Letter from Berlin: Gunter Grass’s Poem

By Stan Persky | April 17, 2012

Sometimes poetry makes something happen, pace W.H. Auden’s famous dictum to the contrary that “poetry makes nothing happen.”

Gunter Grass, 84, Nobel Laureate for literature, Germany’s pre-eminent writer, author of The Tin Drum and much else, published a 69-line poem, “What Must Be Said,” in the Suddeutsche Zeitung, a Munich-based national centre-left newspaper on April 4, 2012.

Grass’s “op-ed” poem, as one reader dubbed it, is more of a political statement couched in a hybrid verse form than a traditional poem. It criticizes the current Israeli government’s persistent belligerance toward Iran, particularly its threats to launch a pre-emptive military strike on the basis of the so far unsubstantiated claim that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon. As well, the piece bluntly recognizes that Israel is already a nuclear-armed state, something infrequently mentioned; furthermore, it’s a nuclear power “beyond supervision or verification, / subject to no inspection of any kind.” Finally, Grass chides the German government for selling submarines to Israel that are capable of delivering nuclear-tipped missiles. These are all sentiments seldom publicly expressed in Germany, a country firmly allied to Israel for both historical and ideological reasons. 

“Why only now, grown old, / and with what ink remains,” Grass asks, “do I say: / Israel’s atomic power endangers / an already fragile world peace?” He replies, “Because what must be said / may be too late tomorrow.”

“Why have I kept silent, held back for so long?” Grass asks himself. And the answer, as everybody in Germany knows, is that public criticism of Israel is a politely forbidden topic in German discourse, and even the whisper of such criticism is likely to get you labelled as one of those dreaded “anti-Semites.” In fact, Grass anticipates all that in his op-ed poem, remarking that “the verdict ‘Anti-semitism’ falls easily,” and recognizing once more that his “own origins” are “tarnished by a stain that can never be removed.” Nonetheless, the taboo is momentarily broken. As a New York Times headline ten days later reported, “Once Taboo, Germans’ Anti-Israel Whispers Grow Louder.”

The volume level of the whispers had to be turned up a bit, or else they would have been drowned out by the cacophony unleashed by both PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-conservative Israeli government, and much of the German intellectual establishment. “Bibi,” as the PM is nicknamed, immediately condemned Grass’s poem as “shameful” and not too subtlely hinted that the 1999 Nobel Prize winner was really still a Nazi. Netanyahu was alluding to the fact that nearly 70 years ago, in the last days of World War II, the 17-year-old Grass had been conscripted into an SS-Waffen unit, a subject that Grass himself discussed in his 2006 autobiography, Peeling the Onion. It was “perhaps not surprising,” said Netanyahu, that Grass portrayed “the one and only Jewish state as the greatest threat to world peace.”

The Israeli embassy in Berlin immediately issued its own “what must be said” statement. “What must be said is that it is a European tradition to accuse the Jews before the Passover festival of ritual murder,” the embassy statement ominously began, ratcheting up the accusations from there, before more temperately adding, “What also must be said is that Israel is the only state in the world whose right to exist is openly doubted.”

Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman charged that the Grass poem was the expression of the “egoism of so-called Western intellectuals who are willing to sacrifice the Jewish people on the altar of crazy anti-Semites for a second time, just to sell a few more books or gain recognition.” In short, Grass is a crass careerist.

By the end of the weekend, the already overheated reaction in Israel was topped by Israeli interior minister Eli Yishai who declared Grass persona non grata and barred him from visiting Israel. The German author could no longer cross the Israeli border because of his “attempt to inflame hatred against the State of Israel and the people of Israel, and thus advance the idea to which he was publicly affiliated in his past donning of the SS uniform.” So, Grass is not only a publicity-seeking careerist, but a Nazi anti-Semite. Gee, those Israeli officials really know how to kick a guy in the kishkes, as we used to say as kids in the Jewish-Irish street-fighting neighbourhood in Chicago where I grew up. Given that Israel is frequently praised as the only democracy in the Middle East, we should reflect on what a charming democracy it’s turned out to be. No doubt, its persona non grata policies are verifiably kosher, too. By Easter Sunday, you could be forgiven for thinking that Grass was a likelier candidate for crucifixion than Jesus.

This reprise of the commentary only provides a minuscule sampler of the river of ink and digital bytes flowing through the Israeli and German print media and cyberstream in the space of 10 days. The German establishment was almost as appalled as the Israelis, if for different reasons. The doyen of German literary critics, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, 91, an old opponent of Grass, called the poem “disgusting.” Soon, everyone in the country was turning into a literary critic (including some literary critics). About the only person who kept her head during the Sturm und Drang was conservative chancellor Angela Merkel who wisely murmured that it wasn’t the business of politicians to comment on artistic endeavors. She probably also sighed, “Oy vey.”

By the second week of the controversy, tempers had cooled a bit. Grass admitted in a newspaper interview that he didn’t mean to attack Israel, but rather Netanyahu’s policies. “I should have also brought that into the poem,” he said. Although the conservative wing of the German intelligentsia relentlessly berated the Nobel Prize winning author, by then a few people had come to Grass’s aid. Jakob Augstein, publisher of the progressive weekly Freitag, said that while Grass’s piece was neither a great poem nor brilliant political analysis, the famed author “should be thanked” for starting a German debate about the threat Israel poses to peace. Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Sigmar Gabriel also thought Grass deserved thanks, and refused to disassociate himself from the longtime SPD supporter, even though he disagreed with most of Grass’s analysis in this instance.

