BERLIN—Germany’s most famous living writer has unleashed an international debate by branding Israel the greatest threat to world peace.
Günter Grass, author of the 1959 novel "The Tin Drum" and winner of the 1999 Nobel Prize in literature, made the claim in an early April poem entitled “What Must Be Said” in the left-liberal Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung.
He further argued in his poem that Israel plans the “extermination of the Iranian people.”
On Sunday, the conservative German paper Die Welt am Sonntag quoted Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “That it comes from a German Nobel laureate and not from a teenager in a Neo-Nazi party makes it all the more outrageous. And it demands a very strong response. I think what Grass said shows a collapse of moral clarity.”
Since the publication of his anti-Israel diatribe, Grass has doubled down, declaring Israel’s travel ban of him comparable to the policies of the now-defunct German Democratic Republic’s notorious Stasi intelligence service.
The spat spilled over into the US American literary scene, when best-selling author Dave Eggers announced in April that he would not personally appear to accept an award at the Günter Grass Foundation.
According to his publisher, Eggers wishes to not “be forced into commenting, endlessly and needlessly, on Grass and Israel and Iran, when the purpose of his visit was supposed to be about discussing his book 'Zeitoun,' and the plight of Americans during and after Hurricane Katrina.”
In addition to Grass’s intense dislike of the Jewish state, his career has been marked by hardcore anti-Americanism.
In 2003, a mere three years before he revealed his membership in the Waffen-SS in an interview with the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he wrote a Los Angeles Times piece arguing that President George W. Bush and his government “are diminishing democratic values.” Grass suggested in his article that American foreign policy is comparable to the fundamentalist ideology of Al Qaeda.
It is hardly surprising that the 84-year-old Grass has evoked such fierce reactions.
In 2006, after decades urging Germany’s post-World War II generations to confront the monstrosity of Hitler’s crimes, Grass revealed that he had served as a member of the Nazi Waffen SS.
An online survey conducted by the German edition of the Financial Times revealed that 57% of the respondents found Grass’s “theses about Israel” correct. Only 8% percent of the roughly 22,000 respondents found his statements to be either “anti-Semitic” or “insane.”
Germany’s national television ARD showed 51% percent of its online respondents saying they “completely agree” with Grass.
How is it possible for a man with such baggage to enjoy support from so many Germans?
While Israel has never threatened to obliterate Iran, the Iranian regime routinely issues calls “to wipe Israel off the map.” Iran’s supposedly moderate former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani exulted as early as 2001 that “the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything.”
Predictably and swiftly, the Iranian regime welcomed Grass’s poem. Iran’s deputy culture minister Javad Shamaqdari wrote in a letter to Grass, "I read your literary work of human and historical responsibility, and it warns beautifully." The Iranian regime-controlled English Press TV stated: "Metaphorically speaking, the poet has launched a deadly lyrical strike against Israel."
German debates over anti-Semitism after the Holocaust have traditionally been anchored in guilt and shame, and in that department, Grass is no anomaly. The German writer and director Rainer Werner Fassbinder neatly captured this phenomenon in his 1975 play “Garbage: The City and Death,” in which the character Hans von Gluck bemoans, “And it’s the Jew’s fault, because he makes us feel guilty because he exists. If he’d stayed where he came from, or if they had gassed him, I would sleep better.”
Which may help to explain Grass’ peculiar obsession with Israel. Henryk M. Broder, a best-selling German author and critic of Grass, argues that the debate has transformed Germany’s Nazi-era slogan “The Jews Are Our Misfortune”’ into “Israel Is Our Misfortune.”
Commenting on Grass on the front page of the large daily Die Welt during the first week of the mushrooming row, Broder said Grass is “the prototype of the educated anti-Semite who means well toward Jews. He is hounded by guilt and feelings of shame but at the same time driven to reconcile history.”
Germans of almost all political colors show an alarming hatred of Israel.
In 2011, a think tank affiliated with Germany’s Social Democratic Party issued a report revealing that 47.7 percent of respondents agreed that “Israel is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians.” A BBC poll in 2007 showed that a staggering 77 percent of Germans harbored anti-Israel sentiments -- numbers higher than those of any other country in Europe.
The Grass debacle has prompted Marieluise Beck, a Green Party deputy in the Bundestag, to quote the Israeli psychoanalyst Zvi Rex’s quip that “The Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz.” In addition to Beck, her fellow colleagues, to their credit, from a cross section of the mainstream parties have voiced criticism of Grass’s poem.
Philipp Mißfelder, the foreign policy spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party in the Bundestag, said “the poem is tasteless and unhistoric and shows a lack of knowledge about the situation in the Middle East.”
Andrea Nahles, the general secretary of the Social Democratic Party, stressed that “it is inappropriate to term Israel a danger for world peace or to compare Israel’s policies with those of Iran.”
Grass’s principal parliamentary support came the German Left party deputy Wolfgang Gehrcke, who serves as the party’s foreign policy spokesman.
He said Grass has the “courage” to say what is silenced. In the past Gehrcke has participated in pro- Hamas and pro-Hezbollah rallies and has compared Israel to Nazi Germany.
Unsurprisingly, the Left Party has struggled over the years to recognize Israel’s right to exist. While the anti-fascist Left party spokesman celebrated Grass, the extreme right-wing fascist party—the National Democrats (NDP)—also praised the author. Günter Grass has earned credit for his “liberating break of a taboo” by criticizing the “aggressive Jewish state,” wrote the NPD Saxony state politician Jürgen Gansel.
Grass, a lifelong Social Democratic party activist, is surely not wittingly seeking applause from the extremist parties. Nonetheless, he has experienced enough debates in Germany to realize that what merges the extremist Right, radical Left and fundamentalist Islamists are hyperbolic anti-Israel sentiments.
Frank Schirrmacher, culture editor of the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the daily paper to which Grass confessed his Nazi past in 2006, called Grass’ poem a “document of revenge.” He wrote that Grass must “justify that the entire world is a victim of Israel” to “make peace with his own biography.”
Yet as Grass has dug in his heels, his tirades have appeared less and less humanitarian. In the winter of his years, his outburst marks a sad last chapter for a novelist who so memorably chronicled the rise of Nazism.
Benjamin Weinthal is a Berlin-based Journalist and fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Benjamin Weinthal reports on human rights in the Middle East and is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @BenWeinthal