Is Greece a failed state? Somehow Mr. Panagiotis Pikramenos, just appointed prime minister, does not seem to convey the sense that he will be more than a caretaker leader until the next batch of elections on June 17. If Greece keeps holding elections with this frequency, it will appear as though it's trying to emulate the last days of the Weimar Republic. And Germany does not appear to be in a mood for additional bailouts to rescue Greece. So with the failure of its political parties to form a ruling coalition, Greece looks to be heading into the final act of traditional Athenian tragedy known as exodus. In this instance, an exodus would mean abandoning the euro and absorbing the brutal buffetting that, so proponents of leaving the euro claim, would be painful but temporary. Having left the euro, Greece would be free to return to the good, old drachma, enjoying the benefits of a devalued currency to increase its exports even if inflation and interest rates go up.
So far, Greece has been holding or, to put it more precisely, trying to hold, its Western European neighbors—mainly Germany—hostage. Greece is exercising an outsized influence. The painful austerity measures insisted upon by German chancellor Angela Merkel have helped usher in the ouster of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, whose successor François Hollande is championing growth. Which is fine. Growth is a legitimate way to shrink state debt. But in Hollande's case, it may be wondered precisely what kind of growth he has in mind. During the elections he stated he would increase the size of the state sector, which would reduce unemployment but not necessarily improve growth figures. In fact, such measures might prove inimical to it.
Greece has also shaken up Merkel's own hold on power. In recent state elections in North Rhine Westphalia, her party experienced a decisive defeat, scoring just under 30 percent while the Social Democratic Party garnered 39 percent. The Free Democratic Party, which espouses a hard-line policy toward Greece, received 8.6 percent, suggesting that it may have weathered its recent troubles and will return to the Bundestag. But Merkel would not be able to put together a new coalition with the Free Democrats in 2013. A grand coalition would be a more likely result. The German economy is bustling along with exports to Asia—BMW's profits were up 18 percent in the first quarter of this year. Unions in Germany are pressing for higher wages, which they will probably get. Unemployment is down to 7 percent.
But Germany is not adopting a "what, me, worry?" attitude toward Greece. Nor are its neighbors. European Union commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, for example, is warning, "All the obligations that Greece and European Union members have assumed must be respected. The truth is that there is no easier path." Opinion polls suggest the Greeks are like Americans: they want the euro but not the fiscal cutbacks, just as Americans want all the goodies that Washington can distribute but don't want to have to pay taxes for them. Of course, America is nowhere near the kind of omnicompetent state that the Greeks have constructed and feasted upon over the past decade or so.
For both the Greeks and the Germans, the poker game will continue in the run-up to the new Greek elections in June. Perhaps Merkel and her entourage have already written off the Greeks and are simply waiting for the denouement. But even that might not save the euro. How contagious is contagion? Spain, Portugal and Italy might be next. But for Germany, which has been battling to save the euro, its disappearance might not even be that big a deal. It might strengthen its position in Europe further. Already, its economy seems fairly emancipated from the recession in the rest of Europe as it feverishly exports to Asia. Its neighbors might experience a different fate. France is having trouble exporting goods. The stage could be set for the rise of a new Teutonic power in the center of Europe. If Europe resents Germany now, it might come to look upon the current age as a golden era of enlightenment compared to what followed it.
Mitt Romney got into hot water over his Swiss bank account. But he never tried to take out Swiss citizenship, at least as far as anyone knows. But Michele Bachmann? She now says that she has been a Swiss citizen since 1978, which has the Los Angeles Times calling her a "Swiss miss." Now she's reversing her decision to apply for official citizenship: "I took this action because I want to make it perfectly clear: I was born in America and I am a proud American citizen. I am, and always have been, 100% committed to our United States Constitution and the United States of America."
Hip hip hooray! Bachmann is not famed for her neutrality, but she seemed quite attracted to neutral Switzerland. It was starting to look as though visitors to her congressional office in Washington, DC, might hear strains of the William Tell Overture emanating from her inner sanctum. Perhaps she also had begun to fly a Swiss flag in it. Might we also have seen photos of Bachmann donning a Swiss dirndl and pretending to be "Heidi"?
