26 April 2012

Why can’t he say it?

“Why do I keep quiet – have kept quiet too long –  
about what is blatant, about what they practice
in games of war, at whose logical end
we will survive as footnotes at the best.”

So begins Günter Grass’s prose-poem published 4th April in the Süddeutsche Zeitung under the German title of Was gesagt werden muss – “What must be said.” (Full German text here.) The piece was occasioned by the delivery of a further German submarine to Israel – a submarine which Grass claims could be used to launch strikes against an unproven Iranian nuclear capability – and by Netanyahu’s Washington trip three weeks ago – discussed by David Patrikarakos in the LRB blog yesterday – which Grass interprets as Israel demanding the right to the first strike. The poem has been met by a well-choreographed staging of outrage, performed by the German political establishment in a co-production with the New York Times. The N.Y.T. first leaked they were going to publish an English version of the poem, then did a U-turn, and published a one-sided critique instead.

Staged outrage at what though? At this? - “Why say it only now / Aged, and with final ink: / The nuclear-power Israel is a danger / To peace in a world that is cracked already?” Hardly an original thought and probably not great poetry. Yet the poem isn’t about originality, but rather about pronouncing publicly thoughts that have been rattling around Grass’s head for decades, which he hasn’t published because of German taboos on criticising Israel. After dealing with Iran in just one stanza – (“a people under the yolk of a braggart / steered towards organised cheering”) – Grass moves on to discuss the tabu:

‘But why do I forbid myself,
to call that other country by its name,
in which for years  – although kept secret –
a growing nuclear potential stands ready,
but out of control, as no inspections
have been permitted?

The general silence on this fact,
to which my silence subordinated itself,
is a burden for me, a lie,
a compulsion: the punishment in sight
as soon as you step out of line;
the verdict of “antisemitism” is commonplace.’

If you’re experiencing this tabu-breaking as pathetic, then you’re in agreement with many German reactions to the poem, from the left and from the right: why not just get on and break the tabu, rather than talking about doing so? And is there really a tabu in Germany on criticising Israel – and specifically in discussing their nuclear arsenal?

Klaus Hillenbrand, writing 4th April in the left-wing independent daily Die Taz (here) argues this is nonsense, citing the countless articles already published in German criticising Netanjahu’s politics. I would argue for greater differentiation: tabus are experienced more strongly in the circles in which you live and work – for Grass the circles in which he lives and works – rather than in a society as a whole. I’d say the tabu within the confines of Germany’s ruling class is alive and kicking. After ten years here I continue to be astonished about the narrowness of the scope which the German establishment permits itself, to discuss the actions of Israeli governments, past and present. Read the otherwise intelligent weekly Die Zeit for a few weeks – and see this happening. The tabu maintainers fiercely uphold the tabu against those groupings who ignore it in their writings or in actions. Hear this happening in the reaction of Andrea Nahles, speaking for the centre-left SPD party: “In the context of the political situation in the near east, I find the poem irritating and inappropriate.” What, more or less inappropriate then Netanjahu demanding a nuclear-free Iran, while refusing even to acknowledge his own country’s nuclear capacity?

The nobel prize-winner is being attacked for his inconsistencies, the easiest tactic for not responding to the main content of the poem at all, or for acknowledging the gist of the poem, while begrudging Grass the right to say it now. In this vein, weapons-experts cue up to harangue with the fact that Iranian atomic sites, embedded in bunkers as they are, could only be destroyed by special US bunker-breaking bombs, and not by nuclear war-heads stationed on submarines delivered by the Germans, war heads which – oh do keep up! – are of course only there to serve as a deterrent. Is that meant to legitimise the symbolism of the German government delivering what could be used as a nuclear submarine in this phase of what – as Grass calls it – the “planned games” ?

Grass must have hoped that his status within the German establishment gave him one last chance of fundamentally breaking the tabu. Unsurprisingly, this seems initially to have had the opposite effect. And now he’s being forced back into the role he was given in 2006, when he first admitted to a wider public to having been a member of the SS, aged 17, in 1944 – I’ve been misunderstood! There’s a campaign against me!

If it’s not yet working how he hoped, does that mean he shouldn’t have published? No. While it may be true, that Grass, at times like these, has no gift to set statesmen right, he also knows that fact can not excuse him, it can’t absolve him of the repsonsiblity he feels. As little as our limited gifts in influencing stateswomen and statesmen can absolve us. However hopeless it may feel, however weary individuals may be of repeating the same, stuck-record messages, those who want peace have no choice but to speak out. (Mündig sein! – Speak out! – a core theme in Grass’s work.) Or, to let Grass speak in his own words:

"Admitted, I’m silent no more:
the west’s hypocrisy makes me sick, and I hope,
that many may be freed from silence
and demand a refusal of violence
from those who’ve caused this recognisable danger.
Demand unrestricted and permanent control
of the Israeli atomic potential
and the Iranian atomic sites
by an international body
acknowledged by the governments of both countries.”