Analysis: Poem sparks lively debate in Germany

Grass's poem triggered harsh criticism, especially from Jewish and Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Gunter Grass 370 (R() (photo credit: REUTERS)
Gunter Grass 370 (R()
(photo credit: REUTERS)
BERLIN – The publication last week of Günter Grass’s poem in German and Italian dailies, which called Israel the primary impediment to world peace, has triggered a national debate in Germany.
In the poem, “What Must Be Said,” which appeared in the newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, on Wednesday, the 84-year-old Grass, a former Nazi SS member, 1999 Nobel Prize laureate in Literature and lifelong Social Democratic party activist, wrote that “the nuclear power Israel is endangering an already fragile world peace.”
Arguing that criticism of Israel is a taboo subject in Germany, Grass declared Israel wanted to “extinguish the Iranian people” with a first nuclear strike.
His poem triggered harsh criticism, especially from Jewish and Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Though German academics and journalists have devoted significant analysis to Nazi-based anti-Semitism from 1933 to 1945, there has been scarce attention to modern Jew-hatred in post-Holocaust Germany.
The Grass debate has brought to the fore the most potent modern expression of German anti-Semitism – namely, the loathing of Israel among some segments of the population and intellectuals in the Federal Republic.
Marieluise Beck, a Green Party deputy and member of the German-Israeli friendship society, said Grass’s anti-Israel poem “reveals the entire truth about the truth of this sentence: ‘The Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz.’” The sentence is attributed to Israeli psychoanalyst Zvi Rex, who with bitter irony and sarcasm, sought to capture the development of post-Holocaust anti-Semitism in Germany. He argued that Germans were filled with pathological guilt and shame about the Holocaust, and turn Israel into a punching bag to purge their guilt complexes.
Grass, it appears, has become the poster boy for this form of modern anti-Semitism in Germany by turning Israel into the perpetrator of the world’s ills and depicting Iran’s regime as a victim.
Comments from Beck as well as journalists and politicians in Germany suggest that the Grass spat might shed light on a largely ignored definition and understanding of contemporary anti-Semitism in Germany.
Frank Schirrmacher, the prominent editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s culture section, called Grass’s poem a “document of revenge” and sharply criticized Grass and his anti-Israeli sentiments.
Schirrmacher slammed Grass for employing the language of Holocaust survivors to “justify that the entire world is a victim of Israel” in order that an “85-year-old man can make peace with his own biography.”
Schirrmacher cited Grass’s use of the word Überlebende (survivor) to describe his situation and the plight of Germans in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran. Traditionally, the word “survivor” is associated—in a German-language context—with Jewish survivors of the Shoah.
Stefan Frank, a local journalist who has written extensively on anti-Zionism in Germany, told The Jerusalem Post that he was pleasantly surprised by the outcry against Grass.
“It is encouraging to see so many people condemn this outburst of anti-Semitism, often in surprisingly clear terms,” Frank said on Saturday.
“Based on earlier experience, that was not to be expected at all. Up until now, many anti-Semites, who are in no way better than Grass, could count on understanding and agreement, as long as they formally disguised their hatred as ‘criticism of Israel’ and substituted the words ‘Zionist’ or ‘Israel’ for ‘Jew.’ “This worked like a magic formula. Why is that now different? I would also like to know. The next debate about Israel (which is probably right around the corner), will show whether something good has changed or not.”
Nasrin Amirsedghi, a leading German- Iranian intellectual, told the Post that she was pleased about the Grass controversy because “the publication of his poem shows that he is anti-Israel, and the priceless proof for anti-Semitism is unmistakably on paper.”
She termed Grass a “demagogue,” and argued that “one does not need a big study to show there is considerable anti-Semitism in Germany.”
Amirsedghi added that Grass was so fixated on Israel that he refused “to see and hear and feel that Iran’s people and the country’s children are being hanged, stoned, humiliated, and, to put it simply, destroyed” by the current regime in Tehran.
Dr. Clemens Heni, who has authored books on German anti- Semitism, told the Post that the Grass debate showed a failure of Germany’s elites. He criticized the Süddeutsche Zeitung for publishing the “agitation from Grass on its front page.“ Heni said Grass had contributed to attempts in Germany to play down the Iranian threat and fascism in the Islamic Republic. He said he believed that the best articles and commentaries against Grass were from Netanyahu, the Israeli Embassy in Berlin, and US political scientist Daniel Jonah Goldhagen.
Goldhagen, one of the world’s leading experts on German anti- Semitism, penned an essay in Die Welt on Saturday, accusing Grass of an “aversion toward Israel and its population” and a writer who fabricated his personal history by covering up for six decades his membership in the Waffen SS.