reaction from Israel was hot. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the poem as “shameful.” He said,

“It is Iran, not Israel, which presents a threat to the world’s peace and security.” Interior Minister Eli Yishai barred Grass from visiting Israel for attempting to “inflame hatred.” Israel’s embassy in Berlin likened the poem to the ancient “blood libel” myth that held Jews used the blood of Christian children to make Passover bread.

Grass’s poem, by any reasonable interpretation, is no such thing. And it is rare for a government to respond to poetry—however offensive it is considered to be—with such fury. But according to Lily Gardner Feldman, a senior fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies in Washington, none of this is likely to weaken relations between Germany and Israel, nor does it suggest a fraying of ties.

“The overall relationship is solid and stable,” she says. Germany is a strong diplomatic ally of Israel, and the country works to maintain a “culture of remembrance” regarding the Holocaust among its younger generations.

The uproar Grass has set off also demonstrates the enduring influence of the Jewish genocide on how Israel and Germany relate to each other, and to the rest of the world.

“This whole Israeli government is predicated on the notion that the Germans tried it once, and the world will stand by and let the Iranians do it to us again,” says Charles Maier, a history professor at Harvard University. Maier says the weight of this history can restrict debate about Israeli foreign policy “for the reasons that the reaction to this poem shows.”

“That doesn’t mean he’s right,” Maier added, speaking of Grass. “I think putting on an equal footing the danger that arises from Iran having nuclear weapons and Israel having nuclear components is a serious misreading of the situation.”

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