This spring, with the weather in Berlin a little less grey, the ominous phrase "the German past" came back to haunt me with unexpected force. I've written about the German attempts to work through our country's responsibility for two world wars and, above all, the Holocaust; I've talked with my parents and grandparents about it; I've gone to Israel and Poland with Jewish survivors. You could say that I've done my fair share of atonement. And yet, a different angle opened up when Günter Grass published his short prose-poem "What must be said" early in April.
The text warned that "the nuclear power Israel endangers world peace" because it might launch a nuclear strike against Iran, "where there is no proof that a single atom bomb exists". It called for "an international authority" to take control of Israel's nuclear weapons and warned that Germany, through its sales of submarines to Israel, risked being complicit in genocide.
Such views are common among German intellectuals, many of whom pride themselves on being pacifists. What drew exceptional outrage, however, was the tone of the poem: Israel and Iran appeared on the same moral plane, in a language that echoed that of the Nazi era. Apart from the accusation that Israel was threatening "a pre-emptive strike . . . which could wipe out the Iranian people", the key notion was "silence" (Schweigen). The point of the poem is that "the blemish" of Grass's birth must not prohibit him from "speaking the truth", even though "the verdict ‘anti-Semitism' is prevalent", thus implying that this verdict may and perhaps even should be ignored. Schweigen in German is a word laden with connotations of the Nazi era. It implies first, a silent majority that fails to prevent crimes; and second, the inability to open up and talk after the crimes. Germany's collective psyche is allergic to silence. Having depicted the victims as potential perpetrators, Grass cast himself — a former member of the Waffen SS in the role of breaking the silence about something like a new Holocaust.
It would be hard to imagine anything more calculated to offend not only all Jews but also many Germans. Even before Israel decided to bar Grass from entering the country, Foreign MinisterxGuido Westerwelle called comparisons between Israel and Iran "absurd", while Germany's leading literary critic, the Holocaust survivor Marcel Reich-Ranicki, described the poem simply as "disgusting".