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.

This sort of reading is supported by the famous ironic observation from Israeli psychiatrist Zvi Rex, which Grass's critics are citing over and over: "The Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz." Or in other words, a guilty conscience has a surprising way of manifesting itself through aggression and claims to victimhood.

Grass does indeed begin to paint himself as a victim in his poem. He says that, though his own country's "incomparable crime" makes him more alert to the crime that may be about to take place, he has also stayed silent out of consciousness of his own "stain never to be expunged," and out of fear of being called anti-Semitic.

His critics don't find that rhetorical disclaimer very convincing. Not all of those speaking out right now think Grass is an anti-Semite. One of the harshest denunciations comes from German singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann, who doesn't actually think there's anything morally reprehensible about Grass's poem: it's simply poorly thought-out and terrible poetry, he says -- indicative of a late-career attempt by Grass to stay relevant. And, aside from a vocal fringe for whom Grass has become a hero, there are also plenty of mainstream folks who think Israel's declaration of Grass as persona non grata is a huge overreaction.

But the extent of the backlash shows just how badly Grass has misjudged his audience. As attractive as third rails and original sins may be to seasoned provocateurs -- the United States right now has a more extreme example of this in the case of John Derbyshire's racist list of talking points for white parents on race relations -- they have to be approached with caution and an observable attempt at balance. A politically incorrect attempt to portray reality is one thing. But filter out the facts and present the remainder in a gimmicky medium -- say a poem or a list, neither particularly well-suited to careful argument -- and that's an entirely different sort of affront.

Constant atonement can get old, and it's possible many Germans are ready to engage with the international community without the shadow of the Holocaust. But precisely because of the constant atonement, many Germans have also become adept at picking out undertones and recognizing exculpatory rhetoric. This poem, at this time, struck way too close to home.

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