This spring, with the weather in Berlin a little less grey, the ominous phrase “the German past” came back to haunt me with unexpected force. I’ve written about the German attempts to work through our country’s responsibility for two world wars and, above all, the Holocaust; I’ve talked with my parents and grandparents about it; I’ve gone to Israel and Poland with Jewish survivors. You could say that I’ve done my fair share of atonement. And yet, a different angle opened up when Günter Grass published his short prose-poem “What must be said” early in April.
The text warned that “the nuclear power Israel endangers world peace” because it might launch a nuclear strike against Iran, “where there is no proof that a single atom bomb exists”. It called for “an international authority” to take control of Israel’s nuclear weapons and warned that Germany, through its sales of submarines to Israel, risked being complicit in genocide.
Such views are common among German intellectuals, many of whom pride themselves on being pacifists. What drew exceptional outrage, however, was the tone of the poem: Israel and Iran appeared on the same moral plane, in a language that echoed that of the Nazi era. Apart from the accusation that Israel was threatening “a pre-emptive strike . . . which could wipe out the Iranian people”, the key notion was “silence” (Schweigen). The point of the poem is that “the blemish” of Grass’s birth must not prohibit him from “speaking the truth”, even though “the verdict ‘anti-Semitism’ is prevalent”, thus implying that this verdict may and perhaps even should be ignored. Schweigen in German is a word laden with connotations of the Nazi era. It implies first, a silent majority that fails to prevent crimes; and second, the inability to open up and talk after the crimes. Germany’s collective psyche is allergic to silence. Having depicted the victims as potential perpetrators, Grass cast himself — a former member of the Waffen SS in the role of breaking the silence about something like a new Holocaust.
It would be hard to imagine anything more calculated to offend not only all Jews but also many Germans. Even before Israel decided to bar Grass from entering the country, Foreign MinisterxGuido Westerwelle called comparisons between Israel and Iran “absurd”, while Germany’s leading literary critic, the Holocaust survivor Marcel Reich-Ranicki, described the poem simply as “disgusting”.
Yet there were two reasons that kept me from happily joining in the collective bashing of Germany’s most prominent writer. In the public perception, the earnest-looking man with the bushy moustache has fulfilled the role of a moral authority ever since he made his name with The Tin Drum in 1959. The vigour of his writing gradually fizzled out over the years. Instead, he devoted himself to politics — so much so that journalists used to joke that whenever a political story broke a statement by Grass would come rattling out of the fax machine before you could count to three.
The idea of him being Germany’s good conscience radically changed with his revelation in old age that he had joined the Waffen SS in his youth, though whether he volunteered is still debated. Grass turned into the bad conscience of Germany’s intellectual scene: was it possible for Germans to criticise Israel? Many Germans say they support Israel’s right to exist but are critical of its government, as Grass himself claims to be. But is this latent anti-Semitism? Such attitudes can be found in many a European country (think of Ken Livingstone in Britain). So why the uproar in Germany? Surely it cannot only be the Nazi past.
When I was growing up, Grass happened to be a friend of my father, who is also a writer. I have happy memories of a family trip to Grass’s house in a village in Schleswig-Holstein, where the two men would go on long walks through the lush meadows. I would usually accompany them, even though I was too young to participate in their conversations. What sticks in my mind is that Grass seemed seriously interested in talking — and listening — to a 13-year-old girl, even if that meant sitting under an oak tree convincing her that capers weren’t as disgusting as she thought they were, or explaining his latest sculpture of an owl to her. I was fond of him.
Why should my personal experience of him matter, you may wonder: an anti-Semite will remain one, even if he’s nice to children. However, the Grass row brings to life the painful question every young German — including those of my generation whose left-leaning parents had already worked through their own parents’ wrongdoings in the Nazi era — has to deal with: can one have anti-Semitic feelings and yet be a nice person? In the case of Grass, now 84, it is much harder for me to come to terms with than I would have imagined.
So what is one supposed to do? Just ignore him, as one is often tempted to do if vile thoughts are voiced by someone dear to one — always the easy option, and not always wrong. The better answer is to engage in vigorous debate, and not hide behind the very phrases that let today’s anti-Semites cloak themselves in the mantle of valiant breakers of stifling taboos. If it is not possible to coherently defend not just the nebulous and patronising notion of Israel’s right to exist, but to raise the issue of concrete support for a sea-based second-strike capability in the context of possible war with Iran, then we are making it too easy for elderly writers with worrying ideas. I’d like to think that Günter Grass knew better. I’m not so sure about the many Germans and other Europeans who silently share his feelings about Israel.