The only way you can think of the poem ‘What must be said’ as anti-Semitic is if you think of Grass as an anti-Semite. His history as well as the poem itself point in the exact opposite direction.
If Gunter Grass had ever said or done anything that showed hatred of Jews or of Israel, then I, too, might take a very uncharitable view of his warning in the poem “What must be said” that this country, or even this government, is liable to nuke Iran and “annihilate the Iranian people.” Like I wrote before, that’s a misleading suggestion; for all the past reports about “bunker-busting” bombs and future scenarios about a regional WMD war, Israel is not planning to attack Iran with nuclear weapons.
But Gunter Grass not only has never said an anti-Semitic or Israel-hating thing in his life that anyone’s aware of, he’s spent his career confronting Germany over its Nazi past, he’s visited Israel at least a few times, he’s a classic European liberal whose criticism of this country is that of a pained, disappointed friend, and he even speaks in the poem of “the State of Israel, to which I am bound and wish to stay bound,” concluding it with a wish for peace that includes Israelis.
No, Grass is not an anti-Semite or hater of Israel – he’s a liberal friend of the Jews and of Israel who wants this country to turn away from all the things liberals naturally dread – extreme nationalism, militarism, ethnocentrism, paranoia – the very things, unfortunately, that Israel has come to stand for.
So if I don’t think Grass is anti-Israel or anti-Semitic, how do I explain his writing such a thing as that Israel is liable to nuke Iran? Given his record on Jews and Israel, and given the context of the poem, I think he just got carried away – not by his hatred of Israel, which doesn’t exist, but by his hatred of war. Hatred of war is the theme of Grass’s career as a political activist and, by the way, of the poem “What must be said.”
But most people weighing in on Grass don’t agree – Jeffrey Goldberg, The New Republic, a host of German writers and, of course, the Israeli and American Jewish establishment, are accusing him basically of neo-Nazism. And what’s their evidence (besides the poem’s critical tone, exagerrated claim and so-called “moral equivalence,” all sure indicators of Israel-hatred)? Grass’ time in the Waffen SS.
He was 17. He was drafted. He was in for a few months at the end of the war, and he says he never fired a gun. I agree that it was wrong and cowardly of him to hide that history for so long – but I also think he atoned for it when he admitted it publicly at age 78. That was an act of bravery. From his 2007 New Yorker essay, “How I spent the war – A recruit in the Waffen S.S.”:
What I accepted with the stupid pride of youth I wanted to conceal after the war out of a recurrent sense of shame. But the burden remained, and no one could alleviate it.
True, during the tank-gunner training, which kept me numb throughout the autumn and winter, there was no mention of the war crimes that later came to light. But the ignorance I claim cannot blind me to the fact that I had been incorporated into a system that had planned, organized, and carried out the extermination of millions of people. Even if I could not be accused of active complicity, there remains to this day a residue that is all too commonly called joint responsibility. I will have to live with it for the rest of my life.
This is not the enemy. In a Jewish state that stood for the principles Jews traditionally stood for, not the anti-Jewish principles of extreme nationalism, militarism, ethnocentrism and paranoia, Gunter Grass, in his honesty and humanism, would be seen as one of us.
Related: Grass’ essay “How I spent the war”