A famous German writer raises some troubling questions.
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Yes, I say what must be said — despite the weight of the crimes my country committed, etc., I say what must be said about our selling Israel nuclear subs (U-Boot nach Israel) because we are mixing up business deals and “reparations” guilt (Wiedergutmachung) — and nothing satisfies the moral-equivalent man more than wallowing in his own guilt.
Dubious as poetry, is this at least sensible as an idea? He is stating that one more sub sold to Israel will be one too many for him, and he will have to “say what must be said.” But why would one be one too many?
Israel is not party to the non-proliferations regimes that the U.S. and other nations have promoted over the years, and there are good reasons for this. Israel developed a nuclear deterrent quite a few years ago to counter the possibility that eventually its enemies would develop military power capable of annihilating it.
Meaning, of course, not just the hardware but the strategic know-how. Israel always has been outgunned and out-numbered, and has relied on superior strategy, ultimately resting on a will to live that is stronger than its enemies’ will to kill, to win the several wars it has fought for survival since the liberation war of 1948-49. But Israelis, including — especially, perhaps — its tough and arrogant generals, know that in war you can never assume anything. Indeed, this lesson was learned the hard way during the 1973 or Yom Kippur war, when an excess of self-satisfaction, or complacency, gave the encircled country a scare it would not soon forget.
Israel’s policy makers grasped what ours did in the 1950s, namely, that it is precisely the side least likely to use the ultimate deterrent weapon that most needs it, precisely because it is the other side that is prone to use whatever advantage it may obtain. But, pace the dangerous fallacies inherent in our years-long arms-control obsessions, it is also because we ultimately recognized how morally abhorrent it is to base a strategy on an exchange of hostages involving the entire populations of several nations that we always sought to stay ahead strategically and tactically: the idea is to be able to keep fighting and winning without having to resort to ultimate deterrents.
Günther Grass is being harshly criticized in both Israel and Germany as a lousy poet and a shoddy thinker. He is a fine writer and a man of moral stature, one of the generation that grew up under Nazism (in the Polish city of Gdansk, called Danzig by the Germans) who knew he had to say what had to be said about his country and his neighbors. His youthful enlistment in the Waffen-SS has been held against him, but he was scarcely out of childhood then, and what is more peculiar, and arguably reprehensible, is that he hid this biographical fact until late in his life. However, he is a writer not a celebrity, and he felt, one supposes, that what he wrote was what mattered.
What does matter more, though, is what Grass’s stance says about his view of Israel, more broadly of the problem of defending oneself in a world gone badly and irredeemably wrong. This problem — the problem of evil — is scarcely new, and since Grass knows this, one is forced to consider that he thinks Israel is different from other nations, and ought to deal with the eternal problem of evil differently from other nations, to wit, by not taking measures to ward it off.
Israel is different, very obviously so, from the nations in its region. It is a democracy, a welfare state (one that works pretty well), a place of freedom where children are loved and nurtured and taught to be doctors and musicians, not suicide bombers and haters. Grass in his poem suggests this nation is more dangerous, is more likely to kill innocents and bring on a world nuclear war, than the other country in his poem, Iran, which is run by men who have repeatedly promised to rain fire on Israel and destroy it utterly.
What really must be said, or asked rather, is whether Günther Grass represents a trend toward Israel-hatred in European literary and intellectual circles, or whether his is an isolated case; or again whether this is a form of acquiescence toward the power of Islamic radicalism somewhat, or somehow I should say, comparable to the attitude toward the Soviet Union many in Europe took a few years ago, when they felt they had no alternative but to compliantly accept the communist tyranny’s mastery of the continent if not the world.
It is surely observable that there has been some of both lately, acquiescence and hatred. You see and hear it in European universities that banish Israeli colleagues, for example, and in European countries’ “soft” diplomacy toward the hard problems of the Middle East. You see it in the self-censorship that prevents many in Europe from speaking truly about the various threats, some in the own midst, some outside their borders, to their survival as a distinct civilization composed of specific, if complex, national cultures.
On the other hand, you also see the horror provoked by the most flagrant and savage flashes of these threats, such as the recent murders in Toulouse that targeted Jews (and especially Jewish children), as well as (I presume) apostates, young men of Islamic background serving the French state in its military. What must be asked today is whether the shock that followed this atrocity will bring with it a view of the kind of world we live in that will predominate, in the old world, over the view represented by the Nobel Prize winner and German man of letters, Günther Grass.
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