Günter Grass's poem opens old wounds - Macleans.ca

Günter Grass’s poem opens old wounds

In “What Must be Said,” the German intellectual says Israel poses a threat to world peace

Poetry slammed

Michael Gottschalk/AFP/Getty Images

That Israel and Germany have forged such a close relationship within living memory of Auschwitz is a remarkable testament to reconciliation and forgiveness. And yet the shadow still cast by the Holocaust ensures that criticism of Israel by a prominent German will trigger an emotionally charged response in both countries.

Last week, the German author and Nobel laureate Günter Grass published a poem titled “What Must be Said” in which he claims, “The nuclear power Israel is endangering a world peace that is already fragile,” and condemns Germany for sending Israel submarines that could be used in a nuclear strike against Iran.

Grass is “one of the most important figures of German intellectual life,” says Jennifer Hosek, an associate professor of German studies at Queen’s University. He was part of a postwar group of Germans that urged their countrymen to take responsibility for Germany’s crimes during the Second World War. He has been called his nation’s conscience. But Grass also carried a wartime secret: he was drafted as a teenager into the Nazi Waffen SS during the war’s final months. Grass revealed this only in 2006.

Grass alludes to this in his poem. He writes of a personal stain that, along with the “unique and exclusive crimes” of his country, had caused him to stay silent. But now, he says, I won’t be silent / because I had enough of the Western hypocrisy.

Reaction from Israel was hot. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the poem as “shameful.” He said,

“It is Iran, not Israel, which presents a threat to the world’s peace and security.” Interior Minister Eli Yishai barred Grass from visiting Israel for attempting to “inflame hatred.” Israel’s embassy in Berlin likened the poem to the ancient “blood libel” myth that held Jews used the blood of Christian children to make Passover bread.

Grass’s poem, by any reasonable interpretation, is no such thing. And it is rare for a government to respond to poetry—however offensive it is considered to be—with such fury. But according to Lily Gardner Feldman, a senior fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies in Washington, none of this is likely to weaken relations between Germany and Israel, nor does it suggest a fraying of ties.

“The overall relationship is solid and stable,” she says. Germany is a strong diplomatic ally of Israel, and the country works to maintain a “culture of remembrance” regarding the Holocaust among its younger generations.

The uproar Grass has set off also demonstrates the enduring influence of the Jewish genocide on how Israel and Germany relate to each other, and to the rest of the world.

“This whole Israeli government is predicated on the notion that the Germans tried it once, and the world will stand by and let the Iranians do it to us again,” says Charles Maier, a history professor at Harvard University. Maier says the weight of this history can restrict debate about Israeli foreign policy “for the reasons that the reaction to this poem shows.”

“That doesn’t mean he’s right,” Maier added, speaking of Grass. “I think putting on an equal footing the danger that arises from Iran having nuclear weapons and Israel having nuclear components is a serious misreading of the situation.”


Günter Grass’s poem opens old wounds

  1. This is a very silly man. Why does the press give oxygen to these buffoons?

    • Why is it that everyone who criticizes Israel is a buffoon? Are you better than everyone else…no!  So healthy criticism is a part of free speech and the man has a point doesn’t he?  Why does Israel have so many nuclear weapons?  Who are they intended for and why have they had these weapons for so long? Is it in case Germany was to attack?

      News Flash not one country on this planet can take over the world unless other countries agree and become allies.  The Germans could kick England’s ass but they where no match when adding Russia, USA etc.  So as it stands today unless you have multiple countries with the same agenda as allies a world take over is not going to happen. Usa, England and Israel are allies and England set up Israel and its nuclear weapons for Iran decades ago…so do they have a crystal ball or better yet a conspiracy theory about Iran as i would like to know why…why…why.. to many questions that always go unanswered in the media and buffoons like Veron pop up out of the wood work with absolutely no evidence to the contrary either!!

      • ‘So healthy criticism is a part of free speech and the man has a point doesn’t he?’

        If you seriously think that Grasse’s remark  is ‘healthy criticism’ then you have  problems. It’s one thing to criticize Israel for her policies. But it’s another thing to claim that they are a threat to world peace. That type of reasoning is sophomoric and dumb. I can list at least 50 things that frighten me more than the state of Israel. I am far more scared of a world wide economic colapse or environmental food shortage than I am of the state of Israel.

        • If Israel is a “threat” to world peace, letting her enemies destroy Israel isn’t necessarily going to make the world safe for peace. 

          Do we really want a peace that only can be maintained by destroying another country?

          Peace, by definition, means being able to live in harmony with your neighbours. 

      • You are right that it would be difficult to take over the big world. That’s not the issue, the issue is destroying the tiny Israel with nuclear weapons & apparantly you don’t live next to an insane neighbor who has a goal of your extermination so don’t understand this.

  2. Whats the big deal!  Why is Germany selling subs to Israel for attacking Iran with yet again zero evidence?  Who is Israel and how did they become the worlds police in the middle east? I don’t trust either country but what the hell is Israel doing with undisclosed nuclear weapons and then calling out Iran ma kettle is black??

