The Nuclear Politics of a Poem

As you may have read in last Sunday's New York Times, the government of Israel has declared German Nobel laureate Gunter Grass persona non grata because of a poem. True, it's a pretty lousy poem: "What Must Be Said," it's called, and that "Must" tells old Grass hands that it's musty Gunter Gasbag time. But literary criticism has never been a big priority for Benjamin Netanyahu, who followed up his Interior Ministry's PNG announcement with his own condemnation of Grass: "Shameful."

The big deal, you see, was that the 84-year-old author of The Tin Drum had denounced Israel for the first time in his l-o-o-n-g career as postwar Germany's obstreperously eloquent Jiminy Cricket. That's how folks used to talk about him, anyhow: "Much of what is active conscience in the Germany of Krupp and the Munich beer halls lies in this man's ribald keeping," critic George Steiner—not a man to shrug Hitler off—lauded Grass's Dog Years back in the 1960s. I must say I miss the days when paperback publishers (was it Fawcett Crest?) thought of that as a sales-worthy blurb.

In 2012, Grass is, shall we say, not unaware of the occasion's momentousness. "Why have I kept silent, held back so long," goes "What Must Be Said"‘s turgid, attention-catching opening line. With all allowances for what may be lost in translation, the rhetorical switch from the title's impersonal "Must" to that ostentatiously anguished "I" is the definition of a downright Victor Hugo-esque vanity. And the calculated way he dithers ("Why do I hesitate to name that other land") before finally saying "Israel" midway through is an effect well known to both makers and consumers of porn flicks.

The author's nationality (and fame) aside, the substance of Grass's criticism of Israel would be unremarkable on most Op-Ed pages outside the United States—Tel Aviv conceivably not excluded, at least if Tel Aviv still lives up to its admirably contentious rep. To wit, when you measure Iran's mere potential to acquire nuclear weapons against Israel's well known if unadmitted, never internationally inspected nuclear stockpile, then which nation's current saber rattling is the bigger threat to peace? At the very least, that seems like a legit subject for not quite academic debate.

Unless you're Glenn Beck, in which case Christian pity renders me mute, the West's double standard regarding who gets to have nukes and who doesn't in that part of the world isn't exactly fresh news. The usual arguments in favor of it—but Israel is a democracy, but Israel isn't an aggressor, but Israel isn't run by madmen—aren't exactly likely to cut much mustard with most Arabs. Even so, after the poem's publication, Grass expressed regret that he hadn't made it clearer he was chastising Netanyahu's regime in particular and not Israel writ large.

Not doing so was a rare misstep for an expert at covering his rhetorical flanks. "What Must Be Said" makes sure we know Grass doesn't like or trust Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad: "a loudmouth," he says, and pot-and-kettle jokes would be obscene in this context. His provocation to speak out at long last, we learn, was his native land's latest sale of a submarine (“purely a business transaction, though glibly declared an act of reparation") to Netanyahu's government. Already "tarnished by a stain that can never be removed"—oh, yawn, Gunter, you were writing that crap in your sleep by 1969—poor Germany can't afford the complicity.

Talk about a convoluted way of pulling rank. Yet given Germany's track record in his lifetime—by now, the qualifier is Grass's Ancient Mariner ace in the hole—that's not a dishonorable pose even if "pose" is the right word. What makes "What Must Be Said" noxious to all sorts of people, me included, is its self-proclaimed identity (no one past sophomore year in high school would agree) as a poem. Grass might have made the same points with more factual backup and less rodomontade in an essay or speech—neither is a mode unknown to him—and not raised as many hackles. But playing the poetry card is his way of reminding the public that he's got oracular stature as a Great Writer. Goethe, call your office.

And still: persona non grata, really? As a child of diplomats, I know that's the, so to speak, nuclear option. It's usually reserved for people who a) are acting on behalf of their governments or some nefarious foreign combine, not expressing individual opinions of no Realpolitik consequence, and who b) are actually in the country in question at the time. Grass neither was nor had plans to travel there, so far as I know. If he and his Nobel Prize have reason to feel flattered, Israelis may regret they couldn't send the old man to the airport with a "Return to Sender" sticker. Once upon a time, though, a simple huff from some Israeli government factotum would have been enough to satisfy honor all around, as opposed to both Bibi and his Interior Minister getting in on the act personally. 

