This is the text of Nobel laureate Günter Grass’s poem, published earlier this month, which caused a storm in Germany and Israel. The translation appeared in Atlantic magazine (April 16).
What Must Be Said
Why do I stay silent, conceal for too long
What clearly is and has been
Practiced in war games, at the end of which we as survivors
Are at best footnotes.
It is the alleged right to first strike
That could annihilate the Iranian people –
Enslaved by a loud-mouth
And guided to organized jubilation –
Because in their territory,
It is suspected, a bomb is being built.
Yet why do I forbid myself
To name that other country
In which, for years, even if secretly,
There has been a growing nuclear potential at hand
But beyond control, because no inspection is available?
The universal concealment of these facts,
To which my silence subordinated itself,
I sense as incriminating lies
And force – the punishment is promised
As soon as it is ignored;
The verdict of “anti-Semitism” is familiar.
Now, though, because in my country
Which from time to time has sought and confronted
Its very own crime
That is without compare
In turn on a purely commercial basis, if also
With nimble lips calling it a reparation, declares
A further U-boat should be delivered to Israel,
Whose specialty consists of guiding all-destroying warheads to where the existence
Of a single atomic bomb is unproven,
But as a fear wishes to be conclusive,
I say what must be said.
Why though have I stayed silent until now?
Because I thought my origin,
Afflicted by a stain never to be expunged
Kept the state of Israel, to which I am bound
And wish to stay bound,
From accepting this fact as pronounced truth.
Why do I say only now,
Aged and with my last ink,
That the nuclear power of Israel endangers
The already fragile world peace?
Because it must be said
What even tomorrow may be too late to say;
Also because we – as Germans burdened enough –
Could be the suppliers to a crime
That is foreseeable, wherefore our complicity
Could not be redeemed through any of the usual excuses.
And granted: I am silent no longer
Of the West; in addition to which it is to be hoped
Because I am tired of the hypocrisy
That this will free many from silence,
That they may prompt the perpetrator of the recognized danger
To renounce violence and
That an unhindered and permanent control
Of the Israeli nuclear potential
And the Iranian nuclear sites
Be authorized through an international agency
By the governments of both countries.
Only this way are all, the Israelis and Palestinians,
Even more, all people, that in this
Region occupied by mania
Live cheek by jowl among enemies,
And also us, to be helped.
• • • • •
The reception of this poem was even more regrettable than the poem itself. Grass deserved being heavily criticized for assuming the unthinkable, namely that Israel might use nuclear weapons to attack Iran, and that Israel, even more than Iran, was a danger to world peace. The occasion for the poem was the sale of two submarines to Israel, which, if used with nuclear warheads, would, in Grass’s mind, make Germany complicit.
To suggest that the poem revealed Grass’s latent anti-Semitism is wrong-headed; anybody should be allowed to make conjectures, and even to equate the moral position of Israel with that of Iran, without being accused of anti-Semitism. As a matter of fact, in his attitude towards Jews, Grass’s record is exemplary. Jews are invariably sympathetic characters in his fiction.
The dean of German critics, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who had written a favourable book about Grass, has noted that Grass always likes taking extreme positions to draw attention to himself, as he did in 1989, when he opposed re-unification on the grounds that a strong nation-state might again become belligerent. He also noted Grass’s obsessive anti-Americanism, which may have led him to this latest charge against Israel.
But it was the eminent historian Fritz Stern, professor at Columbia University, who called the poem a provocation. It filled him with sadness, he wrote. Fifty years ago they became friends and he had enormous respect for his writing. Stern noted that Grass’s membership in the Waffen S.S. at the age of seventeen, about which he had kept quiet until he revealed it in his autobiography in 2006, should not in itself be held against him. It was a juvenile aberration. But keeping it quiet for so long was incompatible with Grass’s self-assumed role as the moral conscience of post-Nazi democratic Germany. Why did he do it? Would it not have been better to go on keeping it quiet? Stern quoted a phrase used by Nietzsche relevant to this situation – ein feines Schweigen – a well-conceived, elegant silence. This surely would have been wiser than an ill-conceived inelegant confession.
But nothing can justify Benjamin Netanyahu’s hysterical response, calling Grass a Nazi, and the decision of Eli Yishai, the Israeli Minister of the Interior, not to allow Grass to enter Israel. With some justification, Grass compared Yishai with Erich Mielke, the head of former East Germany’s secret police.
No, Grass is certainly not an anti-Semite – merely an opponent of the present government of Israel.
One final thought. Could there be something to the idea occasionally cited by editorial writers – an idea that is perhaps not quite as absurd as it seems at first – that Germans will never forgive the Jews for causing Auschwitz?
If so, Günter Grass is among the non-forgivers.