What must be said: A former Nazi named Gunter Grass and what Germany owes the Jews

I’ve never believed that children inherit the sins of their ancestors.

In the American context, the history of slavery and segregation (de facto and de jure) doesn’t impute guilt to Americans several generations removed from such hideous institutions, nor does it absolve the nation completely of the profound responsibility of “never again”.

Never again will the U.S. allow any form of institutional racism to reign within its shores.

Similarly, I don’t, in most respects, view modern Germany through a Nazi lens. When I backpacked through Europe in my 20s, and interacted with Germans who must have seen the Star of David prominently displayed beneath my chin, I saw modern, liberal, democratic Europeans unburdened by the bondage of a Judeophobic ethos.

Here’s a poem by a “liberal” German writer named Gunter Grass, dutifully published at the Guardian.

Grass revealed in 2006, 60 years after WWII, that he had been a member of the Nazi Waffen SS during the war.

What must be said

Why have I kept silent, held back so long,

on something openly practiced in

war games, at the end of which those of us

who survive will at best be footnotes?

It’s the alleged right to a first strike

that could destroy an Iranian people

subjugated by a loudmouth

and gathered in organized rallies,

because an atom bomb may be being

developed within his arc of power.

Yet why do I hesitate to name

that other land in which

for years—although kept secret—

a growing nuclear power has existed

beyond supervision or verification,

subject to no inspection of any kind?

This general silence on the facts,

before which my own silence has bowed,

seems to me a troubling lie, and compels

me toward a likely punishment

the moment it’s flouted:

the verdict “Anti-semitism” falls easily.

But now that my own country,

brought in time after time

for questioning about its own crimes,

profound and beyond compare,

is said to be the departure point,

(on what is merely business,

though easily declared an act of reparation)

for yet another submarine equipped

to transport nuclear warheads

to Israel, where not a single atom bomb

has yet been proved to exist, with fear alone

the only evidence, I’ll say what must be said.

But why have I kept silent till now?

Because I thought my own origins,

Tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,

meant I could not expect Israel, a land

to which I am, and always will be, attached,

to accept this open declaration of the truth.

Why only now, grown old,

and with what ink remains, do I say:

Israel’s atomic power endangers

an already fragile world peace?

Because what must be said

may be too late tomorrow;

and because—burdend enough as Germans—

we may be providing material for a crime

that is foreseeable, so that our complicity

will not be expunged by any

of the usual excuses.

And granted: I’ve broken my silence

because I’m sick of the West’s hypocrisy;

and I hope too that many may be freed

from their silence, may demand

that those responsible for the open danger

we face renounce the use of force,

may insist that the governments of

both Iran and Israel allow an international authority

free and open inspection of

the nuclear potential and capability of both.

No other course offers help

to Israelis and Palestinians alike,

to all those living side by side in emnity

in this region occupied by illusions,

and ultimately, to all of us.

There’s so much pathos in Grass’ political “lyricism” its difficult to know where to begin.

  • The Holocaust denying Iranian President who openly seeks the end of the Jewish state – representative of a regime which has provided religious and moral justification for genocide against Israel, a fatwa on the lives of millions of Jews – as merely a “loudmouth”.
  • The classic antisemitic victimological conceit: that criticism of Jews will bring unfair “punishment” over false claims of antisemitism…and, that such critiques of every conceivable sin, real and imagined, of the Jewish state are brave and, yes, rare. Grass is breaking the silence“!
  • The fiction that Israel is considering a nuclear “first strike” against Iran. Anyone following the issue would surely know that the only thing Israel (and, it should be noted, the U.S.) is contemplating is a strike (with conventional weapons) specifically targeting Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities.
  • There are at least nine nations with nuclear weapons, yet Grass’ poem is strangely concerned with the nuclear capabilities of just one of those countries – not North Korea, not Pakistan, and not the U.S. (which possesses the largest nuclear arsenal by far with over 5,000 warheads, and the capacity to strike any target in the world).
  • Finally, it is only “Israel’s atomic power [which] endangers an already fragile world peace.

Its truly hard, especially in the context of Grass’ past, not to contextualize this grotesque caricature of a Jewish state which threatens world peace with the Nazi fear of world Jewry, whose very existence was similarly seen as a threat to humanity.

