Not being a big poetry fan, I’m in no position to offer a critique of Günter Grass’ controversial poem, “What Must Be Said.” I’ve read two different translations of it (here is the one I’ve seen most commonly, and here is another that feels like a very different poem.) The difference in wording of the translations leads to stark changes in the poem’s tone and substance.
As suggestive as this it is, ultimately, the poem’s literary value doesn’t matter. Why? Because the work has been received more as a political event than an artistic one. (I say this knowing that Grass’ poem is not considered well-written, even by his defenders.) This stated, some examination of “What Must Be Said” is still required.
Respectable political poetry is very hard to write. To make a statement is one thing. To produce something that has equal political and artistic merit is another. It’s easier to pen an opinion editorial, for example, than a sonnet. The premium on literary form is much higher. Take on a subject such like the Mideast conflict, without proper attention to narrative, and you run into problems.
And so Günter Grass writer found himself a lightning rod for controversy. Though it seems a safe bet that the legendary German writer knew he was taking some big risks to begin with. While Grass himself recognizes he blurred the distinction between the Israeli government and the Israeli people in parts of his poem, he also condemned the idea of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.
The real reason for the consternation, and the implicit and sometimes explicit accusations of anti-Semitism leveled against Grass, is much more basic. It is due to the fact that a prominent and respected German liberal, with a Nobel Prize for literature to his credit, challenged the idea that Germans have no right to question or criticize Israeli policies.
People will have strong opinions on this point. However, it is too fraught for simple interpretation. The history of the Holocaust casts a shadow on Germany that is entirely appropriate and must remain in place in some way. It cannot simply be consigned to history, any more than American slavery, the Armenian genocide by Turkey, or a depressingly long list of other atrocities can simply be forgotten. The Holocaust is the star of that historical horror show, and rightly so.
Germany must not be allowed to forget what happened. But that does not absolve the country or its citizens of acting as responsible members of the global community. To the extent that Holocaust guilt creates a reluctance to criticize Israel, to the extent that it entices Germany to sell Israel a submarine that it can use to threaten Iran at this volatile time, or propose that Israel buy its new mobile artillery system (also currently under discussion) it is a guilt that is leading to a dangerous irrationality.
No country other than the United States has stood as staunchly behind Israel for decades as Germany has. That’s been an important factor in maintaining Israel as a regional power, and in allowing Israel to grow from a besieged, struggling and tiny country to one that has not had to face a threat to its existence since 1973, a nearly four-decade period that established Israel as the most diverse and stable economy in the region, and a republic that enjoys more political stability than any of its neighbors.
All of that made some sense, both as a matter of policy and as a way for Germany to make up for its mind-boggling crimes. But Germany is not Luxembourg or Micronesia. It is again a major player in Europe, and a serious player on the world stage. Therefore, it must conduct itself responsibly. It must determine its policies, especially regarding acts that could lead to a Middle East war that will have global consequences, based on rational judgment, not historical guilt.
A few hours before writing this, I listened to a radio show discussing the controversial statements by a baseball manager in Miami, Florida who said some kind things about Fidel Castro, a grave mistake in that region. In discussing the issue, a Jewish broadcaster compared Castro to Adolf Hitler, an absurd comparison to anyone who has even a cursory knowledge of the two situations.
When a leader is being cast as evil, he is compared to Hitler; when human rights violations rise to the level of genocide, they are compared to the Holocaust. And in no case does the comparison ever really hold. The killing of 12 million people in the camps, about half of them Jews, is not something Germany should ever be allowed to live down.
The thing is, Günter Grass doesn’t try to. This man, who was conscripted into the German army as a teenager during the war and later wrote about it openly and honestly, makes it clear that his country has committed horrible crimes — “…my own country/guilty of primal and unequalled crimes/for which time and again it must be tasked…” — which it cannot forget.
The attacks on Grass are precisely because he is neither an anti-Semite, nor anti-Israeli. Plenty of people are saying exactly what he is saying, in Israel, in Jewish communities around the world, in synagogues, in Jewish newspapers, in churches, newsrooms. Even in the White House, and the halls of the Knesset. Everywhere but Congress, with very few exceptions.
The attacks on Grass are due to his being a German, a respected mind who is not denying or trying to let his country escape responsibility for its crimes. They are due to the fear of a Germany, of an American goverment, and someday even of a global Jewish community that remembers the Holocaust, but doesn’t allow demagogues like Benjamin Netanyahu to cynically use it to justify his policies.
Germany gets off too lightly if it can just acquiesce, with perhaps just a few soft words of criticism, to Israeli policy as a payment for the Holocaust. No, it must take full responsibility for its policies and work to guide those policies toward a more stable world, with less conflict and less room for future atrocities. We should expect no less from Germany, nor from Israel, nor from the United States or any other country that fancies itself a democracy.
One may disagree with Grass over his view of the Iranian crisis. But the controversy concerning his poem is not about that particular issue. It’s about the free expression of anti-war sentiment, and that such an expression is more important than historical guilt. The idea being, of course, that such freedom means the possibility of a better world. A world that people like Netanyahu see as a nightmare.
Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit