What has to be said

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This is going to be a post that really breaks from the tenor of my regular offerings. It sort of has to. See, I normally avoid  religion and politics. It’s just not my thing. I certainly have opinions on these topics, but most of the time I’d rather be writing to a general audience.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned my grandfather and his stance on this. He often said something to the effect of, ‘Only fools and morons talk about religion and politics in polite company.‘ I can’t even begin to imagine what he’d think about this blogging lark. It’d probably take me a while to explain to him exactly what was going on here, and even then I’m not entirely confident that I could convince him.

Oh well.

Here goes:

Günter Grass, who is a Nobel Prize winner in literature, has caused an international incident by writing a poem that’s appeared in several major European newspapers. What could possibly be the subject  that’s caused all this controversy? Well, Israel of course.

I don’t know if you know one of the unwritten rules of international politics, but quite simply Germans don’t publicly criticise Israel. It’s just not done. There’s this little matter of the Holocaust, which for obvious reasons makes any relations between modern Israel and Germany rife with tension. Actually, the German government deals with this by publicly supporting Israel on nearly everything.

You could look at an incident such as this public poem as Germany really growing out of its postwar paralysis, when it comes to the world stage – that same way many people including me saw it when Joschka Fischer confronted Donald Rumsfeld  and insisted that he wasn’t convinced by the evidence leading to the  invasion of Iraq. I assure you that it’s not the way the Israeli government (or many of its citizens) sees Günter Grass and his outspoken opinions.  This German intellectual‘s position is not welcomed and his reputation is purportedly tarnished.

Here, the writer is quoted by Der Spiegel (an influential German news magazine):

The overall tenor is to not engage in the content of the poem, but instead to wage a campaign against me and to claim that my reputation is damaged forever,’ Grass said in an interview with a German public broadcaster on Thursday.

So without further ado, here’s the poem in the original German:

Was gesagt werden muss
Von Günter Grass

Warum schweige ich, verschweige zu lange, was offensichtlich ist und in Planspielen geübt wurde, an deren Ende als Überlebende wir allenfalls Fußnoten sind.

Es ist das behauptete Recht auf den Erstschlag, der das von einem Maulhelden unterjochte und zum organisierten Jubel gelenkte iranische Volk auslöschen könnte, weil in dessen Machtbereich der Bau einer Atombombe vermutet wird.

Doch warum untersage ich mir, jenes andere Land beim Namen zu nennen, in dem seit Jahren – wenn auch geheimgehalten – ein wachsend nukleares Potential verfügbar aber außer Kontrolle, weil keiner Prüfung zugänglich ist?

Das allgemeine Verschweigen dieses Tatbestandes, dem sich mein Schweigen untergeordnet hat, empfinde ich als belastende Lüge und Zwang, der Strafe in Aussicht stellt, sobald er mißachtet wird; das Verdikt “Antisemitismus” ist geläufig.

Jetzt aber, weil aus meinem Land, das von ureigenen Verbrechen, die ohne Vergleich sind, Mal um Mal eingeholt und zur Rede gestellt wird, wiederum und rein geschäftsmäßig, wenn auch mit flinker Lippe als Wiedergutmachung deklariert, ein weiteres U-Boot nach Israel geliefert werden soll, dessen Spezialität darin besteht, allesvernichtende Sprengköpfe dorthin lenken zu können, wo die Existenz einer einzigen Atombombe unbewiesen ist, doch als Befürchtung von Beweiskraft sein will, sage ich, was gesagt werden muß.

Warum aber schwieg ich bislang? Weil ich meinte, meine Herkunft, die von nie zu tilgendem Makel behaftet ist, verbiete, diese Tatsache als ausgesprochene Wahrheit dem Land Israel, dem ich verbunden bin und bleiben will, zuzumuten.

Warum sage ich jetzt erst, gealtert und mit letzter Tinte: Die Atommacht Israel gefährdet den ohnehin brüchigen Weltfrieden? Weil gesagt werden muß, was schon morgen zu spät sein könnte; auch weil wir – als Deutsche belastet genug – Zulieferer eines Verbrechens werden könnten, das voraussehbar ist, weshalb unsere Mitschuld durch keine der üblichen Ausreden zu tilgen wäre.

Und zugegeben: ich schweige nicht mehr, weil ich der Heuchelei des Westens überdrüssig bin; zudem ist zu hoffen, es mögen sich viele vom Schweigen befreien, den Verursacher der erkennbaren Gefahr zum Verzicht auf Gewalt auffordern und gleichfalls darauf bestehen, daß eine unbehinderte und permanente Kontrolle des israelischen atomaren Potentials und der iranischen Atomanlagen durch eine internationale Instanz von den Regierungen beider Länder zugelassen wird.

Nur so ist allen, den Israelis und Palästinensern, mehr noch, allen Menschen, die in dieser vom Wahn okkupierten Region dicht bei dicht verfeindet leben und letztlich auch uns zu helfen.’

Here’s The New York Times‘ response to all of it:

Günter Grass’s Poem About Israel Provokes Intense Criticism

And the article in the International version of Der Spiegel:

Nobel Laureate Under Fire: Grass Says Campaign Against Him ‘Injurious’

I could spend my time translating the poem, but instead I’ll update this when a decent English version is released. Instead, I’ll just say that I’m very conflicted on all of this. Generally, I’m very sympathetic to Israel. I have a lot of Jewish friends, and I cannot begin to fathom what it’s like to live in a country where all of your neighbours want your nation destroyed.

