Special Report

The Grass Affair: Thinking Clearly in Our Times

A famous German writer raises some troubling questions.

By 4.10.12

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But just what is it that Günther Grass, the most famous living German novelist, thinks "must be said"? The closest he comes to clearly saying what must be said (what he says must be said) appears to occur here, toward the end of a poem he published a week ago and which already has stirred up a storm of controversy:

I've had enough of Western hypocrisy [Grass writes]
and I wish that many will want
… a permanent, freely-accorded control of Israel's nuclear power
as well as Iran's nuclear installations…

Even for German verse, you have to admit it is heavy handed; thus the original:

…weil ich der Heuchelei des Westens
Uberdrussig bin; zuden ist zu hoffen,
Es mogen sich viele vom Schweigen befreien […]
dass eine unbehinderte und permanente Kontrolle
des israelischen atomaren Potentials
und der iranischen Atomanlagen
durch eine internationale Instanz
von den Regiereungen beider Lander augelassen wird.

All right, Goethe it is not, nor Remarque, nor indeed is it any good against any measure of comparison. For some reason, Mr. Grass, who one would think would know better, feels compelled to put into prosaic "verse," better suited for political platforms or resolutions written by committees, a demand that both Israel and Iran submit their nuclear weapons and installations to international inspection and control (eine internationale Instanz).

On its face, nothing controversial. It is sort of silly, and sort of embarrassing for a man of Grass's moral stature to descend into such stupid polemics, but on the surface, let us think like liberals for a moment, like Grass, and consider: Why not call for international controls, or at least inspections? As a concept? As an abstract idea relative to the pursuit of a world at peace?

Indeed why not? We, the United States, proposed this sort of thing in the early years of the nuclear age. We offered to bury the nuclear hatchets and all, proposed an international atomic control commission (ja, eine Instanz). Who would not have? We knew what we had unleashed, and we wished we could do something to control it.

Observe that, at the time, it was because we understood the morality of using the bomb to end the war with Japan -- we understood what an awful choice we had made, the destruction of hundreds of thousands of people, many of them civilians, against the destruction of even more hundreds of thousands of people, at least a hundred thousand American fighting men and far more Japanese, including civilians, than were doomed by the attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. That would have been the price of an amphibious invasion of Japan. This is what happens in wartime. You do not choose between the good and the bad. You choose between the bad and the worse.

Men hardened, but not corrupted morally, by such choices, could suggest, in all sincerity, that the best next thing to do was invent an international nuclear regime that would pre-empt such awful choices in future conflicts. At the suggestion of that great original, Bernard Baruch, the Truman administration offered an international nuclear-energy control regime in the late 1940s, but the international communist movement led by Stalinist Russia rejected it. They said we were trying to prevent them from having the bomb, which we already had. They smelled an imperialist plot. But their olfactory organs deceived them; more exactly, their ideological organs deceived their olfactory organs: they could not conceive of a regime -- in their minds the bourgeois-liberal, formally democratic U.S. -- offering such a deal because it was so outside their concept of what you do with power and the instruments of power.

This is the origin of the long and dreary history of arms control negotiations, wherein we kept trying to understand why the totalitarian communistic enemy refused to see things as we did and proceeded to negotiate with ourselves into a position of weakness. Fortunately, it ended well because there were persons in positions of responsibility, including notably Ronald Reagan and Henry "Scoop" Jackson, who kept their nerve and saw the essential immorality to which the arms-control "process," culminating in the aptly named doctrine of mutual assured destruction, had brought us. It was immoral, as the political philosopher Albert Wohlstetter pointed out very simply, because it said, "We'll let you kill our people but then we'll kill your people."

But the story did not end there, just as it had not begun with the nuclear age. The problem of arms negotiations, whether the arms in question are battleships or sling shots, concerns primarily regimes, not arms. This is something a certain mindset peculiar to liberal-democratic regimes finds difficult to grasp, because it refuses obstinately to view regimes as motivated by the pursuit of power. It insists that all regimes fundamentally want to share power, not grasp it and monopolize it. This leads to the fallacy, and some would argue corruption, of "moral equivalence."

The sure sign of the moral-equivalent man is his sanctimonious tone. Here is an example:

If my country sells one more submarine to Israel
one capable of delivering nuclear warheads
on [targets] where there is no evidence of atomic weapons
… I say what must be said

Again, if the leaden verses interest you, a few lines may be perused:

Jetz aber, weil aus meinem Land
das von ureigenen Verbrechen,
die ohne Vergleich sind,
Mal um Mal engeholt und zur Rede gestellt wird
wiederum und rein geschaftsmassig, wenn auch,
mit flinker Lippe als Wiedergutmachung deklariert
ein weiterest U-Boot nach Israel
geliefert warden soll, dessent Speziallitat
darin besteht, allesvernichtende Sprengkopfe
dorthin lenken zu konnen, wo die Existenz
einer einzigen Atombombe unbewiesen ist,
doch als Befurchtung von Beweiskraft sein will,
sage ich, was gesagt warden muss.

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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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.