Gunter Grass takes aim at a familiar target.

Gunter Grass

Alison Flood’s piece in the Guardian, Gunter Grass poem praises Mordechai Vanunu‘, Oct. 1, begins thus:

Germany‘s Nobel literature laureate Günter Grass, who earlier this year was barred from Israel for criticising its nuclear policy, has written a poem praising the nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu.”

Actually, Grass was declared ‘persona non-grata’ in Israel specifically because he’s a former member of the Nazi Waffen SS who wrote a poem suggesting Israel was contemplating a nuclear strike to annihilate the Iranian people, and represents a threat to world peace.  

Here’s the poem, written by the “liberal” German poet, and Nobel Laureate:

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.

Grass’s attempt at political lyricism is nearly farcical, conveying the following:

  • 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 pure fiction that Israel is considering a nuclear strike against Iran. (Anyone following the issue would surely know that the only thing Israel is contemplating is a conventional attack specifically targeting Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities).
  •  It is only Israel’s atomic power which “endangers an already fragile world peace”. (There are at least nine nations with nuclear weapons, yet Grass’s poem is strangely concerned with the nuclear capabilities of just one of those countries.)

Further, as SPIEGEL ONLINE columnist Jan Fleischhauer wroteon both the poem and the author’s likely motivation:

“One needs a fair bit of fantasy to portray Iran as the victim of Israeli extermination plans, but such a spin follows a tortured logic. If the Jews are the real aggressors, then one’s own guilt isn’t as great. This moral shift grants one a clear conscience to provide moral instruction to others.”

Near the end of her story, the Guardian columnist decided to finally note Grass’s background:

 “Grass, who won the Nobel in 1999, served as a teenager in the Waffen SS during the second world war, a fact he revealed in 2006.”

In fact, Grass revealed his Waffen SS service more than sixty years after WWII, and after continually falsely claiming, throughout his career, that he was conscripted into a German air defense unit late in the war. Grass, Germany’s post-war “moral authority“, who had spent a lifetime urging Germans to face up to their Nazi past, himself had kept silent for decades about his own SS service.

While the issue of responsibility for the generations of Germans born after the Holocaust is certainly a complex one, those living in the modern, democratic German state certainly bear much less of a moral burden than those Germans who directly participated in the Nazi killing machine and their willing accomplices.

While Grass is, of course, free to say and write what he wishes, it seems reasonable to expect that former Nazis consider showing a bit of humility – even an ounce of shame – the next time they consider waxing poetical on the sins of Israel, or lecturing Jews on their dangerous lack of morality.

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