According to Bachmann,
I automatically became a dual citizen of the United States and Switzerland in 1978 when I married my husband, Marcus. Marcus is a dual American and Swiss citizen because he is the son of Swiss immigrants. As a family, we just recently updated our documents. This is a non-story.”
Baloney. It would be hard to think of a more fascinating revelation. Could it be that Bachmann, who has been vociferously denouncing President Obama for expanding the size of government, was, in fact, hedging her bets? Does she have a secret hankering for the cradle-to-grave big-government socialism that prevails in Switzerland? Or does she does have a weak spot for cuckoo clocks, the one thing that Orson Welles said Switzerland had managed to pull off in its entire history in the movie The Third Man?There is a simpler explanation. Maybe Bachmann is simply bonkers. Suzi Parker, writing in the Washington Post, notes that this isn't the kind of move that will necessarily go down well with Tea Party adherents:
Bachmann’s Swiss citizenship is a bizarre move while running for reelection. Her spokesman said that her children want to explore dual-citizenship so they did the process as a family.
Her citizenship would have derived from her marriage to her husband Marcus, whose parents emigrated to America. Her actual assumption of citizenship, Politico says, took place on March 19. If she and Marcus are contemplating eventually retiring in Switzerland, the retirement benefits would surely be far more generous than in America. But whether any of their male children should wish to accompany them would be an interesting question. They should be prepared: military service in the Landsturm is compulsory until age fifty—another sign of the power of the Swiss government over its citizens. But with Bachmann's sudden renunciation of Swiss citizenship, they may never even get the chance to sample life in the Swiss Alps or live in a country that steadfastly refused to become a member of the United Nations until 2002.
Did he do it? He would not be the first subordinate to seek to polish off his superior in an authoritarian system. History is replete with examples of a seemingly dutiful understudy scheming to remove his mentor.
I'm talking, of course, about Stalin and Lenin. The theory that Stalin sped along the demise of the old boy—who wasn't actually that old when he died, a mere fifty-four—has been around for decades. Now it is being revived. Last Friday, at the annual University of Maryland School of Medicine conference about the deaths of famous historical figures, the Russian historian Lev Lurie suggested that while Lenin was undoubtedly in poor health in the 1920s, Stalin hastened his death by having the Soviet leader poisoned. The convulsions Lenin suffered shortly before his death, Lurie says, are not consistent with the symptoms of the stroke he had experienced. If Lurie is right, it might turn Lenin into more of a martyr, at least in Russia. His specter continues to loom over the country. Almost instantly, the Bolsheviks transformed Lenin, whose corpse was embalmed and remains displayed in Moscow, into a cult figure, one that has outlived the regime itself. He serves as an important vestige of a neo-imperial past that postcommunist Russia apparently cannot afford to dispense with. What the historian Nina Tumarkin declared years ago in her scintillating book Lenin Lives! remains true today.
Certainly, Stalin had good reasons to hope Lenin would perish. It did not entirely escape Lenin's notice that the ambitious and young general secretary was taking control of the party machinery. Besides, as he complained in what has become known as his "testament," Lenin thought Stalin was "rude." Whether this would have translated into his demoting Stalin is another question. Lenin, after all, seemed to be complaining about bad manners. And Lenin himself was no shrinking violet when it came to taking out his enemies: he presided over the deaths of millions during the Russian Civil War and laid the foundations for the Gulag. Lenin's "Who Whom" question was no joking matter. It led to mass murder and totalitarian systems from Eastern Europe to China to Vietnam.
