Poison Pen

By D.G. Myers
Monday, April 16, 2012

A Nobel Prize-winning German novelist—a former SS soldier, no less—accuses the state of Israel of seeking to exterminate an entire people, and the literary republic yawns. But when Israel bars its accuser from entering the country, because ex-Nazis have no place in the Jewish state, the cries of "bullying" and "censorship" nearly drown out the original accusation.

Günter Grass, the 84-year-old German writer best known for his 1959 novel The Tin Drum, published a poem earlier this month in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (a Munich daily), which was generally described as critical of Israel. "What Must Be Said," a 69-line poem written as a first-person confession in Grass's own voice, "breaks a long standing German taboo and publicly criticizes Israel," Al-Jazeera cheered.

In Germany, outrage. Elsewhere, not so much. Or not until Eli Yishai, the state's interior minister, barred Grass from entering Israel. Then, as Ruthie Blum observed, the "minor brouhaha" over Grass's poem erupted into a "major attack on Israel." The Guardian sneered that the Jewish state was engaging in "state censorship"—as if the Israeli government can suppress what is published in Munich. "To ban him is infantile pique," Salman Rushdie, Grass's fellow novelist, tweeted. "Nobody can seriously believe Günter Grass is anti-Semitic. The issue today is a bad poem and Israel's bad response to it."

Is Grass anti-Semitic? Is his poem bad? A writer in the Telegraph professed ignorance, claiming poor German, although no such hesitation prevented him from characterizing the "Israeli response," delivered in Hebrew, as "bullying." At least one German publication dismissed Grass's text as wirre Poesie ("muddled poetry"). Grass himself was heard complaining on the radio that his critics were ignoring "the contents of the poem."

Not only did the poem disappear from the controversy, but it almost never appeared under its own guise. Even to call the monologue a "poem" is to offer charity that "What Must Be Said" does not earn for itself. Manfred Lahnstein, a former German Federal Minister of Finance, said it well for Yediot Ahronot: Grass's text is a "pamphlet beefed up by some technical tricks to make it look like a 'poem.'" It is poetry if and only if poetry is the abandonment of literary form, logical argument, and even basic grammar for the sake of delivering pronouncements ex cathedra.

Even so, the tendency was to poeticize its unpleasant message out of existence. The Guardian ran an English version by Breon Mitchell (a distinguished translator of Kafka and Heinrich Böll who reworked The Tin Drum for its 50th anniversary edition in 2009), but Mitchell's version softened the original German to blotch its hostility. In the original German, for example, Grass accuses Israel of seeking to launch a nuclear strike that iranische Volk auslöschen könnte. The German verb auslöschen means to extinguish, to snuff out, to obliterate. But Mitchell has Grass saying, instead, that an Israeli strike "could destroy [the] Iranian people." A people can be destroyed without annihilating them, however, and Grass is pretty clear which he means.

In case anyone misses the first hint, Grass later writes that Israel's warheads are allesvernichtende ("exterminating"). The echo of the Nazi term for extermination camps (Vernichtungslagers) is difficult to overlook. It is a particularly underhanded method for accusing Israelis of acting like Nazis, but Mitchell chooses to overlook it. What Israel seeks in his version is simply "nuclear warheads."

Again, Grass accuses Israel of suspecting Iran of an atom bomb: einer Atombombe vermutet wird. Mitchell has Grass awkwardly saying that a bomb "may be being/ developed." In developing its own nuclear capabilities, by contrast, Israel is "out of control," Grass charges—außer Kontrolle. When Mitchell translates him, though, Grass says merely that Israel is "beyond supervision." The difference between a state that is beyond supervision and a state that is out of control is the difference between a rogue state and an aggressor bent upon war.

Germans have been silent about Israel's "exterminating" first-strike capability for too long, Grass complains. Silence is a Lüge and a Zwang—a lie and a compulsion. Anyone who speaks out will receive a punishment: Das Verdikt "Antisemitismus" ist geläufig, he sighs—"the verdict of anti-Semitism is familiar." But then comes the most repulsive turn in the entire poem. Bravely facing down the "familiar verdict," Grass asks why he has remained silent for so long. In Mitchell's translation:

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.

Grass is breathtakingly dishonest. He realizes, he says, that his Herkunft, his "background" or "heritage," is afflicted with a stigma (Makel), which cannot be erased. He is referring here to what, in his autobiography, he says is "all too commonly called joint responsibility"—the collective German responsibility for war in Europe and the murder of six million Jews.

But Grass bears some individual responsibility too, although he is not about to acknowledge that here. Perhaps he expects his readers to acknowledge it. Six decades after the fact (and a convenient seven years after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature), Grass revealed in his autobiography that he had served in the Waffen SS during Hitler's war. He swears that he was conscripted. His first choice was the Navy, which he tried to join in order to escape the sounds of his parents' lovemaking.

Was he as enthusiastic as other young German draftees, who tended to become caught up in the SS spirit? He can't remember. "I most likely viewed the Waffen SS as an elite unit that was sent into action whenever a breach in the front line had to be stopped up," he writes. "I did not find the double rune on the uniform collar repellent." Still, he insists that he cannot be accused of "active complicity."

Without any other source on the question, Grass's testimony must be respected. But his account of serving in the SS is filled to overflowing with evasions of responsibility. It was not until after he had been drafted, he writes, that he "understood what division [he] had been attached to." Although he heard nothing of war crimes at the time, he "had been incorporated into a system that had planned, organized, and carried out the extermination of millions of people." He swore the Waffen-SS oath of loyalty and obedience to the Führer. "The moon was full, the night freezing cold," he recalls. "A chorus sang 'If Others Prove Untrue, Yet We Shall Steadfast Be,' the song of the Waffen SS." A chorus sang—did he sing along? 

Now, however, his Nazi connections are invaluable to him. How can anyone doubt his courage and honor in daring to accuse Israel of genocidal intentions toward the people of Iran? A former SS soldier who publicly criticizes Israel will receive the "familiar verdict" of anti-Semitism, and only a writer for whom the truth is more dear than his reputation would undertake such a mission. His SS credentials are the best proof of Grass's sincerity.

In a "poem" that boasts of breaking the silence, however, Grass's silence about the reality of the Middle East is ominous. That Israel might be the target of nuclear annihilation is of concern only to someone who, unlike him, grants Israel's right to exist.

The verdict may be familiar, then, but it is no less just. In "What Must Be Said," Günter Grass lends his Nobel Prize-winning literary prestige to the cause of what the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy calls "the new anti-Semitism," the only variety of the longest hatred that has any chance of being heard today—and "only if it can identify 'being Jewish' with the supposedly criminal identity of the State of Israel."

That is to say, people can get away with anti-Semitism these days only by passing it off as anti-Zionism. Since Israel is the political expression of Jewish peoplehood, however, to call into question its right to exist is either to wish the Jews powerless to defend themselves again or to deny they are a people. The first may seem less vicious than the second, but for an ex-SS soldier like Günter Grass, the dream of Jewish powerlessness is deeply embedded in a history of exterminating destruction. And in either case, Grass is an articulate literary spokesman for a new European anti-Semitism that pretends it is merely anti-Zionism, although there is not a pinch of salt's difference between the two.

D.G. Myers, a critic and literary historian in the Melton Center for Jewish Studies at the Ohio State University, writes a monthly fiction chronicle for Commentary magazine as well as its blog Literary Commentary.

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