The Nazi in Günter Grass

This past week Günter Grass once again made news. The news was not that the Nobel laureate was publishing a new novel, but that he has once again entered the spotlight for a poem he wrote which questions Israel’s nuclear weapons program in the face of escalating tension between Iran and the West. In the poem, “What Must Be Said,” Grass states “Israel is a threat to an already fragile world peace.” The poem was first published in Germany by Süddeutsche Zeitung and quickly translated into Italian and English. The poem has caused outrage and celebration respectively.

Is Grass’s poem a clear sign of anti-Semitism as many point out? Does the poem constitute a clear connection to his past as a Nazi? Is this poem the ramblings of a bitter old man? These are not easy questions to answer, but they are easy questions to ask, perhaps too easy. Grass’s past has been especially controversial since the release of his memoir, Peeling the Onion in 2006 (2007 in English translation). In that memoir Grass revealed that as a young man (still in his teens) he was drafted into the Waffen SS. Although this is disturbing in itself, one may be able to understand that a teenager might have had no choice in what was being forced upon him at such an early age. The real point of contention, however, is that Grass kept this information secret for nearly sixty years.

Grass is perhaps best known for his first novel The Tin Drum, originally published in German in 1959. The novel, told in the first person, recounts the story of Oskar Matzerath writing from a mental hospital. The first lines of the novel are:

“Granted: I’m an inmate in a mental institution; my keeper watches me, scarcely lets me out of sight, for there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can’t see through blue-eyed types like me.”

The novel is a triumph mapping life in post-war Germany. As readers I would argue that we are intended to identify with Oskar in that we are all inmates in a mental institution, for that was the outcome of the Second World War. But I suspect that Grass has post-war Germans in mind, and post-war Germany as the mental institution. Grass’s first lines are powerfully rendered and have become canonized. His talent as a writer is indisputable. In 1999 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The question, then, is not one of writing, but of the personal life of the author. In other words, would Grass have received the Nobel Prize if he had come clean about his Nazi past?

We often associate the private lives of authors, musicians, and artists, with their work. Some even go so far as to obsessively search for patterns in the work that will give some clue to the inner workings of the author. With the publication of Roland Barthes’s essay “The Death of the Author” all of that came to a halt, at least for a time. Now, in this age of celebrity and media obsession, the private lives of artists (for lack of a better term) are once again drawn to the spotlight. What an intellectual writes in a German newspaper is immediately translated and spread across the globe.

Grass’s poem has brought him further scrutiny and condemnation. The nature of the poem is Grass’s refusal to remain silent any longer. “Why only now, grown old,/and with what ink remains, do I say:/Israel’s atomic power endangers/an already fragile world peace?” One gets the sense that Grass is only now saying this because he has nothing left to lose by condemning Israel’s nuclear program and the nation’s harsh threats to attack Iran. The poem states that in his old age he is compelled to speak out against what he sees as hypocrisy. Yet, interestingly, Grass says nothing concerning Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s claim that Israel has no right to exist and should be obliterated. Certainly Grass’s extreme leftist views would condemn war on any front.

“But why have I kept silent till now?/Because I thought my own origins,/Tarnished by a stain that could never be removed,/meant that I could not expect Israel, a land,/to which I am, and always will be/attached,/to accept this open declaration of the truth.” The lines are powerful. The self-indictment concerning Grass’s own part in the Hitler Youth has tormented him for decades. The phrase “tarnished by a stain” suggests that Grass has yet to come to terms with his past.

Günter Grass is an old man, yet at 85 he still has the power to be provocative, which is what writers should be. However, I’m decidedly uncomfortable with his poem. According to Benjamin Weinthal in an April 7, 2012 blog for the Jerusalem Post, “Nobel laureate Günter Grass loves Iran’s clerical regime.” This, of course, is more than a bit misleading, but Grass did take aim first. Weinthal’s complaint, and I do think it is justified, if a bit one sided, is that while Grass is quick to condemn Israel’s right to defend itself, why does he remain silent about the Iranian regime’s stifling of democracy? Why indeed?

Alternatively, Jakob Augstein writes on his blog for Spiegel Online that we should thank Grass for having the courage to say what no one else was saying (that a nuclear Israel is a threat to world peace) and starting a much-needed dialogue on the topic. Of course Spiegel would defend Germany’s most famous living author. But there is also some truth here as well. As a public intellectual, Grass has an obligation to as the hard questions, to ask questions that make us uncomfortable, and in so doing, uncomfortably aware. It’s true: the government of Israel has publically boasted of a first strike against Iran should its nuclear program continue. Moreover, Grass himself stated that he intended to condemn Israel’s government and not Israel as a nation.

Israel’s reaction has been unsurprisingly harsh. Eli Yishai, Israeli Interior Minister has confirmed that Grass has now been banned from entering Israel. Although I can understand the outrage Israel might feel over Grass’s remarks, I find it just as disturbing that the Israeli government would ban Grass from entering the country. This contradicts the very tenets of a democracy. In fact, I find the ban just plain childish. Instead of seeing this as a chance to participate in real dialogue, the Israeli government has effectively cut off any chance of that dialogue. On the other side of the fence, the Iranian government has applauded Grass’s remarks. According to the Tehran Times, Iranian Cinema Organization Director Javad Shamaqdari has written a letter to Grass that, in part, states:

“Many pens have changed the course of history, and many writers and artists have been able to save lives. No doubt, you were also able to show that the humane viewpoint and concern of an artist can lead to happiness and prosperity.”

If I were to really examine the stance of both Israel and Iran I would say that both governments are now using Grass’s words to help clarify a line in the sand. However, I think that both governments have misread Grass’s words. The spirit of “What Must Be Said” resides in the “hypocrisy of the west,” to use Grass’s own words. That is, why is one country is allowed to have an unsupervised nuclear program while another is not? From this particular context Grass’s words ring true and we should heed them. Yet, one must not forget the words of the Iranian President as well, calling for the destruction of Israel.

Here is the real question: does a man who as a teenager served in the Waffen SS (for a very short time towards the end of the war) have the right to criticize Israel and its right to protect itself? For that matter, should any German criticize Israel, especially those born before 1944? Of course, “criticizing Israel” should mean criticizing its government, but many do not take it that way. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Grass is indeed an anti-Semite (I do not think that he is, by the way), then should we stop reading him? Does the private views of an artist necessarily impact his or her public reception? The short answer is yes, but that might not be the right answer. As W. G. Sebald notes in a different context, what is under scrutiny is “The complex question of the relationship between ethics and aesthetics.” All writing is in some way political. What is at stake here is the notion that a German, an ex Waffen SS, has the audacity to criticize Israel’s nuclear program.

Perhaps Grass also wrote this poem to confront his own past, to condemn the Nazi inside him and what he sees as an unavoidable path to planetary destruction unless we start serious dialogue now. Certainly the words he wrote in Peeling the Onion suggest that he struggles with his past. Despite the intentions of Günter Grass’s decision to publish “What Must Be Said,” there is a Nazi inside him. By moving so quickly to condemn Grass we fail to notice that he also condemns that part of himself.

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