Can good poetry also be a good politics? I am paraphrasing a question that I have heard Jeff Goldfarb asking on several occasions. Günter Grass, German novelist, poet, sculptor, and a Nobel Prize laureate, delivered both — the finest literature and daring political insights. With his departure, Germany and the world have lost one of the last novelists who practiced the art of modern novel that Milan Kundera understood as being intrinsic to the existence of modern individual. Grass’ss novels capture depths and intricacies of human experience that he reiterated in epic yet unheroic stories free of pathos and sentimentality. With Grass’s death, Germany and the world has also lost a public intellectual of Socratic tradition who cultivated the art of dispute and who believed that democracy can only thrive in a society that permits disagreements and controversies.
Grass’s departure left German society divided between the appreciation of his literary genius and condemnation of his recent political views that many belittled as errors of an old, whimsical man who was out of touch with reality. This was not only a derisive and unjust judgment about Grass, whose social critique has significantly shaped German political culture, but also an act of silencing a critical voice that disapproved of developments in Germany in the past two decades. Grass was an acute critic of his country’s recurring struggle with a difficult past and the two dictatorships in its recent history, and he strenuously opposed German reunification and was one of very few public figures in Germany who dared to criticize his country’s unreserved support of Israel. His criticism earned him a lukewarm departure from a country that is in dire need of those who think critically and are not afraid to speak up.
In Germany, Günter Grass was more than just an esteemed writer. For his criticism of the remnants of Nazism in West German politics that he leveled at German society in the sixties, he earned a dubious status of “moral authority” on his country’s guilty conscience. Grass never agreed to such a role because he did not believe that Germans of his generation could relieve themselves of guilt and shame by “outsourcing” it. According to Grass, everybody of his generation, including himself, was tainted by Nazism whether they participated in the system, embraced or tolerated it. When Grass admitted in his autobiography Peeling the Onion (2006) that at the age of fifteen he was drafted by Waffen SS, his revelation produced a gulf between him and his German public, who felt betrayed by Grass’s failure as Germany’s good conscience. Grass repeated in numerous interviews that his disclosure resulted from a life-long confrontation with his own shame for having believed in Nazism and even admiring the Führer, like most Germans of his Generation did. In his interview with Tom Segev for Haaretz (2011) Grass recalled his early youth as the time when he was a “dumb young Nazi. I realized that after the war and was ashamed of it. I am ashamed today.” Grass’s disclosure of his own Nazi past was consistent with his novels, particularly with The Tin Drum (1959), which shows how ordinary, petty bourgeois Germans embraced Nazism, walked the path to self-destruction, and struggled with their memory when the catastrophe was over. In Danzig Trilogy (1959-1963), Grass asks how was it possible for an enlightened country like Germany to be pulled into Nazism, to refuse to ask questions, and not to doubt the system that was run on fear. Like Oskar, the main character in The Tin Drum, Germans can never reconcile with such a past, it will always be with them; likewise, their guilty conscience and shame. How should Germans live with this guilt and shame for all the suffering that they brought onto others? Decades later in the novella Crabwalk (2002), Grass reiterates this existential dilemma by asking: how should Germans remember their own suffering without compromising their memory of war and the Holocaust?
Grass, undoubtedly, was a writer about memory. He knew that, no matter how elusive or fallible memory was, it is all that we are left with when the moment is gone; it is our only connection to the past. Temptation to forget is always present at hand and Grass understood the struggle of memory against forgetting — that of his country and his own — and never shunned it. Today Germany struggles to remember that it had two dictatorships in its past — Nazi and communist — and that it needs to deal with both of them. What has happened instead is that Germany’s successful dealing with Nazism has overshadowed the gravity of the country’s communist past and its consequences today.
In 1997 Grass published the novel Too Far Afield, which incensed the German public due to its blunt rebuttal of German reunification. The novel added fuel to Grass’s earlier statement that “the country that was responsible for Auschwitz has no moral right to reunify.” Grass reflects on reunification from the perspective of two East German characters, both men in their early 70’s, who made their careers under a variety of regimes. One worked as journalist for the Nazi air force, as a lecturer in the GDR, and as employee of the Treuhand, the institution in charge of privatizing East German enterprises after the collapse of the Communist state he once served. Another character, a professional spy and a secret police agent (Stasi), has served whoever is in power. It is a sinister picture of a flow of dictatorships and regimes throughout German history — from Nazism to communism to corporate neo-liberalism — all of which is taking place in the same building that once housed the Nazi Air Ministry, then East German security services, and now the Treuhand.
