Thursday, April 12, 2012

Germany - Aggrieved about Grass

Bulletin No. 41, April 11th, 2012


Germany - Aggrieved about Grass


By Victor Grossman,




It's rare that poems cause such anger and excitement.

The only other case I can recall was Walt Whitman's

"Leaves of Grass" which once "awoke a perfect storm of

derision and abuse".  That was a century and a half

ago, but somehow Grass still awakens "derision and

abuse". But this time it's Günter Grass, a Nobel

Literature Prize winner, with his poem "What Must Be

Said". And the subject matter is war and peace.


Grass denies the right of any country - and he is

courageous enough to name Israel openly- to wage a

heavily-armed first strike against Iran based on the

possibility that Iran might also acquire atomic

weapons. He neither praises the Iran government in any

way nor does he speak in any way against the people of

Israel, for whom he stresses his lasting sympathy, but

he does indeed warn of the terrifying imminence of war

and points out that Israel already has atomic bombs,

while Iran does not. He also denounces Germany's sales

of potentially atomic-armed submarines, one after the

other, to Israel and calls for international inspection

and control of all atomic weapons in the area, whether

present Israeli ones or possible future Iranian ones,

in the hopes of saving the entire region - or far more

- from catastrophe. In a personal note, he admits his

hesitance in issuing this warning earlier because of

his own biography and because of the danger of being

accused of anti-Semitism. But in his waning years, with

his "last ink", as he puts it, he finds it impossible

to keep silent in the light of so much hypocrisy - and

such a menacing situation.


Immediately after the poem was published, virtually the

entire German media jumped on him - seemingly before

some critics even bothered to read it. This ignorance

of its contents or, more likely, an unwillingness to

discuss them with a shred of open-mindedness or even

fairness, led to attacks on both the poem and the poet

for three main reasons.


Reason one: Grass is an old man. His last best-seller

was some years ago; he now putters about with arts and

crafts. He should sit by his hearth and mind his own

business. His best days are past. A response to this is

obviously difficult; he is undeniably 84.


Reason two (which recalled the old attacks against Walt

Whitman): The poem was not really poetry; without

either rhyme or meter it was really disguised prose. As

if lyric quality really mattered - it was the content

which counted. After all, Grass had already received

the Nobel Prize and many other prizes (mostly for his

prose) and was seeking no additional laurels for

timeless literature. But he had something to say!


Reason three, constantly alluded to, was his

participation during World War Two in a unit of the

Waffen-SS, a particularly nasty section of Hitler's

military forces. Most critics disregarded or dismissed

the fact that he was only 17 when he was assigned to

this military unit and was in it only from November

1944 until he was wounded in April 1945. He claims that

he never fired a shot himself but did help load

artillery shells. Frequently mentioned is the fact that

he kept this secret until late in life, most probably

due to shame. But it must be asked: Did this past

secret disqualify him from uttering any political view

for the rest of his life? Or didn't his writings, most

notably his famous novel "The Tin Drum" (filmed by

Volker Schlöndorf), a dramatic, deeply engaged attack

on the entire fascist structure and crimes of the

Nazis, make good for those juvenile five months?


Then too, during all the decades since 1945 the very

same media now attacking him so self-righteously almost

totally "neglected" the fact that all West Germany was

dominated to an amazing extent by former Nazi bigwigs -

up until they finally died out. And not by such young

recruits but by the bloodiest of generals who

completely built and commanded the new army. A host of

incriminated ex-Nazi diplomats represented the Bonn

government abroad, the police departments, secret

services, courtrooms, academic lecture rooms and

government positions up to the topmost heights were

heavily laden with truly guilty men. Indeed, the mighty

giants behind the swastika flags, those who profited

from the conquests and the slave labor, not the

individuals but banks and corporations with names like

Krupp, Siemens, Bayer, BASF and Deutsche Bank, still

dominate the scene today. And not a few newspapers

currently attacking Grass were built up after 1945 by

editors who won their spurs as propagandists for

Hitler. Unlike Grass, few of all these men ever

confessed their former sins - or publicly regretted them.


Except in one question. The new ruling powers in West

Germany found very quickly that all those sins, not

just those of the past but present and future ones,

were mildly overlooked if they loudly and stoutly

rejected open anti-Semitism while embracing any and all

policies of the Israeli government.  This rule,

carefully watched over, provided the entrance ticket

for an ascent into the so rewarding ranks of the

"western democracies".  And this strategy, at first

more a mask than anything else, soon developed into a

close bond between all ruling parties in Germany and

the far right forces in Israel, up to and including the

openly racist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and

Premier Benjamin Netanyahu.


This largely one-legged posture explains why any

questioning of the top-level German-Israeli alliance

represents an earnest threat and must immediately be

squelched. Over the years the taboo was rarely

violated; this explains the malevolence of the attacks

against Grass.


