Germany's National Debate Over Guilt, the Holocaust, Israel, and Gunter Grass

German critics see the Nobel laureate's poem as ugly attempt to invert history, or at best a play for relevance.

Grass april11 p.jpg

Günter Grass Reuters

Last week, Nobel laureate Günter Grass published an op-ed poem denouncing Israel. The poem attacked the "hypocrisy of the West" and the potential Israeli preemptive strike over Iran's nuclear facilities: it could "annihilate the Iranian people," Grass said, who are merely "enslaved by a loud-mouth."

In the firestorm that has followed, even those opposing Israeli foreign policy have taken issue with Grass's poem, which portrayed Israel as a danger to world peace. In Germany in particular, the criticism is ferocious, and extends to the highest levels of politics. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has called "putting Israel and Iran on the same moral level [...] absurd," while Rainer Stinner, speaker for the Free Democratic Party in the Bundestag, has tried to shrug it off: "Grass is a writer. Politically, I've always thought him an idiot." But the question that Grass's German critics seem to be tackling is a tricky one: is Grass merely naïve and possibly careerist, or is there something more subconsciously sinister at work?

Many of the critics seem to feel it's the latter, and that's why they find the poem so repellent. Grass, they argue, is attempting to will into reality a Freudian inversion of past German sins. His poem is an emotional rebalancing of the Holocaust, casting Israel, founded by 20th-century Jewish victims, as a 21st-century existential threat to Iranians.

This is an extremely sensitive topic for many Germans. Despite the immediate post-war effort to forgive and forget as quickly as possible, in the past few decades Germany has been extremely anxious to take full responsibility for the Holocaust. That means not just shutting down anti-Semitism wherever it pops up, but being very, very careful about criticizing other parties in any way that might seem to minimize German crimes.

Grass's problem is that he has twice now seemed to do just that: compare the Holocaust to the actions of other states. In the summer of 2011, when Grass gave an interview to Israeli journalist Tom Segev over his drafting into the Waffen-SS (despite spending many years urging Germany to confront its past crimes, he kept his participation in the Waffen-SS a secret for a very long time), he said some things about Russia that deeply troubled German observers. Here's how Henryk M. Broder, writing for Die Welt, picks apart that earlier interview, which he feels illuminates this latest poem. It's crucial for understanding how Grass's rhetoric can look to a critical eye:

When Segev wanted to know why the Holocaust was only at the edge of the "onion" [i.e. many-layered phenomenon of World War II], Grass answered: "The madness and the crimes didn't just occur in the Holocaust and didn't stop at the war's end. Of eight million German soldiers that were taken prisoner by the Russians, only perhaps two million survived. The rest were liquidated."

One doesn't need to be a trained mathematician to figure out Grass's numbers game: six million German soldiers were liquidated by the Russians. That only around three million German soldiers found themselves Soviet prisoners of war, of which around 1.1 million didn't survive, plays no role. Because Grass isn't talking about numbers, but a cipher. Six million. That is the number everything's always about. The Lucky German Number. Six million Jews dead on one side, six million dead German prisoners on the other, that gives on balance a clean zero.

Why is this relevant now? Because just as the notion of Russians killing an equal number of Germans reverses the perpetrator-victim roles, the notion of Israel "annihilating the Iranian people" does the same, turning Jews from victims into the perpetrators of a new genocide. Or as another German journalist puts it, Grass is saying "the Jews want to do what we did." By downplaying Iran's wish to destroy Israel, and playing way up Israel's possible strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, Grass starts to look like he's got an agenda, even if it's a subconscious one.

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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