Günter Grass & German Emancipation

We should hope that Günter Grass’ courage and bravery in criticizing Israel will be mimicked by more Germans.

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[dropcap]G[/dropcap]ünter Grass’ poem “What must be said”, in which the German Nobel laureate openly criticised Israel’s policies in the Middle East, its nuclear program, and the hypocrisy of western governments in the support they give the Jewish state, has predictably attracted much attention, controversy and criticism.

As expected, Bibi Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, has attacked Grass by reminding everyone of the poet’s dark past as a member of the Waffen SS. Eli Yishai, Israel’s Interior Minister, has gone as far as barring Grass entrance into Israel in turn reminding everyone of the character of the “sole democracy” in the Middle East. In fact, Grass himself remarked that the only two other establishments which have barred him from entering a country due to his criticisms were the military junta in Myanmar 25 years ago and Erich Mielke, the head of East Germany’s Stasi. The chant against Grass’ supposed “anti-Semitism” has been joined by many other intellectuals sympathetic to Israel’s policies.

Günter Grass anticipated in his poem that he would be charged with being anti-Semitic. Nevertheless, doing so is unfair. Grass explicitly recognises in the poem the mistake he made by joining the Nazi movement calling his decision ‘a stain never to be expunged’ (although to many it might not matter, Grass was only seventeen when he was drafted in the Nazi unit). Furthermore, he expresses his connection with Israel using emotionally strong words. These two points are found in the following stanza of the poem:

Why though have I stayed silent until now?

Because I thought my origin,

Afflicted by a stain never to be expunged

Kept the state of Israel, to which I am bound

And wish to stay bound,

From accepting this fact as pronounced truth.

Moreover, Grass stated in an interview following the publication of his poem that he was not writing against Israel as a country but against the Israeli government, ‘It’s that which I criticize, a policy that keeps building settlements despite a UN resolution’.

Others have criticised the author by remarking that he published the poem solely in order to galvanise his declining career and that from a literary point of view, the poem is nil. Tom Segev, an Israeli historian, called it “pathetic”. But there have also been some constructive criticisms. Gideon Levy, an Israeli journalist and regular op-ed contributor to Haaretz, wrote that although the poem itself exaggerates on certain points due to perhaps the writer’s old age, the content of the poem needs to be taken seriously since it is written by a distinguished artist who means no harm.

But there is one element in some criticisms which is most irritating. Many have pointed out that having been a member of the SS is not the only factor in Grass’ biography that makes his poem so controversial. The other factor is his nationality itself, that is, being German.

Some critics point out that Grass’ poem might be interpreted as an attempt by a German to emancipate himself from his nation’s past by finally openly criticising Israel but that since the poem is not that good, mainly because it lacks subtlety, then it all seems like a “clumsy” attempt or even, as a contributor on Newsbook, The Economist’s blog, wrote, a ‘giant gaffe’. In fact, the contributor concludes his op-ed by stating that ‘Mr Grass may have provoked the controversy to get attention, or he may have done so to break the taboo of Germans criticising Israel. But that taboo has been broken before, and by more nuanced and informed voices.’

These criticisms seem not to grasp the significance of such emancipation. Germany’s population (except perhaps the great influx of immigrants) still lives with a great sense of responsibility and guilt for what happened to the Jews during the Second World War. This burden from the past defines present generations of Germans which objectively have nothing to do with what happened almost seventy years ago. Anyone who has been in Germany knows that talk about Nazism is taboo. This is the extent to which this element in the German collective consciousness goes.

The importance of Grass’ poem is not how informed or precise it is. Grass is not an historian. And why should it matter if others have already said it? Truly breaking a social taboo needs more than just one event: it needs a repeated effort by a plurality of individuals. Furthermore, I cannot recall many Germans who are bestowed with Grass’ fame and have spoken so loudly against Israeli policies. Although that might be a consequence of my personal ignorance, as I hope it is, it does not detract from the courage it has taken Grass to publish this poem. It is precisely the courage of not only a German to speak out against Israeli policies, but a German who has actively participated in one of the most lethal anti-Semitic political movements and who is looking for redemption that needs to be appreciated. Hopefully, Grass’ example will give courage to other Germans to do the same.

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