Germany's most celebrated writer's lyrical warning of a looming Israeli aggression against Iran triggers international row
Luke Harding and Harriet Sherwood
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 5 April 2012 23.16 BST
Günter Grasss poem What Must Be Said was first published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Photograph: Graeme Robertson
During his long literary career, Günter Grass has been many things. Author, playwright, sculptor and, unquestionably, Germany's most famous living writer. There is the 1999 Nobel prize and Grass's broader postwar role as the country's moral conscience albeit a claim badly undermined in 2006 when it emerged that the teenage Grass had served in the Waffen SS. But at the ripe old age of 84, Grass has triggered a furious row with a poem criticising Israel.
Entitled What Must Be Said and published on Wednesday in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the lyric warns of a looming Israeli aggression against Iran. It argues that Germany should no longer deliver nuclear submarines to Israel that might carry "all-destroying warheads".
Grass also takes aim at Germany's reluctance to offend Israel reproaching himself for "my silence" on the subject, and acknowledging that he will inevitably face accusations of antisemitism.
He muses: "Why do I only speak out now/Aged and with my last drop of ink:/Israel's nuclear power is endangering/Our already fragile world peace?" He supplies his own apocalyptic answer: it must be said because "tomorrow might be too late".
Grass also calls for "unhindered and permanent monitoring of Israel's nuclear facility and Iran's nuclear facility through an international entity". Ultimately, he suggests, this would help everybody in this "delusional" region, including the Germans or "us", as he puts it.
Hardly surprising, then, that Grass's controversial late lyric has provoked indignation. The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, led the attack on Thursday, asserting: "Günter Grass's shameful moral equivalence between Israel and Iran ... says little about Israel and much about Mr Grass." Netanyahu described Iran as "a regime that denied the Holocaust and threatens to annihilate Israel". He added: "It is Iran, not Israel, that is a threat to the peace and security of the world."
Netanyahu's attack then became more personal: "For six decades, Mr Grass hid the fact that he had been a member of the Waffen SS.
"So for him to cast the one and only Jewish state as the greatest threat to world peace and to oppose giving Israel the means to defend itself is perhaps not surprising."
The Israeli embassy in Berlin took the format of Grass's poem and flung it back at him: "What must be said is that it is a European tradition to accuse the Jews before the Passover festival of ritual murder." It concluded that Grass's ill-judged broadside sprung from Germany's own guilty conscience "part of the German people's efforts to come to terms with the past".
German politicians from both left and right have traditionally been supportive of Israel, for obvious historical reasons. Several have criticised Grass, describing his work as "abominable", "irritating" and "over the top". The bestselling Bild, a paper better known for its topless models, complained of "confused poesie". And writing in Die Welt, the Jewish writer Henryk Border dubbed Grass "the prototype of the educated antisemite". He added, for good measure, that Grass was "completely nuts".
All this forced Grass to offer his own pained reply. In an interview with North German Radio, the author complained on Thursday that the tone of the criticism "didn't just concentrate on the contents of the poem" but amounted to a scurrilous campaign to say that his reputation "had been damaged for all time". He added: "The old cliches are used. And to a certain extent they are damaging."
Some commentators, however, offered a more convincing critique: that Grass wasn't antisemitic, but simply didn't know what he was talking about. True, the Nobel prizewinner describes Iran's leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a "bigmouth", or "Maulheld". But otherwise, critics say, he offers a less than convincing analysis of the situation in the Middle East failing to acknowledge, for example, Iran's regular threats to wipe Israel out. Instead Grass raises the unlikely spectre of Israel "annihilating" the Iranian people using a German verb, auslöschen, which comes dangerously close to evoking the Holocaust.
"The poem is more interesting to Grassologists than to stragetic analysts," the Israeli historian Tom Segev, who has met and interviewed Grass, told the Guardian. Segev called the lyric "rather pathetic".