But unlike Stalin, Lenin does not seem to provide particular evidence of enjoying killing for its own sake. To Lenin applies the old line about loving humanity but despising individual humans. Stalin, by contrast, was a Georgian who relished feuds for their own sake. He seemed to take a lascivious pleasure in pitting his subordinates against one another, whether it was accusing them of plotting to subvert his leadership or simply forcing them to engage in endless drinking bouts while he mocked them. Stalin had no shortage of ways of rubbing out his real or perceived opponents, ranging from mass executions to more indirect methods—in his memoirs, Anton-Antonov Ovseyenko recounts, among other things, Stalin's proclivity for ordering medical operations that somehow ended fatally. But under Stalin's stewardship, the Soviet Union—the NKVD—became the supreme practicioner in the diabolical black arts of injecting victims with harmful potions. The NKVD has its own laboratory, which was revealed at the last major purge trial when its former director, Genrikh Yagoda, was accused in 1938 of having sought to use it to poison Stalin and other Bolshevik worthies. Today, Russia continues to enjoy a particular proficiency in this singular line of work, which is presumably why Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian dissident and former FSB officer, had the misfortune to find himself ingesting polonium-210 in a fatal cup of tea in London in 2006.
Might the Soviet experiment, as it was known, have turned out differently in the event of Lenin's ruling the Soviet Union for several more decades? Could he have made a go of the enterprise? Would Trotsky and Bukharin have been promoted rather than Stalin, and would a kinder, gentler Soviet Union have emerged?
Historians, particularly revisionist ones such as Stephen F. Cohen, have long argued that the Soviet Union could have taken a more moderate path—that it is its own form of determinism to argue that Stalinism was preordained. In addition, Stalin, as Simon Montefiore argues in his biography of the generalissimo, may have gotten a bum rap. Generations of historians sympathetic to Trotsky, himself not averse to terror and violence (see: Kronstadt), have tried to present Stalin as something of an intellectual deadhead, but he turns out to have been an avid reader and keen student of history. So the notion that he was merely the faceless bureaucrat next to the brilliantly coruscating Trotsky may not be quite right.
In any case, the Trotsky vs. Stalin conundrum, if that is even what it is, can never be resolved (though Stalin did as much as he could to resolve it by having his rival brutally murdered in Mexico City, with not poison but, rather, an ice pick). The preponderance of the evidence suggests that communist regimes based on Leninist principles quickly devolved into totalitarian societies. Still, to satisfy historical curiosity if nothing else, it is probably worth probing whether Lenin himself became the most prominent victim of the very regime he had helped to construct. Lurie suggests that it would be simplicity itself to examine Lenin's brain and discover the truth. It would not be the first time that a criminal has preserved the evidence of his own crime.
Can anyone doubt that the blind lawyer and dissident Chen Guangcheng, who apparently says that he feels a "little" lied to by American embassy officials in Beijing, was, more or less, hustled out and dumped into a hospital before he could further disrupt Chinese-American relations, especially with high-level meetings coming up between Hillary Clinton, Timothy Geithner and their Chinese counterparts? American ambassador Gary Locke says Chen wasn't encouraged to leave. But that denials are needed is itself telling, and the brouhaha over Chen shows few signs of dying down as he now seems to be indicating that he would like to request asylum in America.
But as tensions rise with China over Chen's fate, that's the last thing Obama wants to provide. If any episode crystallizes the ruthlessness of President Obama, it should be this one. Even as the GOP tries to depict him as an impotent president—and as Mitt Romney's campaign is mired in an ugly controversy over the sudden resignation of a gay foreign-policy aide named Richard Grenell who was being hounded by the Christian Right—he is acting more ruthlessly and decisively than almost any American president in recent memory, including George W. Bush.
Obama gives off every sign of taking coldly antiseptic positions in foreign affairs. Again and again, Obama has dismissed the notion that he should get involved in the internal affairs of other countries. The Arab Spring? He viewed it with caution. Libya? He tried to lead from behind. Syria? He wants nothing to do with it.
This approach might be called Obama's neo-Kissingerianism. Neocons and much of the Right view Obama's stances as abhorrent. It's immoral realpolitik. Obama is jettisoning the values that Americans should uphold. It can, for example, be safely assumed that a chorus of indignation will be directed at Obama for having abandoned Chen in his greatest moment of peril. Here is Jennifer Rubin lambasting what she views as Obama's abandonment of Chen in the Washington Post:
This is par for the course—it is the same jumble of incompetence, naivete and timidity that characerizes the Obama foreign policy.