Anyone who says this issue is black and white is either lying to themselves or to you. Or even more probably, they’re lying to both.

Someone who understands rhetoric knows that it’s more effective to show both sides with equal respect. I’ve said  nice things about Jewish people and Israel’s predicament, and now you’re waiting for me to offer you the other side. Well before I do that, I just want to say that those aren’t empty thoughts. I’m not desperately waiting to get around to supporting the other side.

As a matter of fact I’m not even going to talk about the Palestinians other than to quickly mention them. It’s not that I don’t also sympathise with their plight. In fact, I do. But there’s no way I can begin to address that in the limited time I have. That’s too big an issue and would distract me from what I feel needs to be said. Or as the poet’s title says, ‘What has to be said.’

So what is it? What exactly is the What that has to be said?

Grass goes on in Der Spiegel article:

‘It has occurred to me that in a democratic country in which freedom of the press prevails, there is a certain forced conformity which stands in the foreground along with a refusal to even consider the content and the questions that I cite.’

One of his main points is that the German government should no longer be selling Israel submarines that could or would be used in an attack on Iran. The response from the Israeli government was covered in the same Der Spiegel article:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted to the poem with particularly harsh words.Günter Grass‘ shameful moral equivalence between Israel and Iran, a regime that denies the Holocaust and threatens to annihilate Israel, says little about Israel and much about Mr. Grass,” a statement released by Netanyahu’s office read. “For six decades, Mr. Grass hid the fact that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS. So for him to cast the one and only Jewish state as the greatest threat to world peace and to oppose giving Israel the means to defend itself is perhaps not surprising.’

But the thing is that the writer didn’t make any moral equivalence between the nations of Israel and Iran. That was neither what he said nor what he implied. It’s true that the Nobel Laureate was in the Waffen-SS when he was a teenager, and he only admitted it after including it in his 2006 book Peeling the Onion.

Does that mean he can no longer speak his mind about his country’s military involvement? Because of Germany’s deplorable atrocities in the mid Twentieth Century, have its government and its citizens been stripped of the right to speak out on matters of international importance?

Really?

(update: here’s The Guardian‘s translation of the poem -it’s not the whole thing…I’ll be watching for more of it to be translated)

What Must Be Said by Günter Grass

But why have I kept silent till now?

Because I thought my own origins,

Tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,

meant I could not expect Israel, a land

to which I am, and always will be, attached,

to accept this open declaration of the truth.

 

Why only now, grown old,

and with what ink remains, do I say:

Israel’s atomic power endangers

an already fragile world peace?

Because what must be said

may be too late tomorrow;

and because – burdened enough as Germans –

we may be providing material for a crime

that is foreseeable, so that our complicity

wil not be expunged by any

of the usual excuses.

 

And granted: I’ve broken my silence

because I’m sick of the West’s hypocrisy;

and I hope too that many may be freed

from their silence, may demand

that those responsible for the open danger we face renounce the use of force,

may insist that the governments of

both Iran and Israel allow an international authority

free and open inspection of

the nuclear potential and capability of both.

update: There’s been plenty in the German press, as well as the international media, about the response to this story about Günter Grass and his poem. I thought I’d include something from the often satirical left-leaning Berlin newspaper die tageszeitung. Although this paper dealt with the topic seriously and critically, they saved a bit of space on their last page to poke a stick in Grass’s eye. To put this in context, Good Friday (the last Friday before Easter) is a national holiday and there are no newspapers sold that day.

The short article is called an ‘Open Letter to Günter Grass‘, and it’s written in an overly polite tone. Here’s how it looks in German:

‘Sehr geehrter Günter Grass. Sie haben gestern ein politisches Gedicht veröffentlicht, das in den Medien wie eine Atombombe eingeschlagen ist. Es dauerte auch nicht lange, bis wir von ganz oben dazu aufgefordert wurden, uns etwas dazu zu überlegen: “Das ist doch eine Steilvorlage für Satiriker! Das könnt ihr euch nicht entgehen lassen!” Uns gar nicht dazu zu äußern, kam also nicht in Frage. Wir überlegten darum hin und her und her und hin, was wir von dieser verschnarchten Altherrenpoesie denn nun halten sollten. Bereits durch die flüchtige Lektüre des lyrisch-rheumatischen Mahnmals um etwa drei Jahrzehnte gealtert, kamen wir schließlich zu folgendem Ergebnis: Herr Grass, hätten Sie dieses Scheißgedicht nicht erst einen Tag später veröffentlichen können? Dann hätten wir nämlich frei gehabt. Auch das musste einmal gesagt werden.’

Essentially, it says: You released an atomic bomb in the media, and of course the powers-that-be here at the paper insisted that we satirical writers couldn’t let an opportunity like this pass us by. So, we kicked the idea back and forth of what satirical thing we could say. Something appropriate to respond to this snore-fest of an old man’s poetry. We’ve aged as a result of having to read the volatile teachings of this lyrical and rheumatic monument of a writer, so here’s what we decided to say to him: Hey Mr Grass! Couldn’t you have waited just one more day to release this crap poem? Then we writers could’ve actually had the day off. That had to be said, as well.

(my very loose translation)