Jacob Heilbrunn

The Gunter Grass Anti-Semitism Debate

Gunter Grass' poem "What Must Be Said," which denounces Israel as a threat to world peace, has now become an international controversy. Israel has banned Grass from entering the Jewish state, a move that is drawing criticism from some prominent Israelis. And in Germany foreign minister Guido Westerwelle has written a op-ed in the conservative newspaper Bild am Sonntag declaring that it was "absurd" of Grass to place Israel and Iran on the "same moral plane." Meanwhile, Grass and his defenders say he is being persecuted for telling the truth in his poem—yours truly has also been chastised for "intellectual cowardice" in lambasting Grass.

Ultimately, however, the Grass affair may say more about Grass and Germany than about Israel itself. Novelists and poets have often weighed in on the future of the German nation, serving as moral oracles pronouncing on its fate. Grass was a leading socialist who actually campaigned for Chancellor Willy Brandt. Until the revelation of his own service in the SS, he regularly upbraided German society for failing to face up to its Nazi past adequately.

Now the moralist has weighed in again. In reflecting upon his poem, Grass says that he wished he had attacked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu directly rather than Israel itself. But it seems safe to say that he has tarnished his reputation among German elites, but perhaps not among the German population. Germany has become the dominant power in Europe. While it remains uncomfortable flexing its muscles too visibly, there can be no doubting that it has become increasingly prone to displaying its new power. The Euro crisis is the most prominent example, with chancellor Angela Merkel becoming a figure of hatred in Greece.

But it is also the case that Germany remains divided about its own past. Grass exemplifies the resentment of the postwar generation that served in the war and has a somewhat mixed view of the American "liberators." Grass, who served in the Waffen-SS, has always been a staunch critic of America. He was also an admirer of East Germany. In his later fictional work, he mourned the demise of East Germany as a kind of socialist paradise. When East Germans toppled the Berlin Wall in 1989, he scoffed that they had succumbed to capitalism and were sellling out for a few bananas (a fruit that was only available a few times a year in the German Democratic Republic). Grass always saw America as the international bad guy. Now he has found a new villain which comports with his old world-view. Where America once jeopardized world peace by stationing nuclear weapons in Europe, now it is Israel that threatens it by insisting that it is prepared to attack Iran if it does not abandon its nuclear project.

The distinguished German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who survived the Holocaust in Poland by hiding out in the countryside and whose ordeal Grass has written about, says that Grass knew he could create a furor with his poem. He says that Grass is returning to the sentiments of his youth as he ages and that

Grass was always interested in sensations, affairs, scandals... It's no accident that he's attacking Jews.

Is Grass a lone voice in Germany? Or does he represent a new wave of frustration with the instransigence of the Netanyahu government and its corrosive settlement policies that will mutate into antipathy toward Jews more generally? The coming months will show whether the Grass affair is a mere footnote or a new chapter in Germany's politics of memory after reunification.