Grass: Ignorant or Calculating Cynic?

As a falsifier of his own Nazi past and that of Germany’s, Grass’s moral and intellectual authority to speak on these issues is zero.

Gunter Grass 370 (R() (photo credit: REUTERS)
Gunter Grass 370 (R()
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Perhaps Günter Grass penned his hollow J’accuse in the strange vehicle of a poem because even he knew that the only kind of criticism that it might somehow withstand would be literary. That is not to say that his political broadside does not use tropes familiar to good and bad poets, because it does: inversion, invention, hyperbole, strategic omission, dressed-up cultural clichés, nonsense paraded in verse form as sense, and, not to be missed, the imperial poet orchestrating it all.
Yes, the poet. It is important to say that the significance of the “poem’s” content is not that it comes from Grass. As a falsifier of his own Nazi past and that of Germany’s, fabricating that six million German POWs died in Soviet captivity – notice the magic number – Grass’s moral and intellectual authority to speak on these issues is zero. Rather, Grass’s significance is something that he appears not to understand: that he, no different from those at the Stammtisch, mouths the cultural clichés and prejudices of his time. As any student of prejudice knows, anti-Semitism is a great leveler. The professor – in this case, the Nobel Prize winner – and the Ungebildete speak the same nonsense. From whoever’s mouth it spills, it is that nonsense that needs to be exposed.
There is a widespread view in Germany and elsewhere, peddled by anti-Semites, that one may not speak the truth about Israel. But this is manifestly false, as is Grass’s explicit claim of a “general silence” amounting to a “lie” about Israel’s nuclear weapons, which in fact everyone knows about and which is routinely discussed.
On a regular basis, Israel is attacked and decried for things it actually does and for things invented about it in media across the world, including in the United States, including in Germany, including in Israel itself. Grass’s poem is not the expression of previously muzzled conscience and of the courageous break with the conventional practice, but very much a disingenuous expression of such practice.
In fact, it is abundantly clear to me – as someone who is just finishing writing a book on contemporary anti-Semitism – that there is far more open and thinly coded expression of anti- Semitism in Germany and in Europe than there is any attempt, certainly any success, at preventing its expression or, for that matter, in preventing criticism, just or unjust, of Israel.
There is a widespread view in Germany and Europe that Israel is a Nazi-like state. One hears and reads this again and again. This view finds pointed expression in the widespread belief in Germany that Israel is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians. How do we know? Germans say so. Year after year, scientific surveys of Germans show that 40 percent-50% of Germans believe this. The perversity of this – on so many levels – is stunning.
Do Germans need to be reminded of what the Nazis and Germans of the time actually did? Summary: They created death factories. They slaughtered six million Jews as part of a formal plan to annihilate every single Jew in Europe. They slaughtered millions of non-Jews and would have slaughtered millions more. They sought to turn most of Central and Eastern Europe into a vast slave plantation.
Or do Germans need to be educated about what Israel has done and is doing? Take one salient fact: From 1990 to 2010, the Palestinian population under Israeli occupation more than doubled.
Some war of extermination! Only a deeply prejudiced person, who is either cynically lying or loosely in touch with reality about the object of his prejudicial description, could say that Israel is conducting a war of extermination against Palestinians.
Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, and previously of Gaza, can be roundly criticized and even condemned on several grounds, but for anyone to liken it and Israel’s practices to Nazi Germany and its exterminationist programs is patent nonsense.
Grass takes the common perversity – the inversion of the people of the victims into perpetrators – to a new level, though. He says that Germans’ responsibility is to prevent another genocide.
Okay. But he says this not with reference to a possible genocide of the people actually regularly threatened, the same people whom Germans once slaughtered – namely the Jews, against whom a nuclear weapon in the hands of the millennial Iranian regime might well be used.
Instead, according to Grass, Germans have the responsibility to turn against the country of the once and potential victim people, in order to stop them from defending themselves and from allegedly committing a future genocide of Grass’s invention.
Grass’s bald assertion that Israel threatens the preemptive annihilation of the Iranian people, which he cleverly presents as a fact and then argues that it must be resisted, is either an anti-Semitic fantasy or a grotesque cynical fabrication that plays on many Germans’ projections of Nazism onto Jews and Israel. Israeli leaders have never publicly mentioned or even hinted that they would consider such a monstrous thing as a preemptive nuclear strike against the Iranian people, let alone a barrage of nuclear detonations to wipe out the Iranian people, akin to what Germans actually were doing to Jews while Grass was serving the Nazi regime as a member of the Waffen-SS. There is not a shred of evidence, a whispered word, or any reason to believe that Israeli leaders have for one micromoment contemplated such an act.
How absurd that I, or anyone else, would have to write these words! There is Grass’s underlying fabrication that many readers may not even think to catch, which is the fabricated justification for Grass to pen his poem in the first place. The submarines that Germany has been delivering to Israel are meant to bolster Israel’s deterrence and survivability.
They have nothing to do with whether Israel or, for that matter, the United States will strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, or what weapons either may use.
Israel has the capacity to bomb these facilities with its air force, which is undoubtedly how it would deliver the bunker-busting, nonnuclear bombs it would use should its leaders believe themselves compelled to prevent the murderous Iranian regime from acquiring the nuclear weapons they might well one day use on Israel, a country Iran’s political leaders have repeatedly threatened and against which Tehran sponsors ongoing attacks.
Contrary to what Grass would have people believe, the possibility of an Israeli or an American preemptive strike is regularly discussed.
(Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just urged Israel on American national television not to take “unilateral action against Iran.”) But it is only discussed and only considered in terms of a surgical mission against Iran’s nuclear production facilities with conventional weapons.
The issue of how to do this without killing many innocent civilians is a major consideration, and one of the major reasons – among others, including the possibility of a wider conflict – that people, including in Israel, argue against such an initiative.
In demonizing Israel, there is a widespread practice in Germany, also perfected here by Grass, of ignoring the context in which Israel exists and acts. That context is that Israel has been existentially threatened for its entire existence and continues to be so today, both by states that wish merely to defeat it or to have it relinquish the West Bank (Gaza it already gave back), and by states, often supported by their publics, that wish to destroy it and eliminate or exterminate its Jews. Why does Grass fail to mention that Iranian leaders, and not just Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have routinely threatened to destroy Israel and kill Jews, and occasionally even hinted that it could be done with nuclear weapons? As the “moderate” former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani explained already in 2001, “the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything.” Why does Grass fail to mention that the Iranian leaders speak of Israel using Nazi-like language and metaphors, of cancer and pestilence which must be utterly eradicated? Do I have to say that such speech has been shown to be the rhetorical prelude to genocide? There is no Israeli crime here, no planned crime, no German role in it, no need to finally speak out, no special German responsibility or moral authority in this matter, no “silence” over the nonexistent truth, no intimidation for not speaking out.
Grass’s faux cri de coeur is a tissue of falsehoods and fabrications, one folded upon the next.
There is only this fiction called a poem, a surrealistic inversion of reality, and the lingering question: Is Grass so ignorant, or is he a calculating cynic with such animosity toward Israel and its people that he urges the world to force Israel to relinquish its nuclear shield – yes, shield – against a sea of enemies, and is thereby, at best, reckless about its and its people’s destruction?
The writer is the author of Hitler’s Willing Executioner: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust and Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity, which is the basis of a PBS documentary of the same name. His work can be read at