By By Nicholas Kulish, Ethan Bronner
The New York Times , Taiwan News, Newspaper
2012-04-08 11:11 AM
Gunter Grass, Germany’s most famous living writer, tried Friday to quell the growing controversy over a poem critical of Israel that he published this week, saying he did not mean to attack the country wholesale but only the policies of the current government.
However, three days of worldwide debate, including a stinging personal rebuke from Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, show no sign of subsiding.
The nine-stanza, 69-line poem, “What Must Be Said,” appeared Wednesday on the front of the culture section of the Munich-based newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung. Mixing lyrical turns of phrase with discussions of the need for international supervision of both Israel’s and Iran’s nuclear programs, it bluntly called Israel a threat to world peace for its warnings that it might attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. By supplying weapons to Israel, including submarines, Germany risked being complicit in “a foreseeable crime,” Grass wrote.
“Why do I say only now, aged and with my last drop of ink, that the nuclear power Israel endangers an already fragile world peace?” his poem asks. “Because that must be said which may already be too late to say tomorrow.”
In an interview with Suddeutsche Zeitung published Friday, Grass said he did not mean to attack Israel, but Netanyahu’s policies. “I should have also brought that into the poem,” he said.
Several leading publications reacted to the poem by calling Grass an anti-Semite, while others dismissed it as nonsense.
Israel reacted with widespread condemnation and fury. Netanyahu issued a statement Thursday calling Grass’ comparison of Israel and Iran “shameful,” saying that it said more about Grass than about Israel.
“It is Iran, not Israel, that is a threat to the peace and security of the world,” Netanyahu said. “It is Iran, not Israel, that threatens other states with annihilation.”
Long a self-proclaimed conscience of the German nation, urging Germans to confront the Nazi past, Grass was branded a hypocrite after he revealed in 2006 for the first time that he served in the Waffen-SS at the end of World War II, when he was 17.
Referring to that admission, Netanyahu said it was “perhaps not surprising” that Grass “cast the one and only Jewish state as the greatest threat to world peace and to oppose giving Israel the means to defend itself.”
Germany’s strong support for Israel in its foreign policy is just one way that the country has tried to make up for the crimes of the Holocaust. But the lessons of World War II also made many Germans strongly pacifist and thus uncomfortable with the hawkish tone and threatening language emanating from Netanyahu’s government.
“He’s focusing the fears of Germans now around Israel as a danger,” Gary Smith, executive director at the American Academy in Berlin, said of Grass. “I’m afraid this could be a turning point in the way part of the German public speaks about Israel.”
Writing on the popular news website Spiegel Online, Jakob Augstein, the publisher of the weekly magazine Der Freitag, said that it was neither a great poem nor brilliant political analysis, but that “one should thank Grass” for starting the debate about the threat Israel poses to peace.
Others said it was not a coincidence that Grass so often found himself at the center of controversy, but that controversy was instead his goal in the first place.
“He wrote this poem knowing from the way he wrote it that there would be condemnation,” said Frank Schirrmacher, co-publisher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, who was interviewing Grass when he made his revelation about the Waffen-SS membership. “He needs the condemnation to move on to the next step, which is to say that it is impossible in Germany to criticize Israel.”
Grass, the author of plays and essays as well as novels and poems, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999. He admitted that he was a member of the Hitler Youth as a boy and believed at the time in the group’s aims, but long claimed that he was drafted into an anti-aircraft unit, never mentioning the Waffen-SS until he was 78.
In the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Anshel Pfeffer, a weekly columnist, devoted his Friday essay to Grass under the headline “The Moral Blindness of Gunter Grass.”
“Logic and reason are useless when a highly intelligent man, a Nobel laureate no less, does not understand that his membership in an organization that planned and carried out the wholesale genocide of millions of Jews disqualified him from criticizing the descendants of those Jews for developing a weapon of last resort that is the insurance policy against someone finishing the job his organization began,” Pfeffer wrote.
He added, “Having served in the organization that tried, with a fair amount of success, to wipe the Jews off the face of the earth he should keep his views to himself when it comes to the Jews’ doomsday weapon.”