Wrong. There is nothing naive or timid about the administration's approach. If anything, it appears to be coldly calculating. The administration wanted to divest itself of a problem and thought it was perhaps carving out a deal that would allow Chen to live safely in China. The "agreement" it struck with China may not be as weak as commonly assumed, though it could also prove entirely pyrrhic. If Chinese security forces were to attack Chen or his family, the country would suffer a public-relations disaster abroad. Still, once the hubbub dies down, Chen will likely be at the mercy of Chinese officials. In any case, Obama—and Clinton—gave every sign of trying to wriggle out of the Chen affair with as little publicity as possible. Instead of seizing upon it to upbraid the Chinese, they soft-pedaled it, barely acknowledging that he was even residing in the American embassy in Beijing.
In short, this episode supplies some important clues to Obama's more general approach to foreign affairs, particularly in an election year. The China hawks will complain that Obama is too complaisant in dealing with Beijing, but he is trying to rely on diplomacy rather than threats in dealing with what amounts to America's principal creditor nation. What the hawks also forget is that China's more bellicose actions on human rights are not a sign of strength but internal infirmity. This is not a confident authoritarian regime but one assailed by insecurity. Obama appears to recognize that.
At the same time, Obama is playing up the unilateral actions he has taken to protect American security by ordering military action, whether it is the drone program or his taking out of Osama bin Laden. In mocking Romney's bin Laden tergiversations—he was against chasing the al-Qaeda leader before he was for it—Obama, along with Bill Clinton, who takes a starring turn in a video lauding the president's heroism, is turning the tables on the GOP. He's depicting Romney, to borrow Rubin's language, as a hopeless jumble of incompetence, naivete and timidity—an indecisive weakling.
Is this politicizing foreign affairs? Of course it is. But there is a long tradition of it, and there is probably no reason foreign policy should be any more immune to politics than any other sphere of government. So now it's the GOP's turn to whine, as Democrats once did about Bush, that he's treating them unfairly. Obama's actions should put the GOP on notice. The truculent playbook that it has employed for the past several decades—and that Karl Rove, writing in Foreign Policy, recommended it turn to again to depict Obama as dangerously soft—is in tatters as the president reveals himself to be a very hard man indeed, what Peter Bergen even deems to be a "warrior in chief," though this may soft-pedal Obama's caution when it comes to Iran and China. If this keeps up, Obama may even start speaking about foreign affairs with a German accent.
Israel is at war—with itself. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been upping the rhetorical ante for several months, threatening Iran and, implicitly, President Obama if he doesn't go along with the idea of unilaterally attacking Iran. Netanyahu and his followers are wont to portray sanctions against Iran as though it were somehow the equivalent of appeasement during the 1930s, when Nazi Germany swallowed up much of Europe. But Netanyahu's bombast is creating a backlash not just in Europe but also in Israel itself.
The latest Israeli leader to speak out against the prospect of attacking Iran for its nuclear efforts is former prime minister Ehud Olmert, whose remarks on Israeli television could not be clearer: "There is no reason at this time not to talk about a military effort, but definitely not to initiate an Israeli military strike." Previously, the former head of internal security, Yuval Diskin, and Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad, stated that the government is providing misleading information about the efficacy of a potential strike.
Meanwhile, negotiations in Istanbul produced a more conciliatory stance from Iran—not necessarily because of the threat of an attack but because the sanctions that Obama imposed may be working. Could it be that Iran's major domos are looking for a way to climb down from their triumphalist rhetoric about building a bomb—a weapon that would do little for Iran's security—in exchange for full recognition from America and a pledge not to attack it? As the Washington Post's David Ignatius has pointed out, the basic framework exists for a deal, and it looks increasingly as though the Iranians are receptive to one. Indeed, if Obama is fortunate, he may be able to close a deal with Iran that would remove the issue from the 2012 election campaign and allow him to present himself as the new, great peacemaker. Nothing would come as a greater shock to Netanyahu and his noisy claque of supporters in the GOP.
