The only surprising thing about the anti-Semitic “poem” that Günter Grass published last week, and that has created an international firestorm, is that he waited so long to write such a thing. Anti-Semitism, after all, is all the rage these days among left-wing European literary intellectuals (excuse the multiple redundancy), and Grass has always prided himself on being in the forefront of these trends, not being a Johann-come-lately.
Who is Günter Grass, you ask? For decades after the 1959 publication of his first and most famous (and highly overrated) novel, The Tin Drum, he was described by admirers as the conscience of postwar Germany. His detractors had other words for him: smug, arrogant, obnoxious. Even Richard Gilman, a writer for the left-wing The Nation whom one might have expected to celebrate the guy, complained in 1982 about his “lofty, hectoring tone,” stating: “Today there is no writer more swollen with self-importance...than Gunter Grass, who has begun to think of himself as identical with the fates of German literature, German politics, and German mores.” John Updike, for his part, saw Grass as a “cautionary case” for politically engaged writers: “he can't be bothered to write a novel; he just sends dispatches...from the front lines of his engagement.”
During the Cold War, Grass's specialité de la maison was – naturally – equating capitalism and Communism. A highlight of the 1986 PEN writers' congress was a debate that Salman Rushdie later described as “a heavyweight prize fight between Saul Bellow and Günter Grass.” Bellow made positive observations about America's founding values, the freedom of the American writer, and the proper separation between the U.S. government and “the higher life of the country”; Grass replied by sneering predictably about conditions in the South Bronx. Writers from behind the Iron Curtain – Adam Zagajewski (a Pole who had emigrated to France in 1982) and Vassily Aksyonov (a Russian who had lived in the U.S. since 1980) gave Bellow a thumbs-up, Aksyonov saying that “I would love German writers to think twice before making parallels between the USSR and USA.”
But making such parallels was Grass's stock-in-trade. By stuffing his books with predictable, lockstep left-wing politics, Grass established a position for himself in German literature – and in European culture generally – that he wouldn't have been able to earn simply by means of his frankly feeble gifts for plot, characterization, and the like. One thing's for sure: if his novels hadn't been jam-packed with just the right kind of politics, he'd never have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999.
With the Nobel, he reached the summit. Then, seven years later, a bombshell: in a memoir entitled Peeling the Onion, Grass revealed that, as a teenager, he'd belonged to the Waffen-SS. His fans were stunned: after all, as the critic Ted Gioia has put it, Grass made his name by “holding up to derision those who refused to take full ownership for Germany's Nazi past.” Indeed, the Swedish Academy, when it gave him the Nobel, specifically praised Grass for “recalling the disavowed and the forgotten: the victims, losers and lies that people wanted to forget.” As Gioia observed, the exceedingly belated SS revelation imbued the Swedish Academy's words “with unintentional irony.”
In Germany, the news about Grass being a onetime SS member was so big that writers held public debates about it. One playwright, reported Deutsche Welle, “said he couldn't get excited about Grass' fall as a moral authority for the simple reason that he never believed in Grass as a moral authority.” Author Henryk Broder, perhaps the sanest and most reliable guide to goings-on in Deutschland, said: “I always found him foolish and unbearable....But the public excitement is justified. If it had turned out that Mother Theresa had worked in a brothel, after being declared a saint – just as Grass was with his Nobel Prize – there would have been public outrage, too.”
Probably the only decent thing for Grass to have done after his SS revelation would have been to slink into obscurity – and perhaps volunteer anonymously at an Israeli hospital, or something like that, to atone for his hideous past and his rank hypocrisy. But no. Now he's written this lousy poem, “What Must Be Said,” of which The Atlantic has published an English translation by Heather Horn. Where to begin? For one thing, no one would mistake this for Goethe or Heine: it's a crude, clunky op-ed in verse in which Grass explicitly rejects his fellow Germans' supposed hesitation to criticize Israel, assails Israel for threatening Iran with nukes, and condemns the German government for supplying arms to the warmongering Jews. For another thing, Grass's pretense that he is bravely violating some nationwide code of silence to speak a vital truth is hogwash: such attacks on Israel are daily fare in the German media, as they are in the media throughout Western Europe. Grass's poem doesn't break new ground; on the contrary, every word of it is a European cultural-elite cliché.
It's a measure of how seriously Grass is still taken in many quarters that Benjamin Netanyahu thought it advisable to speak up. “It is Iran, not Israel, that is a threat to the peace and security of the world,” Netanyahu said. “It is Iran, not Israel, that threatens other states with annihilation.” Other Israelis also weighed in. Israel's embassy in Berlin pointed out that “it is a European tradition to accuse the Jews before the Passover festival of ritual murder.” And Haaretz writer Anshel Pfeffer marveled at Grass's failure to “understand that his membership in an organization that planned and carried out the wholesale genocide of millions of Jews disqualified him from criticizing the descendants of those Jews for developing a weapon of last resort that is the insurance policy against someone finishing the job his organization began.” Neatly put.
Back in Germany, Henryk Broder noted (original German here) that “Grass has always had a problem with the Jews, but he’s never expressed it as clearly as in this 'poem.'” (Indeed, my own first reaction to Grass's “poem” was gratitude: anybody who genuinely doubted where Grass stood on these matters need doubt no longer.) Broder cited two interviews: in 2001, Grass essentially demanded “that Israel give up not only Nablus and Hebron but Tel Aviv and Haifa as well”; in 2011, Grass implied a moral equivalence between the Nazis' murder of six million Jews and Germany's supposed loss of six million soldiers in Russian prisoner-of-war camps. (In fact, the latter figure is closer to one million.) Broder's conclusion: “Grass is the prototypical educated anti-Semite....The Jews will never forgive the Germans for what they did to them. So for peace to finally come to the Middle East – and for Günter Grass to find some inner peace – Israel should 'become history,' as the Iranian president put it.”
Yet Grass's “poem” has also won praise. From the "World Socialists" to a high-ranking Iranian cultural apparatchik, many have rushed to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him. Now age 84, Grass has accomplished, with his “poem,” just what he doubtless wanted: in a continent swarming with self-seeking literary intellectuals who ooze self-righteous anti-Semitism, Grass has resumed his place at the head of the whole unseemly pack. He has proved Updike right – indeed, he has turned out to be even more of a cautionary lesson than Updike probably ever imagined.
In a 2007 interview with Charlie Rose about Peeling the Onion, Grass admitted that as an SS soldier he fully expected the Germans to win the war, right up until the very moment when he discovered that the war was lost. The more one discovers about this “moral conscience of the German nation,” the less one doubts that if the Nazis had triumphed, he would have lived a long, productive, and well-rewarded life as a literary ornament of Hitler's thousand-year Reich.
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