But there is now a new worrisome element explaining the

vigor of such attacks against anyone undermining this

status quo. In the face of recent Israeli actions - the

terrible civilian casualties in the attack on Gaza, the

fearful attack on the Mavi Marmara in the

Mediterranean, a seepage of information about the

oppression of Palestinian villages in the occupied

areas, the refusal to suspend the expansion of Jewish

settlement in these areas and, indeed, the construction

of a Wall reminiscent of Berlin, have been having an

effect on public opinion and, much delayed, even on a

few public figures eager to win votes - or becoming

simply honest.


Shortly before the Grass poem Sigmar Gabriel, head of

the Social Democratic Party, wrote in Facebook after a

visit to the West Bank city of Hebron that there was no

justice for Palestinians there, that it was an

"apartheid regime" for which there could be no

justification. He, too, was immediately attacked but at

least partially stood his ground. No, he had not meant

to equate Israel and its government with the old

apartheid regime in South Africa, he wrote, he was a

friend of Israel, but he considered the Israeli

settlement policy to be wrong. "The humiliating

treatment of Palestinians in Hebron .is a cause of

really great anger, even with someone like myself who

supports Israel. This is what I tried to express."


Such sentiments are undeniably on the increase. What

makes this issue so much more complicated here is of

course Germany's unparalleled guilt against the Jewish

people. This demands that any criticism of Israeli

policy must scrupulously avoid any implied equation of

the Netanyahus with the Jewish people, in Israel or

anywhere else, especially since there is a numerically

small but potentially dangerous pro-Nazi element eager

to take advantage of any feelings against Israel to

rationalize Hitler's genocide. At the same time the

present leaders of the Jewish community (or the

official ones, in any case), while necessarily opposing

real anti-Semitism, also use that same label in

attacking any and every form of criticism of Israeli

policy, especially if it comes from the left - or from

even mildly leftish people like Günter Grass.

(Strangely enough, some far-right Netanyahu fans

suddenly find themselves on the same wagon with some

neo-Nazis, who are down-playing anti-Semitism in order

to attack the much larger, more vulnerable and far more

easily identifiable target, the allegedly common enemy,

the Muslims.)


At least one important Israeli fueled the fires in such

an arrogant manner that they soon backfired. Interior

Minister Eli Yishai proclaimed Günter Grass persona non

grata and said he would not be welcome in Israel. This

riled many in both countries who otherwise denigrated

the Grass poem. Some journalists noted that Grass had

no such travel plans anyway. Others, in Israel, pointed

out that the very same views, the rejection of any

"pre-emptive" military strike against Iran, have been

stated over and over by many Israelis, including Meir

Dagan, the former head of the Mossad espionage

organization. Others worried that while someone like

Grass or Noam Chomsky is barred from the country,

vicious racists like the Dutch rabble-rouser Geert

Wilders or the French neo-fascist presidential

candidate Marie Le Pen are welcomed. And for German

leaders, who have always demanded freedom of speech and

press in Russia, East Germany and currently in Syria or

Iran, such a ban because of a poem is embarrassing to

say the least.


While some noted personalities, especially those who

have been waving the anti-Muslim banner most fervently,

continue with their attacks, the effects of his clear

and - for many - quite moving words have undoubtedly

had an effect. His books, though usually best-sellers,

were not too easily digestible except for

intellectuals, but a recent poll showed that well over

50 percent of the population now support him, with a

large number stating that they do not consider his

words to be anti-Semitic. It seems undeniable: his poem

has led not only to much controversy but with it to

wide-spread thinking and re-thinking.




Postscript. Although they tend to stress local issues,

elections in May in Schleswig-Holstein and the key

state of North-Rhine-Westphalia are already affected to

a degree by the poem. Social Democratic leaders, with a

few notable exceptions, have said they no longer wish

any support from Grass, who in earlier years was a

favored campaign speaker on their behalf. The other big

party, the Christian Democrats, certainly will have

nothing to do with him. But, aside from such leaves -

or sharp blades - connected with Grass, both elections

will be of special importance to the four smaller

parties for other reasons. The Free Democrats, still

members of Angela Merkel's national coalition but

internally split, are virtually fighting for their

political survival. The Greens, though certain of

remaining in the legislatures in both states, face the

possibility that they will be shoved under the table at

a wedding of the two main parties, as in Saarland after

a recent election there. They may even be overtaken by

the young new party, the Pirates, which hopes to break

its way into both state legislatures and has good

chances of becoming a new political factor nationally,

although - aside from free internet use and political

transparency - it remains vague on almost all major

issues, national or international.


The Left Party, which has some seats in both

legislatures, may well miss the 5 percent hurdle and

lose them all due in great measure to its difficult

internal situation in the past year - now complicated

by the decision of Gesine Loetzsch to resign as co-

president because of the illness of her husband and

remain only as Bundestag delegate from her East Berlin

election district. The Left too is affected by the

Grass poem, for some leading members are basically pro-

Netanyahu, while others active support secular and

democratic Palestinian positions. But, as one drama

follows the other, in Germany as elsewhere,  I must

leave these matters to future articles.




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