Grass worried that such complicated memories would not suit a reunited Germany, with eighteen million East Germans bringing in the dual experience of consecutive dictatorships over a period of fifty years. In a new state, East Germans glorified the era of communism, whereas West Germans ignored it because such memories would complicate the established narrative about Germany’s successful dealing with its (other) difficult past.
Grass also admonished reunification as the annexation of the East by the greedy West. What he saw coming out of this merger was new Germany’s materialism, corruption, and xenophobia, and the failure of West German democracy to curb the expansionist ambitions of German corporate capitalism. In the novel The Call of the Toad (1992), Grass warns of a bigger and stronger Germany that would, yet again, colonize its neighbors, only this time not as a military power but as an economic one. Grass worried about changes in capitalism and was afraid that “whatever will succeed the capitalist system will not be democratic.” Today, the nature and strength of Germany’s economic ties to Russia, and the influence of German business lobbies on German media and the pro-Russian bias in their coverage of the Ukrainian crisis, illustrate Grass’s concerns about the state of democracy in neoliberalism.
However, Grass’s major fallout with the German public happened after he criticized Israel in the poem “What Must Be Said,” which was published in Süddeutsche Zeitung in 2012. The poem, which Grass wrote in response to Germany’s supply of submarines capable of carrying nuclear-armed missiles, criticizes Israel on two fronts — for endangering world peace with its unchecked atomic power and for the settlements policy in the West Bank. Grass called upon his country’s responsibility to “ensure Israel’s existence by bringing both sides of the conflict closer,” and upon Israel to stop the settlements and repatriate Palestinian refugees. On Germany’s account, Grass wrote that its Nazi past and the Holocaust were no excuse for remaining silent about Israel’s nuclear capability: “Also because we — as Germans burdened enough — may become a subcontractor to a crime that is foreseeable.” In a follow-up interview Grass called for the inspection of both Iran’s and Israel’s nuclear arsenal, which enraged both German and Israeli publics.
The poem triggered a chain of reactions in which Grass was denounced as an anti-Semite, disparaged as a senile megalomaniac who does not understand the world, and banned from traveling to Israel. German intellectuals like Jürgen Habermas found the whole case embarrassing. In an interview for Haaretz that Habermas gave shortly after the publication of Grass’s poem, Habermas reemphasized that as a member of his generation, Grass should not be saying certain things about Israel. Not only did Grass disobey this peculiar duty; moreover, he broke another taboo by criticizing Israel despite his own tarnished past. With or without a clean record, in Germany it is impossible to criticize Israel without risking an accusation of being an anti-Semite. If Germans do so, they are most definitely accused of anti-Semitism and, eventually, end up on Wiesenthal-Center’s list of Jew-haters, as did Jakob Augstein. If Jews criticize Israel, German media besmirch them and German public figures treat them with fierce hostility and arrogance, as they treated Judith Butler. If German Jews criticize Israel, they are vilified as modern anti-Semites and ignored by German media, as happened to Evelyn-Hecht Galinski.
Fear of speaking critically about Israel has imposed a taboo of silence on German intellectual life — a taboo that lies like a lid on the top of a bottomless pit that has remained in German consciousness after the annihilation of Jews. If one does not know how to live with such a void, fill its emptiness, and pacify one’s bad conscience, silence can provide a refuge from it, even if it is a precarious one. It also offers a way out of the dilemma of whether perpetrators have the moral right to speak up against injustices done by their victims. Grass’s criticism of Israel has put forth these dilemmas to Germans and Israelis alike. His concern about Israeli people’s subscribing to wrong beliefs and bad politics resounds with his own experience — the experience of a man who knew what was it like to live a life burdened with the consequences of one’s own irreversible mistakes. In his last interview for El Pais shortly before his death, Grass worried about the ability of Western democracies to attune to lasting conflicts and become resilient in the face of emerging ones. Showing his concern for the world, Günter Grass was one of the last German intellectuals who had the courage to think critically and to speak up when the silence fell, at all times and under all circumstances.