All along, the contention of the Iran hawks has been that the Tehran regime is immune to external pressure. But this makes little sense. Its leaders are craven, bellicose, nasty. But they are also opportunistic, intent on self-preservation. Around the world, ugly regimes that were once seen as impervious to reform have indeed changed from within. Again and again, the mistake that Western hawks have made has been to overestimate the longevity of authoritarian and totalitarian dictatorships. The late Jeane Kirkpatrick even made a distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, arguing that the latter were far less likely to alter their political complexion. But as she herself acknowledged, this turned out to be wrong. The Soviet Union, viewed as a kind of implacable tyranny that could not be significantly undermined, was. Fast forward to today and you have Burma, one of the world's leading reprobate countries, reaching out to the West. Who would have dreamed a few years ago that it would hold free elections? The blunt fact is that standards continue to change, that the costs of remaining in not-so-splendid isolation are rising, both for leaders and their countries, as Basher al-Assad and his wife, who may not be able to enjoy her luxurious Parisian shopping trips any longer, are discovering.
So it would be mistaken to assume—as some are assuming—that the sole way to deal with Iran is to bomb it back to the stone, or at least the Safavid, age. Not so. But perhaps it is also a mistake to reckon that Netanyahu is really intent on going mano-a-mano with the Islamic republic. A credible threat, after all, is required to prod the Mr. Khamenei & Co. into deviating from the nuclear path. The good news, however, is that a debate, or, to put it more precisely, a very public battle is taking place in Israel over whether Iran is determined not simply to research but also to build and test a bomb—and whether a strike on Iran, which might lead to a wider war in the Middle East, would really be merited.
It was widely noted during the contretemps over the novelist Gunter Grass's recent effusions about Israel being a threat to world peace that a divide emerged in Germany. On the one side were the intellectual and political elites that condemned his comments. On the other side was the public, which tended to sympathize with Grass and complain about a "cudgel" being wielded to silence debate about the German past.
Now, Germany is taking a new step toward what is often called "normalization." The state of Bavaria has announced that in 2015 it will publish Hitler's Mein Kampf, which first appeared in 1925. A second volume was issued in 1926. The book was written in Landsberg prison, where Hitler was incarcerated after his failed putsch in 1923.
Hitler, you could say, was made in Bavaria. He left Austria and served in the Reichwehr rather than the Austrian army, which he was officially obliged to join. After World War I, Hitler began his rise in Bavaria, where he launched the Beer Hall putsch and where he was fawned over by a number of local aristocrats, including the Bechsteins, who helped finance him and the Nazi Party. Bavaria was a hotbed of right-wing movements in the postwar era, which Hitler welded into the Nazi party. His talent, which no one had accomplished in Germany, was to unify the various splinter groups into a mighty organization. Munich itself was known as the "Haupstadt der Bewegung"—capital of the movement. So Bavaria has much to contemplate and rue when it looks back at the past.
Is its decision to publish Hitler's autobiography a sign that Germany is backsliding? Not at all. Mein Kampf has been banned in Germany since World War II, and the Bavarian justice system recently prevented the English publisher Peter McGee from publishing excerpts from it in Munich. But the ban, it must be said, no longer makes much sense. The book can be easily acquired abroad or on the Internet. In announcing the publication of the book, Bavarian finance minister Markus Soeder says that he wants to contribute to the "demystification" of it. In 2015, the Bavarian state's copyright to the book will expire. The idea is to publish a scholarly version that will help stem its appeal for commercial publishers.
Hitler himself would surely be displeased to know that his book was, in effect, being further defanged by a democratic Germany, which is treating it in a calm and clinical manner. The truth is that the book itself is an unedfying farrago of the various anti-Semitic books that Hitler, a tireless autodidact, had read over the years, a topic that Timothy Ryback covers in his book Hitler's Private Library. The title itself crystallized Hitler's worldview of a social Darwinist struggle for power and survival, a message that resonated in a postwar Germany humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles and bludgeoned by economic crisis. In the 1920s and 1930s, the book was a smash sensation and made Hitler rich. Whether it will arouse much interest or even sell many copies today, though, may be wondered.