He said it was "idiotic" to describe the writer as an antisemite, but said Grass would be better served expending his last ink on a different creative project. "He's a great writer. He's 84. I hope he uses his last drops to write a good book." He added that the writer appeared to have "some inner psychological need to be accused wrongly", adding: "He's almost wishing people to say he's an antisemite."
The most interesting commentary, arguably, came from the Süddeutsche Zeiting, which published the poem German title Was gesagt werden muss in a supplement. Grass had been writing poems since 1955 but his late ones weren't really poems at all, Thomas Steinfeld observed, and instead resembled pleas, complaints, or angry letters to the editor. Of one lugubrious chunk he writes witheringly: "The only lyrical things here are the arbitary line breaks." Undoubtedly, the poem's portentous tone doesn't help the reader; an opinion page piece might have served Grass better.
Interestingly, Steinfeld suggests that the award of the Nobel prize for literature in 1999 may have contributed to Grass's latest political intervention. The prize transformed Grass from a national figure "Germany's preceptor" to an unashamedly global one "a custodian of world politics". He argues that Grass is the only winner who feels the urge to comment on global affairs. Gabriel García Márquez has not become a literary-political representative of South America, he notes, nor has JM Coetzee become the voice of South Africa, or Derek Walcott that of the Caribbean. Nor has Grass, it might be added, written a poem on Greece, a crisis nearer to Germany's doorstep and wallet.
Grass last attracted this much attention back in 2006, when he revealed in his autobiography, Peeling the Onion, that he had briefly served as a 17-year-old in the Waffen SS at the end of the second world war. The admission in itself wasn't remarkable: many other teenagers of his generation were forced to join the SS as the war entered its chaotic final phase. What irritated was the fact that Grass had taken so long to admit this an inexplicable delay for someone who blamed others for their Nazi pasts and was seen to personify national atonement and self-criticism.
For some, this detail means that Grass forfeited the right to comment on the Jewish state. Ephraim Zuroff, director of the Nazi-hunting Simon Wisenthal Centre, described him as "totally compromised" and added: "The tin drum he is banging is not the one of moral conscience but of deep-seated prejudice against the Jewish people." This is one view.
In fact Grass's critical opinions on Israel have surfaced before. In an interview with Spiegel Online in 2001, he described the "appropriation" of Palestinian territory by Israeli settlers as a "criminal activity", adding: "That not only needs to be stopped it also needs to be reversed."
It is certainly true that Germany's relationship with Israel is a problematic one, with the Holocaust taught in schools and the issue of historical guilt never far beneath the surface.
According to Constanze Stelzenmuller, senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, it is hardly surprising that Germany has a moral obligation to the state of Israel, given the country's past. "The German government has been very clear about this," she said. Berlin has already supplied it with three Dolphin submarines, with two more being built, and a sixth in the pipeline.
But, Stelzenmuller says, Berlin has not been inhibited from criticising Israel, especially on the issue of Israeli settlements, last mentioned by Germany's defence minister two weeks ago. Of Grass, she said: "There's always been an anti-Zionist tendency in the European left, including in the German left. It isn't pretty. Many modern thinkers on the centre-left deplore this."
Amid the criticism, a few voices came forward to defend Grass the author, after all, of The Tin Drum, the great German novel of the second world war and the rise of Nazism. "It's got to be possible to speak openly without being denounced as an enemy of Israel," said Klaus Staeck, the president of the Berlin academy of art. He called the "reflexive condemnation" of Grass as an antisemite inappropriate, and insisted that Grass was merely expressing his concern about developments in the Middle East. "A lot of people share this worry," Staeck added.
Predictably, Iran warmly welcomed Grass's poem. Press TV, Iran's state-owned English-language satellite channel, hailed it as a literary sensation. "Never before in Germany's postwar history has a prominent intellectual attacked Israel in such a courageous way," it said. "Metaphorically speaking, the poet has launched a deadly lyrical strike against Israel."
The Press TV report also observed: "Israel is the only possessor of nuclear weapons in the Middle East and it has never allowed inspections of its nuclear facilities nor has it joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty based on its policy of nuclear ambiguity."