    Israel should sit tight like Iran until there is actual evidence or immanent threat that that is not likly if Israel does not attack Iran.  

    Israel has been in far more conflicts than Iran in the last few decades so my concern is who is Israel going to attack vs who will Iran attack.

  3. “This whole Israeli government is predicated on the notion that the Germans tried it once, and the world will stand by and let the Iranians do it to us again,” says Charles Maier, a history professor at Harvard University. Maier says the weight of this history can restrict debate about Israeli foreign policy “for the reasons that the reaction to this poem shows.”
    How lame, we must now attack all who look at us the wrong way as being justified to mass murder any and all enimies.  It can never happen again…but it does right in your own country fools their called Palestinians in cages.

  4. You might have provided a translation of the poem so people know what the hoopla is all about: so people can see that he said nothing but what all thinking people in the world are saying and agreeing with. I Netanyahu and the “Rat der Juden in Deutschland” find the poem objectionable, it must be right!

    Here is my attempt at a translation:

    The Infamous
    Poem by Guenter Grass, Spring 2012


    “Why have I been silent, too
    long silent

    About what is obvious and was
    practiced in simulations, where in the end

    We as survivors are footnotes
    at best.

    They claim the right for a first strike,
    That could  wipe out the people of Iran,

    Who are forced to praise the
    suppression by their loud mouth bullies
    And in whose sphere the construction of a bomb is suspected.

    But why do I deny myself the mentioning of that other country,
    In which for years secret growing nuclear capabilities have been established

    But without any control, because
    nobody can inspect them?

    The general concealment of this fact,
    To which my silence has been subordinated,
    I feel as a burdensome lie
    And to risking punishment when it is violated:
    The verdict of “antisemitism” so familiar.

    But now, because my country,
    Whose own crimes are  without comparison,
    Where there is businesslike talk, labeling it as restitution,

    Now delivers another U-boat to
    Equipped with devastating warheads
    To be sent to where there is the unproven existence of atomic bombs
    Despite fear of not having the proof I say what needs to be said.

    But why did I keep quiet until now?
    I thought that my background,
    Covered by a never to be removable blemish,
    Forbade me to expose the land of Israel,

    With whom I feel a bond I wish
    to maintain,

     To the truth.

    Why do I say now only what tomorrow might be too late;
    Aged and with my last ink:
    The nuclear-armed Israel is a riskto the already fragile world peace?
    Because it must be said what tomorrow already might be too late
    And also because we – as Germans burdened enough –
    Could be suppliers for a crime that is predictable,

    Which is why our complicity
    Cannot be described with the usual excuses.


    And yes, I admit, I cannot remain silent any longer
    Because I have become tired of the hypocrisy of the West;
    Also it is to be hoped
    That many may feel free to end their silence,
    And identify the originators of  the
    apparent danger
    And ask them to renounce violence and also call for
    Unrestricted and permanent control of Israel’s nuclear
    And the Iranian nuclear facilities
    By an international body
    To be allowed by the governments of both countries.

    Only this way we can help all,

    The Israelis and Palestinians
    And all people working in this region so occupied by delusion,
    And where enemies live closely side by side,
    And ultimately ourselves.”


    by Hans Baer

    • Thank you for the translation. I do agree with Hans, he is just voicing his own concerns and freedom of speech does exist. I believe any nation with nuclear weapons IS a threat to world peace.

  5. As to the questioning comments in this blog that Israel’s policies are or are not a threat to world piece, it must be realized that just about every Islamic person derives antagonism and furor from the continued Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as I found while living in the region for many years. 9/11 would not have happened or found fuel if that conflict had been resolved years ago. Germany, more than any other nation, should be behind such a resolution if indeed they feel, as they should, that they need to be an uncompromising opponent to human rights violations.

  6. Israel,such an intelligent people…such a stupid nation !

  7. Very often, great novelists are not great poets (and vice-versa). To write a novel like “The Tin Drum,” you’d have had to grow up among Nazis in Danzig, Poland on the eve of World War II. Does this make Guenther Grass an Anti-Semite? No more than writing a diatribe against Israel disguised as poetry necessarily makes you an Anti-Semite. 

    Grass’ Oskar Mazarath in “Tin Drum” respresented the post-war Germany: an ugly little troll but filthy rich who has refused to grow up and face responsibility for his actions. 

    Maybe Grass sees in Israel a very uncomfortable mirror image: something hideously deformed by many years of war that strikes out reflexively whenever it feels threatened. 

  8. The author’s title-> “Günter Grass’s poem opens old wounds” is misleading and wrong.
    Her Grass, is simply saying that anymore nuclear (weapons) proliferation in Israel is NOT going to help any world peace. He’s right of course. For that matter any country.
     It just can’t be any much clearer than that. Therefore, it has nothing to do with opening any “old wounds”.