Poem sparks debate about whether Germany should absolve Israel’s crimes

Günter Grass at a podium

Günter Grass is banned from Israel after publishing a taboo-breaking poem.

Christoph Müller-Girod Flickr

Günter Grass is an 84-year-old Nobel Prize-winning German author, most famous for his 1959 novel The Tin Drum.

On 4 April the Bavarian newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung published his poem “Was gesagt werden muss” (“What must be said”), in which Grass warns against an Israeli attack on Iran and demands that Germany should cease providing Israel with nuclear-capable submarines (“Was gesagt werden muss,” 4 April 2012 [German]).

The poem can be paraphrased as follows: Why has the poet been silent for too long about the possibility of a “first strike” that could wipe out the Iranian people? Why should he not name Israel whose secret nuclear program is beyond reach of inspection? Germany, in the name of “reparations” yet in reality for business reasons, is providing Israel with another submarine that may aim nuclear weapons at Iran, where the existence of a single atom bomb is unproven. Those who break silence on this issue are accused of “anti-Semitism.” Why, with his “last ink” does he now write that Israel threatens world peace?

Because tomorrow it might be too late, Grass wrote, and Germans “could be the deliverers of a crime” for which “none of the usual excuses / would suffice to erase / our shared guilt.”

Whatever the literary qualities of Grass’s poem, it testifies to his lingering literary eminence that it has engendered such a colossal backlash, to the point that he has now been banned from Israel.

Israel’s response

Even the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has waded in, claiming that Israel and Iran cannot be compared because “in Iran there is a regime that denies the Holocaust and calls for the destruction of Israel” (“Netanyahu slams Guenter Grass for controversial Israel poem,” Haaretz, 5 April 2012).

While the first part of this assertion is partly true, the second has long since been exposed as a lie — which does nothing to prevent its repeated dissemination. Netanyahu added: “It is Iran, not Israel, which threatens to destroy other countries.”

Again, the opposite is the case: Israel, which has repeatedly “destroyed” its neighbors Gaza and Lebanon, has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and is in possession of hundreds of nuclear warheads; Iran, which has invaded none of its neighbors in modern times, has signed the NPT and possesses no nuclear weapons.

Why should Netanyahu feel obliged to respond to a piece of doggerel by a German writer? Because Germany, Europe’s most powerful country, is Israel’s most important ally after the US.

A positive outcome of Germany’s crushing defeat in the Second World War has been the development of a strongly anti-war conviction among ordinary Germans. Although German participation in NATO air strikes against Serbia without a UN mandate in 1999 was successfully sold to the German people (with Grass’s support) as “humanitarian intervention” and “a progressives’ war,” German involvement in the current war on Afghanistan has, from the start, been opposed by some 70 percent of Germans.

If the German state is to maintain its unconditional support for Israel’s aggressive policies (even if spiced with occasional pro forma criticisms of its illegal settlement expansion), then nobody as prominent as Grass must be allowed to step out of line without being subjected to massive defamation as a deterrent. Of course, Grass is vulnerable to such a campaign, having incomprehensibly waited until 2006 to admit his adolescent membership of the Nazi party’s Waffen SS (“‘I was a member of the SS’,” Spiegel Online International, 11 August 2006).

Grass vilified in Germany

In Germany, the chorus of vilification has been loud and predictable.

Writing in the right-wing paper Die Welt, the notorious rabble-rousing commentator Henryk Broder called Grass “the prototype of an educated anti-Semite” who “always had a problem with Jews (“Günter Grass — Nicht ganz dicht, aber ein Dichter,” 8 April 2012 [German]).

He backed these accusations with a quotation from a 2001 interview in Der Spiegel in which Grass — in line with international law — called on Israel to end the occupation and withdraw its illegal settlers (“Interview mit Günter Grass,” 10 October 2001 [German]).

Note that both the poem and the interview refer to the Israeli state and not to “Jews.”

