Beyond the Prism: Günter Grass and the pillars of Western civilization

Having sharply criticized Israel, in a subsequent political poem, Günter Grass attacks Europe

Gunter Grass 370 (R() (photo credit: REUTERS)
Gunter Grass 370 (R()
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Despite the huge controversy his poem – “What Must Be Said” – concerning the dispute over the Iranian nuclear program created, in which he strongly criticized Israel and claimed that it “could wipe out the Iranian people,” Günter Grass decided to intervene in today’s other hot political issue, namely the economic crisis in Europe and the European Union’s policies vis-à-vis Greece.
In the poem “Europas Schande” (“Europe’s Disgrace”) the Nobel laureate for literature defends Greece and harshly criticizes Germany and the European Union for “sentencing the country to poverty.” Thus for Grass once again the “firefighter and not the arsonist became the true danger,” as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu described the first poem.
Grass, who established himself as a leading literary figure with the 1959 publication of The Tin Drum, has been regarded for several decades as the conscience of the German nation, urging Germans to confront the Nazi past. But his moral authority was undermined when he disclosed after six decades that he had been drafted into the Waffen SS in late 1944.
Though Grass’s second poem gained less media attention, and was officially only published in German – unlike “What Must Be Said,” which appeared simultaneously in many languages in leading European papers – Grass’s interpretation of this issue has been likewise detached from reality.
“Europe’s Disgrace” contains historical and mythological references and draws parallels by recalling Socrates’s trial and death.
However this time the “enraged Socrates returns to you the cup full to the brim.”
Grass praises the Greeks for their resistance to the austerity measures. Yet at the legislative elections last Sunday the Greek people indicated their willingness to comply with the difficult measures and to stay in the eurozone by voting for the conservative New Democracy party.
Grass’s defense of Greece is built on the concept that Athens is the pillar of Western civilization and of the European Union in particular. He concludes that without Greece, Europe will not survive.
“You will waste away spiritlessly without the country whose spirit, Europe, conceived you.”
The European Union, built on Greek heritage, undermines its own values since “what you searched with your soul, what you believed you found, seems now unimportant.”
Nevertheless, it is difficult to deny that the policies of consecutive Greek governments have been largely responsible for the current dire situation. The country had been already living beyond its means even before it joined the euro, while after it adopted the single currency, public spending soared, and public sector wages rose 50 percent in less than a decade, far faster than in other eurozone countries.
At the same time Greece has been characterized by widespread tax evasion and corruption.
So, after years of overspending, its budget deficit spiraled out of control and Greece’s public debt reached 170 percent of its Gross Domestic Product.
In order to keep within the monetary union guidelines, successive Greek governments consistently and deliberately misreported the country’s official economic statistics to the European Commission, hiding the actual deficit from Brussels.
The danger of Greek default in 2010 led the eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to agree on a $140 billion bailout loan, which was conditional on the implementation of austerity measures. In October 2011 Greece was offered a second $170 billion bailout loan conditional on the implementation of an additional austerity package, as well as on restructuring of the Greek debt by private creditors.
President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso put the amount of the aid to Greece in perspective in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour: “If you put together all of the support – in terms of grants and loans, and also write-off of private debt, it corresponds roughly to 177 percent of the Greek GDP. To compare, the Marshall Plan was, on average, 2 percent of GDP of the countries that were receiving aid. So the problem is not a question of lack of support to Greece, the problem is a question of Greece implementing the necessary reforms so that it can come back to growth.This is indeed the problem.”
The Marshall Plan, which helped to rebuild the European economies after World War II, equaled $13 billion, equivalent of around $100 billion today, much less than the $310 billion of loans and debt write-off that were agreed to for Greece.
Grass’s poem fails to mention Greek corruption and tax evasion, the falsification of financial data, and the catastrophic government policies. He victimizes Greece and excuses it of any responsibility derived from its role as the pillar of Western civilization, whereas in his previous poem the other pillar – Jerusalem – received no support despite Iranian genocidal threats.
In “What Must Be Said,” Grass accuses Israel of threatening world peace and of hypocrisy, regardless of the Iranian leadership’s continuing calls for the destruction of Israel. Beyond the rhetoric, Iran is of course building nuclear weapons and already developed the means to deliver them.
Unlike for Grass, for the famous Jewish political philosopher Leo Strauss Jerusalem and Athens manifest the two pillars of Western civilization, with Jerusalem representing biblical revelation and Athens representing human reason. Accordingly, Jerusalem and Athens stand in fundamental opposition, in an “unresolved conflict” with each other that constitutes the “vitality of Western civilization.”
Philo of Alexandria synthesized Platonic speculative thought with supernatural revelation, and Maimonides harmonized Aristotelian philosophy with religious faith.
The history of Western civilization has followed this pattern of fusing Athens (reason) and Jerusalem (revelation).
Even though both of Grass’s poems were widely criticized in Europe, his omission of Jerusalem as a pillar of Western civilization might be symptomatic regarding the current state of European thinking.
For Günter Grass, Greece as the pillar of Western civilization deserves uncontested support, even as the country’s leadership is without doubt responsible for the crisis.
Meanwhile Israel’s contribution to the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe is forgotten, and the Jewish state becomes the real threat to world peace in his eyes, even though it is clearly the victim of Iranian aggression.
The writer is project coordinator at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.