But that's how it goes at a time when PJ Media contributor Benjamin Kerstein can declare that "any and all criticism of Israel not only can but must be anti-Semitic." Emphasis mine in the former case and his in the latter, though Kerstein's full argument does have enough nuance to note that people who find it necessary to criticize Israel anyway should go right ahead—just with a vivid awareness that they're giving aid and comfort to "those who seek to slaughter the Jews." Some window, baby. Heartfelt or not, arguments like his once dissuaded left-wing intellectuals from daring to criticize the Soviet Union, not a country I care to compare Israel to under any circumstances whatsoever. And to my shame, I remember making those same arguments when refusing to criticize Nicaragua under the Sandinistas.

Because I own almost everything Grass ever published in English until I got lax about it, I couldn't help reaching up on tippy-toe to pull his late-1960s collection of polemics, Speak Out!, off the shelf. As I'd recalled, it included "Ben and Dieter: A Speech to the Israelis," delivered in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in early 1967. You know, before the Six-Day War made everything so blazingly bright and then dismayingly murky.

And as I'd suspected, "Ben and Dieter" turned out to be mawkish meliorism disguised as sardonic truth: a tale of a Jewish ex-inmate of the Theresenienstadt concentration camp and a teenage veteran of Rundstedt's Battle of the Bulge banding together against the earnest U.S. Army officer out to re-educate them. ("No matter how each had survived the system, it was the same system that had molded them both." Wow, really? Only one of them risked being molded into soap.) Even though Grass the good liberal sides with their hapless teacher, in hindsight what's striking is his equation of Nazism and the Holocaust with adolescence on a drastic scale—also the theme of Dog Years.

As we've since learned, he had his reasons. After decades of pretending he'd just been a teenage Wehrmacht draftee toward the end of World War II, Grass confessed in 2006 that he'd served for a few months (sans participation in any known war crimes) in the Waffen SS. That disgusting blight on his history, honesty, and postwar self-righteousness about the Third Reich is something the Israeli government, not unreasonably, spared no pains to remind people of while denouncing "What Must Be Said." But for me, the whole fracas dredged up uncomfortable memories of his not-so-hot 2002 novel, Crabwalk.

At one level an elderly Grass's attempt at reconciliation with his own generation—whose members had mostly despised him since The Tin Drum for waking the ghosts—Crabwalk nonetheless bought into the then newly popular (well, in Germany) notion that, what with the incineration of Dresden and so forth, ordinary Germans had been almost as much victims of World War II as the Jews they gassed. And sorry, Dresdeners, but try peddling that moral equivalence to the Marines. Or to the U.S. Army's 45th Infantry Division, which liberated Dachau after splashing north from Anzio.

Grass himself is no anti-Semite, however. That's why the significance of "What Must Be Said" is different what either Netanyahu or Israel's American supporters probably think it is. The poem's stinko, but its real lesson is that—even for a conscience-plagued German (and he is, however fatuously and/or opportunistically in his old age) of Grass's generation—the Holocaust no longer provides Israel with automatic moral immunity. Unlike the secretly relieved, "Well, now—that was an easy twofer" West, the Arab world has never bought Auschwitz as a justification for Israel's existence, and no surprise there. They weren't involved in the Final Solution. 

What Israel has to face is that, not too long from now, no one alive will have been. At which point, inevitably, the gas chambers and the six million dead will be just more history, not vivid enough to anyone to be decisive. And when Gunter Grass—born 1927, wounded on the Eastern Front just days before war's end, and painfully self-re-educated about Nazism afterwardisn't deterred from criticizing Netanyahu's Israel by his now rare firsthand memories of Hitler's reign, then we're getting a scary preview of what that world will be like unless decent people on both sides say "Stop." When I look at my old, much-thumbed copy of The Tin Drum, what frightens me almost as much as the barbarism it records is an incongruous sense that life was so much simpler when it was first published.

Comments

It is not somewhat arrogant to pan poetry in a language you don't even speak?

I have only seen one English translation and it is only very tenuously related to the original German.

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