The Nazi-hunter Beate Klarsfeld, weirdly enough a candidate for Die Linke (the Left Party) in Germany’s recent presidential election, cited a Hitler speech from 1939 in which he attacked “international Jewish finance.” Were we to replace that phrase with “Israel,” according to Klarsfeld, “we would hear the same anti-Semitic music from the Tin Drummer.” By this logic, anything can be proven about any utterance simply by replacing what was actually said with something totally unconnected.

In the Berlin Tageszeitung, a supposedly leftist daily paper, the educationalist Micha Brumlik concludes puzzlingly that Grass is “worse than an anti-Semite,” apparently because he cannot convincingly be pinned down as one (“Der an seiner Schuld würgt,” 4 April 2012 [German]).

Klaus Hillebrand, a member of the same paper’s editorial staff, comments that “[t]he scandal consists not in Grass’s critique of Israel, but in the fact that he depicts himself as a martyred victim of Jews, who apparently wish to censor the truth. That is an anti-Semitic stereotype” (“Der alte Mann und das Stereotyp,” 4 April 2012 [German]).

But nowhere did Grass claim that Jews were responsible for the censorship of criticism of Israel in Germany.

Such contorted reasoning needs to be placed in context.

Germany’s “reduction of Jewishness”

Marking Israel’s 60th anniversary in 2008, Peter Struck, a former defense minister and a member of the Social-Democratic Party, stated that “the crimes of the Nazis founded a perpetual responsibility of Germans for the Jewish state” (“Israels Zukunft und Deutschlands Verantwortung,” 12 March 2008 [German, PDF]).

A few months later, in a speech in a Berlin synagogue on the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht (the “night of broken glass” that features powerfully in Grass’s Tin Drum), Chancellor Angela Merkel asserted that “protecting Israel’s security is part of German Staatsraeson (reason of state)” (“German Chancellor: ‘Protecting Israel is part of Germany’s reason of state,” Philosemitism blog, 13 November 2008).

This is a Gallicism for what in English is covered by the German word Realpolitik, which has replaced the older “reason of state” defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary as “a motive for governmental action based on alleged needs or requirements of a political state regardless of possible transgressions of the rights or the moral codes of individual persons.”

If German “responsibility … for the Jewish state” is “perpetual,” as Merkel has suggested, then it is independent of any crimes of which that state may be guilty. If Nazi crimes against the Jews result not in German responsibility towards the Jewish people in general, but in “responsibility … for the [self-styled] Jewish state,” then Jews worldwide are being equated with the State of Israel, which did not exist during the Third Reich.

Within this framework, it follows naturally that any critique of Israel is by definition anti-Semitic. As a result, the “Jewish state” is conceded perpetual impunity by Germany, Europe’s most powerful state, with ruthless character assassination the fate of anyone who protests.

The philosopher Judith Butler has written: “To say that all Jews hold a given view on Israel or are adequately represented by Israel or, conversely, that the acts of Israel, the state, adequately stand for the acts of all Jews, is to conflate Jews with Israel and, thereby, to commit an anti-Semitic reduction of Jewishness” (“No, it’s not anti-Semitic,” London Review of Books, 21 August 2003).

Paradoxically, therefore, Germany’s “reason of state” commits precisely such a “reduction of Jewishness” while simultaneously facilitating the transgression of the rights of anyone deemed by the Israeli state to stand in the way of its hegemony in the Middle East.

Degrees of support

Meanwhile, although mainstream media continue to parrot the line that his poem has caused “global outrage,” Günter Grass has received a degree of support from the German peace movement that might not have been forthcoming had the Netanyahus and Klarsfelds not ranted quite so vehemently.

Participants in the traditional Easter peace marches throughout Germany, which rarely mention the question of Israel, have reportedly adopted such slogans as “Günter Grass, you are right. Thank you!” (“Support for Günter Grass takes center stage at German anti-war protests,” The Times of Israel, 7 April 2012)

Felicia Langer, a retired German-Israeli lawyer who specialized in defending Palestinians before Israeli military courts, published an “open letter” in which she and her Holocaust survivor husband Mieciu expressed their “admiration for your civil courage in the face of the general mendacity regarding Israel” (“Offener Brief an Günter Grass,” Palestina Portal, 6 April 2012 [German]).