Modern day anti-Zionist imagery includes similar tropes:
Trafalgar Square, London, 2011: Al Quds Day rally organised by the Islamic Human Rights Commission

It would be easy to dismiss Grass’ contempt for the Jewish state as a one-off, the musings of a perhaps senile octogenarian former Nazi, but, as a recent essay in ‘Comment is Free’ by Hans Kundnani (editorial director at the European Council on foreign relations) argued, the poem can reasonably be seen in the context  of Germany’s increasing anger at Israel:

what makes the…the poem significant is that it expresses a sense of anger against Israel that – justified or not – many Germans seem increasingly to share. This anger is partly a response to Israel’s rightward shift during the past decade.  But it seems also to be a product of developments in Germany and in particular the way that the Holocaust has receded in significance during the last decade. Increasingly, Germans seem to see themselves as victims rather than perpetrators.

Nearly half of respondents said they saw Israel as an “aggressive country” and only around a third of respondents said they felt Germany had a special responsibility towards Israel. Sixty per cent said Germany had no special responsibility…This anger against Israel is exacerbated by the sense some Germans have of not being able to say what they really think… [emphasis added]

Please, any Germans out there within range of this post, by all means tell me what you think.

We can start off by telling you what I (a Jewish citizen of Israel) really think about what responsibility you have towards us – what you owe the Jews.

To those of you without ancestors who were complicit in Nazi crimes – those who simply inherited the shared national legacy of German’s attempt to annihilate the Jews, all you owe us is a passionate commitment to defend against even the slightest resurgence of antisemitism in your country, and moral seriousness in the face of similar (often murderous) Judeophobia in the larger world (whether from the radical left, the radical right, Islamist movements, or the Republic of Iran.)  That’s what “never again” should mean to you.

To those of you whose parents or grandparents were complicit in the Nazi’s murder of one out of every three Jews on the face of the earth, I think its fair to say that, although you don’t inherit the sins of your fathers, neither can you ignore them.  You have a greater responsibility.

Perhaps, an understanding of what I mean can be derived from a particular Jewish tradition.  

The most profound Jewish principle I came across during my time of study (on the traditions of death and mourning with Judaism) following my father’s death in 1997, and one which I still find relevant and inspiring, was “The merit of the children“.  What this means, according to Jewish tradition, is that the surviving child, by living a moral, just, and purposeful life, can, in the eyes of G-d, redeem the imperfect life of his deceased parent.

At first, the ethical connection between my current life and my father’s previous life (a quite counterintuitive moral calculus) eluded me. How could what I do now in any way effect how the life he once lived is judged? After some time, however, the inspired moral logic became apparent. The way I live my life is necessarily connected to the way he lived his life – serving as a living testament to who he was, as a father, and as a man. For, I am the living embodiment of the sum of his moral life. My virtue inherently emanates from his virtue. I am, after all, and will always be, my father’s son.

So, to Germans struggling with how to deal with the sins of your fathers, the merit you achieve in this world necessarily reflects both on you and your family. It doesn’t provide posthumous moral atonement, but how ethically you behave and the values you teach your children is a powerful testament to the redemption of your family’s name, your country’s honor.

The historical context of your national T’shuvah (recognizing and repenting for a sin) necessarily must involve a responsibility to living Jews, not simply the millions of souls who were murdered (in death camps named Auschwitz, Sobibor, and Treblinka) 65 years ago.

This is what you owe us: a rigorous duty to never again succumb to classic (and still supremely dangerous) antisemitic narratives of Jewish villainy.

And, finally, a quick word to Gunter Grass, who, in your own life, and out of your own volition, was guilty of complicity with indescribable evil:

If this ever gets translated to German I sure hope the admittedly far less than lofty prose I’m about to employ is properly expressed in a manner which native German-speakers can understand.

If you served in the Nazi Waffen SS killing machine, perhaps the best thing you can do when contemplating lecturing Jews on morality – what you owe us, and the world,  if you have even a shred of decency remaining in your soul – is to show humility, feel a healthy degree of shame, and, to please, whatever you do, keep your damn mouth shut!

Gunter Grass' POW record
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