GUNTER GRASS ON THE ISRAELI OFFENSIVE AGAINST IRAN'S NUCLEAR CAPABILITIES

  A photo of Gunter Grass by Florian K. Licensed through Wikimedia Commons.

A photo of Gunter Grass by Florian K. Licensed through Wikimedia Commons.

BY BEENISH AHMED

The German novelist and Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass died on Monday at the age of 87.  Through his work, Grass forced Germany to reconcile with the atrocities it waged during World War II. Although an esteemed social critic and ethicist, he revealed only about a decade ago that he was a member of the Waffen-SS Nazi Party's protection unit.  

Grass wrote in a 2012 poem, translated from the German by Heather Horn: 

Why though have I stayed silent until now?
Because I thought my own origin,
Afflicted by a stain never to be expunged


But the stanzas above did not relate to his silence over his own participation the horrors of the Nazi Party, but rather to something very different: Israel's nuclear arsenal and its belligerent stance towards Iran. A topic that is, needless to say, not just surprising upon a first reading of this portion of the poem "What Must Be Said," but also uncanny given its resonance with a now ongoing debate over Iran's nuclear capabilities -- and Israel's efforts to snub them out. 

Silence -- as well as the complacencies and complexities it so often shields -- were major themes in much of Grass' work. They were immortalized in Oskar Matzerath of the novelists' most revered work The Tin Drum. In the fanciful tale, the main character wills himself silent at the age of three and can only thereafter express himself through beating a tin drum. As Grass' New York Times' obituary noted, Matzerath "was viewed as representing a German nation so morally stunted that it could not find the courage to prevent Nazism." In so doing, it may have also represented Grass' own inabilities to deflect what he called the "prettified black-and-white 'truth'" of the SS.  

Perhaps his own moral failures as a teenager compelled him to engage with the ethical shambles left behind by the collapse of Nazism -- and the destruction it wrought across Europe. Even though he admits to a certain degree of "hypocrisy" in criticizing Israeli nuclear armament, Grass notes in his poem that he feels obligated by something akin to the greater good to decry its proliferation -- and the German role in supplying Israel with weapons. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the poem's allegation that Israel is more dangerous a foe to world peace than Iran a "shameful moral equivalence." But another equivalence lurks beneath the surface of the poem: that of Germany's own history, writ, across that of Israel -- ironically, of course, since the state was established for the Jewish people, in large part, by the genocide Germany waged against them. The poem's politically-technical prose describes Israel's sense of victimization drives it toward an aggressive, and, as Grass maintained, dangerous bellicosity. The same sort that engulfed Germany ahead of World War II. 

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

And this is the same logic Grass applied to revealing his Nazi past, as a septuagenarian who had already been lauded with much social acclaim.

"It was a weight on me," he said in a disclosure ahead of his memoir on the topic, Peeling the Onion. "My silence over all these years is one the reasons I wrote the book. It had to come out in the end."

Read the full poem below: 

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
Because I am tired of the hypocrisy
Of the West; in addition to which it is to be hoped
That this will free many from silence,
That they may prompt the perpetrator of the recognized danger
To renounce violence and
Likewise insist 
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.