Upon boarding the flight back last Wednesday night from NY to Berlin I picked up the Sueddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), finding on its first page a picture of Guenter Grass, holding a pipe. The headline read “Ein Aufschrei” (An outcry): Guenter Grass warns of a war against Iran: “the literature Nobel Prize Laureate’s claims that Germany should not provide Israel with Submarines.”
I did not read the poem, “What Must Be Said” on the flight (being busy with two young children and recurring attempts to sleep), but thought that, from that headline, I would support an outcry against attacking Iran. I like poetry making the first pages of centrist (left-leaning) newspapers, and as for the pipe and the submarines, they are signs of older times, part of performing memory in Germany around Grass who is identified with the pipe, the 68’ers and Germany’s underwater adventures, and its declared commitment to Israel’s security. So be it. But now I have my concerns about the not very good poem and about the controversies surrounding it.
In the taxi ride back home, we heard discussions in all news channels (as the driver browsed from one to the next) about Grass’s anti-Semitism, which perplexed me. We read the poem at home and were underwhelmed. Thomas Steinfeld noted in the SZ on Wednesday night, it is not Grass’s first poem. Actually, the first published one made him join group 47 in 1955, and his poetry has always been full of exaggerations. Exaggerations are part of the poetic form, we are reminded, and Grass went wrong here, as he erred about, for instance, “trying to save the collapsing GDR from the German Federal Republic.”
I would like to focus a bit on the language of the lyrical prose, preserving and highlighting parts of it that have been overlooked, like the discussion of comparable moral standing and silence, and the performance of national memory narrative.
In the German (and Israeli) discussion following Grass’s poem, the focus has been on the attack on Israeli atomic policy, on Israel’s moral superiority in the Middle East and on Grass’s statement that Israel is a threat to world peace. Since we are dealing with a poem, we ought to also consider the form and language of the poem. Silence (Schweigen) is repeated five times, concealment (Verschweigen) twice, and the formulation “what must be said” and speech (Rede) three more times. Barring or forbidding (Untersage) once. “Outspoken truth” once. Mr. Grass here liberates himself from a long, allegedly nationally imposed, silence about Israel. This silence, he maintains, is due to the threat of being called an anti-Semite, which he is ending now because “tomorrow might be too late.” But here I focus on the performance of national narratives by Grass, about the discourse of silence. It resembles the opening of Foucault’s History of Sexuality about the repressive hypothesis that creates and marks more discursive mechanisms affording speech and control of speech about sex.
What is the role of writing about breaking the silence? How can a Grass poem stir such discussion? Stephen Evens wrote for the BBC:
“In the years after the war, Guenter Grass’s writing gave him a status of Conscience of the Nation, and in a nation which takes its soul-searching very seriously indeed […] For more than 60 years after the war, he showed a zeal and what seemed like a searing honesty in the way he berated those who refused to admit their own dark pasts. But this reputation was dented when it emerged in 2006 that he had kept quiet about his own past as a member of the Waffen-SS (a branch of the military under the direct control of the Nazi party). Even then, he was not universally discredited. Some took this as evidence of the complexity of the psyche of the man (and by implication of the nation).”
With this reputation it is easier to understand the context of the discussion in the German press and how easy it was for the Israeli press to also pick up on the stained, repressed past of Grass as a Waffen SS member.
Concerning the content and form of talking about silence, Grass is actually onto something quite disturbing here, as Michael Naumann, the former culture minister under the Red-Green coalition of Schroeder, recognized in an article on Monday in the Tagesspiegel. Namely a way of speaking, which I heard time and again in reaction to the Holocaust Memorial, often from right-wing radicals, but also from other Memorial visitors: they are not allowed to say what they think about Israel. Israel stands, at least for these actors, for the Jews. Naumann declares the “Poem” (quotation marks in the original) a moral and political scandal. He asks: what motivates Grass? What speaks through him? And he answers:
“…once, just once, to have a vacation from the German ‘responsibility history’; once, just once, to shout at the Jews that they can also be perpetrators; once, just once, like Martin Walser did, to withdraw from the memory the photos, handed down to us, of the concentration camps […] but this exactly we have already heard. What, for the sake of God, speaks there in Guenter Grass?”
Who picked up on the poem’s language? The AJC (American Jewish Committee) condemned using the verb “Verbrechen” or “perpetrator” to describe Israel’s security policy. Westerwelle, the German Foreign Minister wrote yesterday in the popular Bild that positioning Israel and Iran on the same moral level is absurd.
The Left party, historically connected to the SED (the former ruling party in the GDR), supported Grass, providing the only outspoken supporter of his views.
As for German Jewish symbolism and the timing of the poem’s publication, Haaretz reports:
“Emmanuel Nahshon, a diplomat at the Israeli embassy in Berlin, said the allegation – just before the Jewish feast of Passover – that Israel wanted to wipe out the Iranian people belonged to a European anti-Semitic tradition of accusing Jews of ‘ritual murder.’ ”
Meanwhile, a cartoon in Haaretz shows two young men on a roof with their garden of marijuana plants, and one guy is saying to the other “I thought Grass was already banned.” Haaretz’s editorial reacted to Yishai’s declaration of Grass as persona non grata by stating that he “just wrote a poem” and people are free to express their views. What I find interesting about the drama following the publication is the talk about formerly understood taboos: “What Must be Said” is Grass’s reaction to his compulsion to stay silent because of Germany’s responsibility toward Israel after the Holocaust.
All in all, it must be seen as something positive that so much attention and interest has come to light from the publication of a poem, however weak in content and form. At the same time, it is worthwhile to mention and recall just how weak it in fact is. Perhaps the most important lesson in this episode, however, has not to do with the poem itself so much as the way we (in speaking about it, or in neglecting to do so) extend underlying narratives about the political significance of silence and speech, about certain subjects (the Holocaust, Israel, nuclear power and weaponry), in certain places. Or, indeed, anywhere.