Gary Smith, executive director at the American Academy in Berlin, claims in The New York Times that Grass is “focusing the fears of Germans now around Israel as a danger. This could be a turning point in the way part of the German public speaks about Israel” (“Storm continues after German writer’s poem against Israel,” 6 April 2012).

If this is the case, then Günter Grass will have achieved his greatest success since The Tin Drum.

Raymond Deane is a composer and political activist living in Ireland and Germany.




Spot-on commentary, Dr. Deane! Your conclusionary paragraph is perfect.


Gunter Grass is absolutely right on the mark. Why shouldn't he be free to criticise a country's policies when they promote aggression, apartheid and co-ersion by stealing other people's lands and subjugating them to life in prison.

It is utterly stupid to imprison Germany forever in order to appease Israel because what Hitler did to the Jews. Besides what have the Palestinians done to deserve the brunt of this crime committed by the Nazi regime against German Jews? Do they not need a voice or must Germany forever remain silence out of guilt.

Must the Germans collectively accept this infinite guilt and force another nation to pay the price for their guilt? Don't you think you are actually committing another crime by invoking such a policy?

There is honour in speaking the truth especially if it is against yourself. Time to acknowledge peace for all humanity, denounce all wars of aggression and abandon guilt. Thank you, Ahmed from Bahrain.


Glad to know more people are speaking up against the Israeli regime and the double standards that are given to them by many countries and others turn a blind eye towards their hypocrisy. Building nuclear weapons and apartheid, ridiculous the amount of rules they can break without consequence from other nations, and if they are pointed at for a crime they instantly play the antisemitism card. Banning the man from the state just shows how insecure the Israeli regime is and just plain childish. Good Article.


After 64 years of invoking the Holocaust to justify both Israeli crimes and the support of its "liberal" apologists in the West, let me propose a modest return to reason: When the last Holocaust survivor and the last Nazi are in their graves, the Holocaust can no longer be invoked to justify anything.

Today's German government bears less responsibility for Hitler than the trees that bore the fruit his mother ate when she was pregnant. As for Israel, it mocks the Holocaust each time it bulldozes a Palestinian home, shoots a boy in Hebron, or denies a needed import to Gaza -- all tactics that mirror Nazi actions in the Warsaw ghetto.

The Holocaust is far better remembered in the life of Leslie Goldenberger, whose story I will share: Leslie was the sole Holocaust survivor at a Montreal clothing factory, where we shared a cubicle in 1970. He was also an embarrassment to management, all of whom were avid Zionists, while Leslie was the only Jew in the company who refused to put a Jewish National Fund donation box on his desk.

He was also the sole survivor of a daring escape from Auschwitz, where three motor pool workers overwhelmed three SS officers, stole their uniforms, and drove out of the camp in a staff car -- briskly returning the salutes of the guards as they left. They hid in a haystack overnight, and split up the next morning. The others (as I learned in a documentary, decades later) were promptly caught and shot. Leslie evaded capture, fought alongside Polish partisans, and was briefly imprisoned by the Soviets, before being sent to a refugee camp in Austria.

He emigrated to Palestine, but left two years later, citing Zionist policies against native Arabs that reminded him too much of the early Nazis. He moved on to Argentina, only to emigrate again to Canada, when he saw too much of Stalin in Peron.

Question: If you had died at Auschwitz, who would better represent your memory today -- Leslie Goldenberger, or Bibi Netanyahu?


Dear Mark. Thank you for sharing Leslie's story, a true human being.


"Netanyahu has waded in, claiming that Israel and Iran cannot be compared because 'in Iran there is a regime that denies the Holocaust and calls for the destruction of Israel'”

... whereas in Israel the regime refuses to admit it has nuclear bombs and calls for the bombing of Iran -- i.e., just about the opposite of what Bibi says.