More important for the future of Germany and Europe is how a new German chancellor, Angela Merkel, will respond to the economic crisis that once more assails the continent. As Germany sticks to its calls for fiscal austerity, right-wing political parties in Greece and France are on the move. It would be ironic if Germany, in its quest to avoid the inflation of the Weimar years, ended up creating the circumstances for the resurgence of the political Right in other European countries by adhering too rigidly to restrictive monetary policies.
The Summit of the Americas was a debacle for President Obama. America essentially came away with nothing largely because of its foolhardy attempt to maintain the embargo on Cuba. In seeking to isolate Cuba, America is only isolating itself. But the biggest black eye for Obama came with the revelation—unearthed by CIA historian Ronald Kessler—that members of the Secret Service were apparently frolicking with prostitutes in Colombia. This isn't merely an embarrassing episode of gringos going wild, it should sound alarms about the Secret Service's ability to protect the president.
The eleven agents allegedly involved were recalled to the United States from Cartagena, but the Secret Service is trying to downplay the scandal, which came to light after one of the agents apparently tried to stiff a prostitute who demanded payment. Fortunately, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Darrell Issa is having none of it. According to the Washington Post, he believes that more agents may have been involved. The real danger may be that there is a culture of corruption at the Secret Service, which has acted as a kind of praetorian guard for decades. It has become a law unto itself.
As the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed, the Secret Service has dramatically increased its size over the past several decades—it now has some six thousand employees—and at times become what he called in 1992 a "disgrace and danger" to the republic. It's now become a badge of honor for aspiring presidential candidates to receive Secret Service protection during the primary campaign—it's an ego boost and signifies that you've arrived. The agents sometimes act as ruthless enforcers for the candidates by snuffing out legitimate protests at campaign rallies. Then there is the cost of all this security—$1.5 billion a year. There's no way that taxpayers should be footing the bill for the Secret Service protection that the likes of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich received. Let them pay for it themselves.
The best way to think about the Secret Service is to realize that its name is bogus. It isn't secret. Instead, it's like any other government agency intent on maximizing its influence, reach and numbers. It can always dream up new threats that it needs to address. Congress has pretty much signed off on anything the agency wants. Why not subject the Secret Service to the scrutiny that other govenment agencies are now receiving? Even the Defense Department is going to see a diminution in the rapidity of its budget increases. There is no reason the Secret Service should be exempt.
The behavior allegedly engaged in by the Secret Service suggests an agency that is running amok. Heads need to roll. This is the second fiasco (think the Salahis crashing the White House State Dinner) on Secret Service director Mark Sullivan's watch. Rep. Issa has it exactly right: incidents like this aren't an accident but probably representative of a broader problem at the Secret Service. The Wall Street Journal reports that "wheels up, rings off" is a running joke at the agency.
The Secret Service bears the classic hallmarks of a complacent and bloated government agency. It has become too large for its own good. Lawmakers should use this scandal as an opportunity to scrutinize the agency and overhaul what Senator Moynihan rightly called "a threat to the quality of the American democracy."
The "hermit kingdom" is becoming a little less hermetically sealed. At least that is the aim of an organization called the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Together with the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, it held an important day-long conference on Tuesday at the Peterson Institute in Washington, DC to expose North Korea's political-prisoner-camp system. At a panel I attended entitled "Women and the Hidden Gulag," the speakers, a number of whom are survivors of the camps, were informative, persuasive and sober.
Most attention devoted to North Korea focuses on its truculence and its military plans, which is the way Kim Jong-un and his camarilla like it. The Obama administration, which recently announced a food deal with the North, now finds itself scrambling as the communist leadership brags that it is going to launch a new "weather"--in truth, military—satellite into orbit. What to do? Bribe the regime, placate it or remain silent? The options have never been good since no administration, including George W. Bush's, which noisily trumpeted its dedication to freedom, has dared confront the North militarily. America already went through that in the early 1950s, enduring a war that Dwight D. Eisenhower managed to bring to a close, or at least an armistice in 1953. The consequences of a repetition would be horrendous and even more lethal than before, above all for South Korea. And the North knows it.
