BERLIN - Günter Grass has written a poem called "Was gesagt werden muss" (What Must Be Said) that was published Wednesday in Germany by the Süddeutsche Zeitung daily. It starts off like this:
"Why do I keep quiet, Ive been holding back too long..."
From these opening lines, some readers might think that the 84-year-old German Nobel literature laureate is finally about to explain why he kept quiet for so long about his stint with the Nazi SS. But thats not the case: the moralizing poet has moved on. This time its about an immediate concern to us all. Its about sheer survival.
"Why do I keep quiet, Ive been holding back too long about whats written on the wall, what an army has even been practicing for, and will make all survivors mere footnotes when its over.
So Grass doesnt want to keep quiet any longer, and his logorrheic explosion is about the right to strike first claimed by an unnamed country -- Israel. Strike what? Iran, a country that even he admits has a loud-mouth as its president.
"But why am I avoiding naming this country, which for years has secretly been building its potential for nuclear strikes and refusing all inspections and controls?"
Grass kept silent -- and was reluctant to name Israel -- because he didnt want to risk being branded anti-Semitic.
"This silencing of something that is a matter of fact but that silence has banalized I feel as a burdensome lie even as I feel the pressure of the punishment that lies ahead if I am misunderstood: the anti-Semite verdict is so routinely reached.
Its the usual verbal foreplay to breaking a taboo rationalized as the responsibility of the poet to prevent catastrophe. Grass describes it like this:
"Now however as more German submarines are delivered to Israel, submarines that could fire nuclear missiles to annihilate a country where the existence of not a single nuclear bomb has been proven ... I am saying what must be said."
Grass always did tend towards delusions of grandeur, but this time hes not just tending hes actually delusional. Has he been so busy composing broken verse that he is unaware of the many speeches by Irans President Ahmadinejad that speak of the need to remove the cancer -- Israel -- from Palestine? Is that just loud-mouthing, not to be taken seriously, just as the existence of a single Iranian nuclear bomb is unproven until its used? But of course if that happened Grass would grieve for the victims, comfort the survivors, because, he writes, he feels bound to Israel.
"Why have I stayed silent until now? Because I thought the fact that I was German, and therefore stained, made it impossible for me to speak the truth about Israel that I am bound to and wish to stay bound to.
Grass speaks up because because hes weary of Western hypocrisy, hoping that we can be freed from this imposed silence and demand that Israel refrain from aggression -- indeed insist that both countries accept unhindered and permanent inspections of Israels nuclear potential and Irans facilities by international monitors.
Note that while Israel has the potential to launch a nuclear attack, the Iranians only have nuclear facilities that, presumably, are used to meet its energy needs only. Israel evades inspection, while Iran enjoys nothing more than opening up its nuclear facilities to international monitors.
Grass has always had a problem with the Jews, but hes never expressed it as clearly as in this poem. In an interview he gave "Spiegel Online" in October 2001 he outlined his solution to the Palestinian issue: "Israel must not only clear out of occupied areas -- the possession of Palestinian territory and settling on it is criminal behavior. It not only has to cease: it must be undone retroactively. Otherwise, there will be no peace.
That was nothing more, and nothing less, than a demand that Israel give up not only Nablus and Hebron but Tel Aviv and Haifa as well. Like Hamas and Hezbollah, Grass makes no distinction between areas occupied in 1948 and in 1967: for him, taking possession of Palestinian territory and settling on it is criminal behavior. The Iranian president sees it that way too.
Ten years later, in the summer of 2011, Günter Grass was interviewed by Israeli journalist Tom Segev. Segev speaks fluent German, so he was able to talk with ease and without an interpreter for two and a half hours about everything under the sun including reactions to Grasss novel Peeling the Onion. Grass said the debate about his book had been very painful to him, and that it had even been insinuated that he had joined the Nazi SS of his own volition. "The truth is that I was recruited, like every youngster of my age.
When Segev asked why, in the novel, the Holocaust was given only marginal space, Grass answered: "The craziness and the crimes didnt only manifest in the Holocaust and didnt end with the war. Of 8 million German soldiers taken prisoner by the Russians, maybe 2 million survived. The rest were liquidated.
You dont have to have a degree in math to follow the logic of Grasss numbers game. Six million German soldiers were liquidated by the Russians. The facts that actually 3 million German soldiers were prisoners of the Russians, of which 1.1 million did not survive are not important for Grass, only one figure matters: 6 million. Thats the figure its always about. The Lucky German Number. Six million dead Jews on the one hand, 6 million dead German soldiers on the other, and were even.
Grass is the prototypical educated anti-Semite, who means well. Hes haunted by feelings of guilt and shame, but simultaneously driven by the desire for history to tally the past so that Israel, the cause of discernible danger, is disarmed.
The Jews will never forgive the Germans for what they did to them. So for peace to finally come to the Middle East and for Günter Grass to find some inner peace -- Israel should "become history" as the Iranian president put it. As he peels his onion, thats what the poet dreams of too.
Read the original article in German
Photo - Christoph Müller-Girod