Hoover Daily Report

The Mendacity of Günter Grass

via Wall Street Journal
Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Nobel laureate Günter Grass, 84, is a poster boy of "re-education," America's therapy for post-Hitler Germany. Or he was. In 2006, this chest-thumping anti-Nazi laid bare his long-concealed career in the Waffen-SS, the war-fighting arm of Heinrich Himmler's Schutzstaffel. Had Mr. Grass, who was reportedly hospitalized yesterday for heart problems, sprung the shocker a decade earlier, his 1959 novel "The Tin Drum" would still shine forth as a masterwork, but without the Nobel Prize, which he was awarded in 1999.

Just before Easter this year, Mr. Grass launched a bigger bombshell, a poem titled "What Must Be Said." The explosion continues to reverberate around the country and, indeed, the world. The gist: For too long, the poet had been cowed into silence by a knout he calls the "verdict of anti-Semitism."

But in his dotage, he finally dared speak out against the diktat because Israel was readying a "first strike" that would "extinguish" Iran and the "fragile world peace." The entire planet would be Israel's victim, and the survivors "at best" mere "footnotes" in the annals of "annihilation." Germany, though, would "share the guilt" because it was arming Israel with nuclear-capable U-Boats.

Thus did the bard go into battle against "hypocrisy" and "lies." Never mind that Iran is routinely threatening Israel with eradication, for Israel has the bomb and Iran does not. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is but a "loudmouth," a lamb in wolf's clothing.

Was this anti-Semitism, as Emmanuel Nahshon, Israel's envoy to Germany, intimated? The poem, Mr. Nahshon explained, was in the "European tradition" of sticking the Jews with blood libel just before Passover. Back then, it was matzo made with the "blood of Christian children." Today, the "Iranian people" were "slated for extinction" by Israel.

Mr. Grass hadn't actually penned a free-verse update of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion." After the Holocaust, traditional anti-Semitism is out. Jews are no longer fingered as Christ killers, usurers and despoilers of the Aryan race.

But Mr. Grass's indictment is rife with post-Shoah analogues. Carefully coded, it pins on the Jewish state what used to be applied to Jews throughout the ages.

We are not talking here about criticizing Israeli policy, a legitimate pursuit. This is a perhaps subconscious sequel to the real thing, which has always rested on the four pillars of demonization, conspiracy, omnipotence and obsession. If Jews used to be demonized as endlessly malevolent, Mr. Grass now charges Israel with concocting the greatest possible evil: a nuclear Holocaust to be visited on Iran and the entire world.

So now, Israel is the global conspirator, which raises the fantasy of "World Jewry" to the nth power. The "Elders" plotted merely to rule the world; Israel would annihilate it. Why blame Israel rather than any of the seven official nuclear powers, whose combined punch dwarfs the presumed number of Israeli warheads by a factor of 50 to 200?

This is where obsession comes in: the recurrence of images and ideas that the patient cannot repress. The classic version is about the omnipotence of the Jew—a real-life Satan whose unbounded might explained all evil. The new one is about Israel's cosmic clout. Even as Mr. Grass touts his "attachment" to Israel, recalling the my-best-friends-are-Jewish refrain, he casts the tiny country as an überpower. Apart from threatening the globe, Mr. Grass imagines, Israel enslaves 80 million Germans by wielding the Shoah to gouge U-Boats out of Berlin and to suppress "what must be said."

This is mendacity to the max, for critical coverage of Israel is a staple of the German media; no other country gets more flak. But the falsehood is a necessary part of the indictment. If we could only speak out, insinuates Mr. Grass, we will save the planet by defanging Israel. By eliminating its nukes through a "permanent control" regime, we will bring peace to the "demented" Middle East and "help ourselves" to boot. Compared to Israel, the "Elders" were a bunch of kindergarten kids.

Why the "return of the repressed?" The engine is unbearable guilt feelings, though Germany has evolved into a model democracy since 1945. How to regain moral worth? By projecting culpability onto Israel.

"The Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz," runs a mind-curdling quip ascribed to Zvi Rex, an Israeli psychiatrist. You don't need a shrink to deconstruct this defense mechanism. Our grandfathers did it, but the Israelis, who won't let us forget, are just as bad. Three classics are: "They are the new Nazis," "Gaza is like the Warsaw Ghetto" and "We learned our lesson, the Israelis did not." In the morality play fabricated by Mr. Grass, who has his own past to live down, Israel is worse than Hitler.

Thus, the accounts are squared, with a tidy moral surplus left over for Mr. Grass and his new friends on the far left and far right. The good news is that the poem did not play well in the middle. For the past two weeks, the media have weighed in against the bard, saying "what must be said" in a very different way: that he had breached a 70-year old moral consensus, that he had turned the moral universe upside-down by casting Israel as aggressor and Iran as victim.

The bad news oozes out from the underground, in spades. Go to the website of any paper that has run critical pieces on Mr. Grass and read the comments, thousands of them. By a rough count, 90% cheer Mr. Grass. "At last!" is but the mildest applause. The rest is venom poured on the authors: abuse, hatred and, yes, plain old anti-Semitism.

The arsonist has lost the battle above-ground. Yet below, he is the redeemer who has finally struck a blow against those—Israel, Jewry, the political class—who rob Germany of dignity and freedom. Still, the odds are that the breach won't lead to a rout of the stalwarts.

Germany in 2012 is a normal country, a solid liberal democracy. The norm for Europe is for 15%-20% of the population to possess opinions labeled by the pollsters as "latent" anti-Semitism. Germany is not an outlier, but mainstream. Considering the past, that is reassuring.

Mr. Joffe is editor of Die Zeit in Hamburg, senior fellow of the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies and fellow of the Hoover Institution, both at Stanford.