When was the last time a poem raised such a ruckus?
Well, not really a poem, but a 67-line piece of doggerel titled “What Must Be Said.” Its author is Gunter Grass, the 1999 Nobel laureate in literature, last heard from in 2006 when he confessed to having joined the Waffen SS in the waning days of World War II.
Grass, the best-known German writer of the postwar period, has been an international figure since the publication of his novel “The Tin Drum,” which was the first major literary attempt to assess Hitler’s rise to power. That book and his subsequent writings made him a quasi-official keeper of the German conscience, a role he has clearly relished.
It had long been known that Grass himself fought in World War II at the age of 17, but although he had never discussed his experience, it did not seem to disqualify him as a critic of the Nazi regime or as an ambassador of German honor. Lots of underage and overage Germans had been dragooned into Hitler’s so-called “People’s Army” in the last days of the war. Joseph Beuys’ rather long career as a Luftwaffe pilot had not impeded his career as one of Europe’s most influential avant-garde artists. In fact, Beuys had mythologized his service, inventing an imaginary captivity in Russia, to no ill effect.
Being drafted as a scared kid or even flying in the Luftwaffe was one thing. Joining the SS, the elite unit whose principal function was executing the Holocaust, was another. If there was an explanation for this, Grass owed it to his public a long time ago. He did not explain his five-decade silence when he finally confessed his membership. It wasn’t hard to figure out why he had finally spoken, though. The truth was almost certain to come out sooner or later, when Grass would have no opportunity to spin it.
What was clear to me at the time was that Gunter Grass had no moral entitlement to his career. I don’t mean that he had no right to write and publish his books. I mean that his career, which was based entirely on truth telling and the responsibility of confession, rested on a lie. Grass was, to some degree, a participant in the greatest act of evil in human history. What had he seen, heard, known or done? There was no way to assess this because the only source of information at this point was the liar, Gunter Grass himself.
Some people suggested at the time that Grass be stripped of his Nobel Prize and other numerous honors, but the tempest died down. Grass had rightly judged that the events of 1945 were no longer of burning interest in 2006. He also perhaps calculated that the German cultural establishment had no desire to revisit its less-than-stellar postwar record of moral accountability.
Now, however, Grass has made a dramatic return to the public stage, “Aged and with my last ink,” as he puts it, and on the last subject one would have thought he would dare address: the conduct of Israel. In “What Must Be Said,” he declares himself indissolubly bound to Israel, although he does not state exactly how. One remembers that he had accompanied Willy Brandt on the latter’s historic visit to Israel in 1973, at a time when Grass’ reputation as Germany’s conscience was at its height. That colossal imposture was the nadir of even his career, but it now seems he wishes to trump it.
“Why do I stay silent,” Grass begins, “conceal for so long what is obvious and has been seen [?]” The subject that ostensibly compels him to speak is the possibility of a pre-emptive Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear program. No doubt, he says, raising this issue will expose him to a charge of “anti-Semitism,” but the very fact of his “bond” to Israel constitutes an obligation to speak. His purpose and desire, by means of international inspection of both Israeli and Iranian nuclear sites, is to protect a “fragile world peace” in a “region occupied by mania.” This will also, in some unspecifiable way, enable peace between Israel and the Palestinians and encourage all others in the Middle East to live in amity.
The Netanyahu government might have been well advised to ignore Grass entirely or simply to remind the world of his questionable bona fides. Instead, it jumped at the bait, declaring him a persona non grata and demanding that the Nobel Prize committee strip him of his prize — something that, quite predictably, it declined to do as it had six years earlier. The committee took the occasion to state that Grass’ prize had been awarded strictly on the literary merit of his work, as if this existed on some plane above moral context. Of course, one might recall that Sweden itself did a thriving business during World War II with the Third Reich, but hey, nobody’s perfect.
What are we to make of this wretched episode? That Gunter Grass could still have a platform in Germany might be thought dismaying enough, but the Germans seem to have gotten over World War II nicely at this point, and legitimizing criticism of Israel is an obvious step in self-rehabilitation. As for Grass himself, the move is strategic. If the old SS veteran can get away with equating Israel and Iran under the guise of promoting international peace and harmony, then he’s back in the arena. No doubt Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will want him as a keynote speaker at his next conference on the Holocaust. There’s no big lie, after all, that can’t get bigger. Ask Gunter Grass. There’s no one who knows it better.
Capsule: The international controversy that has erupted over the criticism of Israel by Gunter Grass, the Nobel laureate and belatedly self-confessed SS veteran, proves that there’s no lie that can’t get bigger and no shame that can’t become more shameful.
Robert Zaller is professor of history. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.