The focus on North Korea's gulag presents a different avenue of attack. It further chips away at the North's pretensions to be the better half of the two Koreas. During the Cold War, the Soviet dissidents and human-rights activists eroded the communist system's claim to moral superiority over the West. Something similar could happen in North Korea—at the very least, as the speakers at the conference indicated, there is a moral obligation to bear testimony for those left behind in what amounts to a national prison. As various speakers outlined, the North has created a complex system of prison camps that contain several hundred thousand people and rest on intimidation, terror, sexual abuse and infanticide. The parallels with Stalin's gulag are overwhelming, including working a captive population to death. But the regime can no longer keep its system of slave labor a secret. Over the decades, tens of thousands have managed to escape. The ghastly testimony of a few refugees might be dismissed as too unbelievable to be credited. The words of thousands cannot.
Still, North Korea is a problem that no major power seems eager to try and solve. Japan loathes North Korea but is happy to see two Koreas. So is China. America is stuck serving as a military trip wire. Meanwhile, the South dreads the idea of trying to effect reunification, a task that Germany has not yet accomplished economically. Eastern Germany continues to lag far behind the West; North Korea makes communist East Germany look like it was a thriving capitalist economy. The financial costs of trying to absorb the North would be colossal and likely perdure for generations.
A softer landing would be for the current containment policy to mellow the North gradually. Yes, North Korea remains an improbable candidate for reform. But if Burma, which also appeared an intractable case, can alter its repressive policies, then there may be a glimmer of hope that North Korea will eventually change. That day may appear far off. But the fresh scrutiny of North Korea's sprawling camp system might help to hasten its arrival.
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.
For decades, the German Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gunter Grass has posed as the conscience of Germany. He never missed an opportunity to denounce what he saw as the moral failings of his inferiors. He denounced America for the arms race with the Soviet Union. He denounced his fellow Germans for failing to face up to their Nazi past. The only thing he never denounced was himself. Then, in 2006, he admitted in his memoirs that he himself had been a member of the Waffen-SS, though he was careful to stipulate that he never pulled the trigger of his gun. His reputation took a beating, but Grass was undaunted.
Now, Grass has found a new target to denounce for posing a "threat to world peace": Israel. His language is wild and fevered and calumniatory. We learn from the quondam SS member that Israel, not Iran, is the source of all the problems in the Middle East. In a poem published in the Suddeutsche Zeitung today called "What Must Be Said," Grass announces that Israel is plotting to "wipe out" Iran. At the same time, Germany is culpable for jeopardizing freedom and encouraging war by selling Israel submarines whose missiles could be deployed against Iran:
"We could be suppliers to a crime that can be foreseen, which is why none of the usual excuses would erase it. I will be silent no longer, because I am sick of the West's hypocrisy."
There are many things wrong with Grass's feculent statements. First and most obvious is that a former member of the SS has no moral standing, to put it mildly, to criticize Israel. Breaking his silence, as he puts it, is not a matter of courage but, rather, a disgrace. It is also the case that once again, he is engaged in an inversion of reality that is symptomatic of the German Left, which routinely castigated America, not the Soviet Union, as the bad guy on the international scene. Iran, not Israel, is the power that has been issuing threats, which include wiping Israel off the face of the globe. Finally, Grass flatters himself. He is trying to personify the role of the German novelist as an oracle, a moral apostle who can preach to the nation. The problem is not that he has nothing to say. It is that what he is saying is poisonous.
Perhaps Grass's comments will earn him some accolades on the Far Left and Right in Germany, both of which view Israel with disdain. More serious voices in Germany are accusing Grass of anti-Semitism. Writing in the Berlin Tagesspiegel, Malte Lehming incisively observes,
seldom has a postwar German intellectual more openly and stealthily poached in the reservoir of German anti-Jewish cliches—and presented it as the result of a conscience-stricken responsiblity for freedom.
Now, anti-Semitism is a charge that is flung about too frequently against critics of Israel. Unfortunately, in this instance it is fully deserved. Here is what must be said: Grass has achieved the impossible. He has further besmirched his reputation.