Guenter Grass, the German writer and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, brought forth last week an odious little poem that focuses on the threat to world peace posed by the Jewish state, and congratulates its author for the courage to point out this truth.
The poem, published in the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung and elsewhere, was titled “What Must Be Said,” which is quite a vainglorious title. There is very little in the world that is safer (or less novel) than criticizing Israel in a European newspaper.
In this poem, Grass suggests that Germans haven’t been saying “what must be said” about the various sins of the Jews. Of course, many post-Nazi German intellectuals, and intellectuals across Europe, have been saying quite nasty things about Jews and the Jewish state for some time, without noticeable consequence. (No fatwas have been issued against European critics of Jews, and no opponent of Israel has been murdered for his criticism.)
The German historian Ernst Nolte argued in a 2004 speech that “the only difference between Israel and the Third Reich is Auschwitz,” a statement exceeded in intemperance by Grass’s fellow Nobel Prize recipient, the late Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago, who once compared Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestinian West Bank, to Auschwitz, and who accused Jews of worshipping a “spiteful” god.
Grass, in his writing, shows himself to be a man tired of hearing about the Holocaust, tired of thinking about the Holocaust, tired of carrying around the moral burden of the Holocaust. This is in some ways an understandable feeling for young Germans, at least, to hold. They didn’t commit the deeds, and would like the world to judge them for their actions, not those of their parents and grandparents.
Grass, however, is a former member of the Waffen SS, and being a former member of the Waffen SS means having to say you’re sorry. Unfortunately, all the harshness directed against Grass after he revealed this fact in 2006 -- six decades afterward -- seems to have made him angry at the SS’s victims. Thus, our poem.
“What Must Be Said” is interesting for what it says about the mind of Guenter Grass, but it is more interesting for what it says about the manner in which some intellectuals think about Israel and Iran. By extracting the self-pity, self-aggrandizement and guilt-expiation from “What Must Be Said” and leaving only the politics, Grass’s thinking is clear. The short version of his message: Israel may one day soon commit nuclear genocide against the people of Iran.
“It is the alleged right to the first strike / That could annihilate the Iranian people/ Subjugated by a loud-mouth / And guided to organized jubilation / Because in their sphere of power / It is suspected, a nuclear bomb is being built.”
Perhaps it reads better in the German, or perhaps Grass is simply T.S. Eliot’s inferior in anti-Semitic poetry, but put aside the poem’s aesthetic shortcomings and consider the idea advanced in the first two lines: That Israel, which in reality is contemplating targeting six to eight nuclear sites in Iran for conventional aerial bombardment, in fact wants to annihilate the Iranian people in a “first strike.”
This is, of course, delusional. Not even the Iranian regime seems to believe this. To make yourself believe that Israel is seeking to murder the 74 million people of Iran, you must make yourself believe that the leaders of the Jewish state outstrip Adolf Hitler in genocidal intent.
Grass goes on to suggest that Holocaust guilt is making Germany complicit in a crime not yet committed by Israel. He writes of the German government:
“With nimble lips calling it a reparation, it declares / A further U-boat should be delivered to Israel / Whose specialty consists of guiding all-destroying warheads to where the existence / Of a single atomic bomb is unproven.”
He is referring to several submarines provided to Israel by Germany. These submarines, which can be armed with nuclear-tipped missiles, are a component of Israel’s second-strike deterrent capability. The German government has provided them to Israel to discourage a second Holocaust from taking place. Unlike Grass and his fellow-travelers, German leaders still seem to understand that it isn’t Israel that threatens Iran’s existence, but Iran that threatens Israel’s.
Grass isn’t the only prominent European to perform a complete inversion of cause-and-effect in his attempt to demonize Israel. So let’s be clear: Israel is contemplating an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities because the Iranian regime openly labels Israel a cancer that must be eradicated and because Iran is the prime sponsor of Muslim terrorists who seek Israel’s physical elimination. The goal of an Israeli attack would be to deny the Ayatollahs the means of bringing that about. (Whether this is a wise course of action, for Israel or for the U.S., which is also contemplating an attack, is another matter.)
On Iran’s threats to end the Jewish state -- which was built on the ashes of the German Holocaust -- Grass is tellingly silent.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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