Commentators in both Israel and Germany sharply criticized Israel’s decision to ban Grass. Critics of Grass’s poem, such as Israeli historian Tom Segev, also criticised the Israeli decision to formally forbid the writer admittance to the country. Interior minister Yishai seemed to be offering an Israeli olive branch in newspaper headlines reporting his proposal to meet the German writer in a “neutral country.” But once one looked at the fine print preconditions Yishai was suggesting, it was obvious that this wasn’t exactly a sincere offer: “If Grass puts down his pen and stops writing anti-Semitic poems, then I would be pleased to explain to him in a neutral state why a German who voluntarily served under Heinrich Himmler in the SS has no right to visit the country of the people he once wanted to exterminate.” Grass replied that the last time he’d been barred from a country, it was by the Stasi-run East German regime. In short, don’t expect any immediate Grass-Yishai get-togethers in neutral Monaco. Finally, when the press checked the Facebook universe 10 days after Grass’s quasi-literary pyrotechnics, they discovered that blogging and tweeting Germans largely agreed that Grass had blurted out thoughts that were not only more than half-true, but ones that many people endorsed, albeit silently prior to Grass’s public utterances.

Now that poetry “made something happen,” let’s see if we can sort out what happened.

Let’s get the aesthetics out of the way first: Okay, “What Must Be Said” is not a great poem and probably doesn’t bear a formal “close reading” in your local graduate studies in literature class. You can Google up an English translation of the poem published by The Guardian in Britain if you’re interested. Not a great political poem, but I’ve read worse. What most of the instant critics didn’t mention is that Grass is not a bad poet (see his “Words in Farewell,” written on the death of his longtime editor, Helmut Frielinghaus, also available on the Guardian website).

More important, the critics tended to slide over Grass’s literary and political accomplishments, although every article dutifully mentioned that he wrote The Tin Drum and won the Nobel Prize. The perfunctory mentions, however, only served to obscure the fact that The Tin Drum is not just any old bestseller, but one of the half-dozen great novels of the second half of the 20th century, one that is doggedly anti-Nazi as well as literarily innovative. What’s more, Grass is among the leading postwar anti-fascist intellectuals who, over a lifetime, helped Germany confront its Nazi past. His role as a “conscience of the nation” is one of the reasons people listen when Grass says “what must be said.”

Next, there’s the minor matter of personalities. A lot of Grass’s critics regard him as a self-centred opportunist desperate for attention, a self-righteous hypocrite, a fading Ancient Mariner tugging at the public sleeve. Although Grass long ago admitted to his Hitler Youth past, he didn’t reveal his conscription into a SS unit until late in life, another subject of loquacious controversy in Germany. Most of the critics have never forgiven Grass for a lifetime of social democratic political activism. Those of us who think otherwise are mostly focussed on the greatness of his half dozen major literary works, and admire a lifetime of speaking truth not only to power, but to silence, hypocrisy and moral cowardice.

Finally, in terms of political analysis, “What Must Be Said” gets mixed reviews. While Grass notes in the poem that Iran is a dictatorship run by a “loudmouth,” more needs to be said about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s regime, including its Holocaust denials and casual threats to wipe Israel off the map, as well as its alleged nuclear weapon ambitions. That said, Grass’s explicit condemnation of the Netanyahu government’s dangerous nuclear sabre-rattling (and its oppressive occupation of Palestinian territories) is indeed among the things that “must be said.”

As at least some of us recognize, the debate about Israel is lost in the fog of rhetoric, even when it doesn’t immediately threaten to be lost in the fog of war. International pro-Israel lobbies and the Netanyahu government are quick to reject almost all political criticism of the “one and only Jewish state” with knee-jerk accusations of anti-Semitism and worse. The right wing Republican Party presidential aspirants in the current U.S. election campaign have all uttered blood-curdling threats to go to war with Iran.

Nor have matters been helped by the dismal performance of the other side of the political spectrum. International Leftist organizations frequently offer accounts of Israel that are not far removed from global conspiracy theories that resemble the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

Somewhere in all the fustion, it’s useful to recognize that Israel is a historical fact of realpolitik; that its claims to be under existential threat are not mere imaginings; but that its behaviour toward its Palestinian neighbours over the last half-century has been morally and practically shameful. It also helps to recognize that the Palestinians, while clear victims of oppression, are not solely unblemished freedom fighters; that their leadership has repeatedly blundered in the “peace” negotiations; and that its authoritarian regional allies bear their own share of infamy.

Though Grass, a competent visual artist, could have chosen a finer brush to paint this bleak scene, I think that his openly saying that nuclear-armed Israel is also a danger to world peace is something that “must be said.” What a lot of people I talked to in Berlin in the last couple of weeks quietly noted is that while Grass’s poem may be politically incorrect as well as flawed, enough of what he said is also true and needs saying. In this instance, a heretofore repressed political discussion in Germany has happened, or at least gotten underway, thanks to a less-than-great op-ed poem by one of the country’s most distinguished writers. It’s also worth reiterating that “what must be said” must be said now because it “may be too late tomorrow.”


Berlin, April 17, 2012


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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