By Glenn Petersen
A new poem by Günter Grass has stirred up the sort of controversy poetry ordinarily doesn’t attract. Since its publication in the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, the 69-line long poem “What Must Be Said” has fed a tempest that rages not among poets, but in the realm of international relations. The poem restarted an old debate about what Germans can and cannot say about their past and elicited critiques from Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Germany’s leading literary critic, and the country’s own Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who called comparisons between Israel and Iran “absurd.” The Israeli response was swift and scathing. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s condemned the “egoism of so-called Western intellectuals, who are willing to sacrifice the Jewish people on the altar of crazy anti-Semites for a second time, just to sell a few more books or gain recognition.” The response culminated in Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s declaration that Grass was now a persona non grata in Israel. "Grass's poems are an attempt to guide the fire of hate toward the State of Israel and the Israeli people, and to advance the ideas of which he was a public partner in the past, when he wore the uniform of the SS," Yishai said, "If Günter wants to continue publicizing his distorted and false works, I suggest he do it in Iran, where he will find a supportive audience.”
Unfortunately, amidst all this shouting over some of the geo-political points Grass makes, the poet’s larger theme has been drowned out. Instead of simply inveighing against what Grass has to say about Iran and Israel, many of the shouters could benefit from actually taking the time to consider what the poem is saying about war and our responsibility for it.
“What Must Be Said” takes up Grass’s concerns about his country’s engagement in international affairs. His preoccupation can be traced back through his intellectual and moral explorations of both his nation’s and his own role in World War II. In the course of the poem, Grass questions the wisdom and moral propriety of Germany’s recent provisioning of Israel with a submarine at a time when tensions between Israel and Iran are running particularly high.
The Israelis, or at least those whose comments are being reported in the international news, express outrage at Grass’s audacity in questioning their right to a pre-emptive strike on Iran. They seemingly remain oblivious to his soul-searching over his own responsibilities and those of his country. Grass speaks in the poem both of Germany confronting “Its very own crime/That is without compare,” and of himself, “Afflicted by a stain never to be expunged.” He struggles with complexities and doubts about what Germany owes to Israel, as well as with what he feels he can and cannot say about Israel. He acknowledges his own previous silences before proceeding to say what he believes must be said. And only then does he express his fear that he and his fellow Germans, “Could be suppliers to a crime/That is foreseeable, wherefore our complicity/Could not be redeemed through any of the usual excuses.”
I find echoes of all this—the questions of complicity and guilt, atonement, and redemption that the poem asks—in my own experience. Not on such a large canvas, to be sure, but in the recesses of my own soul. When I returned home from Vietnam, I was comfortable with what I had done in the war. By the time I finished college a few years later I had turned against the war. As my perspectives and understanding evolved, I did something more than simply change my mind about the war. Instead, I wrapped myself in weighty chains of guilt for having fought, and since that time, I’ve lived with an insistent need to atone for my part in bringing war to the Vietnamese people; not in a simple and discrete act of atonement, but in the way I conduct my life.
When this notion of guilt comes up in conversations, it’s been my experience that few people have any idea of what I’m talking about. Some assure me that I wasn’t responsible, or that I shouldn't hold myself responsible, while others say I should give it a rest: I was simply doing my duty. Then there are those who ask me if I hold other young men who fought equally culpable, and when I say that I don’t, they ask me why I can't let myself off the hook. It’s a good question, one to which I have no good answer.
In the course of grappling with this over the years, however, several things have become clear to me. First, while I was too young to have had any awareness of the Nuremberg trials, I was 14 when Adolph Eichmann went on trial in Jerusalem; “I was only following orders” became a stock phrase during my adolescence. I learned that we were to scoff at this so-called “Nuremberg defense” as an inexcusable excuse. Second, I have drunk deeply from the well of democratic theory: When people are responsible for electing their government, they take on responsibility for what their government does. And third, it makes me extremely uncomfortable to think of myself as a victim. I went willingly.
What this all means is that I have never been able to shake off my guilt, my sense of responsibility, or my visceral belief in my own obligation to continue atoning for America’s war in Vietnam. And this is why I am puzzled by Israel’s response to Grass’s poem.
The poet’s concern is rooted in the Germans’ historical culpability for their attempted destruction of the Jews and in full recognition of his own sins. Despite this, a column in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz accuses Grass of moral blindness, given his service in the Nazi’s Waffen SS, the body most directly responsible for the murder of Europe’s Jews. “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.”
Though I can certainly understand why they might not agree with some of the conclusions he reaches, I cannot fathom the notion that as one who served with the German military in the war Grass should neither hold nor voice an opinion.
At some level, the issue seems to turn on his having waited so long—nearly six decades—to acknowledge that he had been conscripted at the age of 17 into the Waffen SS. Given the ways in which I am wracked with confusing emotions about my service in Vietnam, I find myself with no clear notion of what is to be expected of those who have fought in a war they later come to abhor. But one thing that does seem fairly clear to me is my own sense of obligation not to keep quiet. I am obligated to protest. And that is precisely what I see in all this: Grass is not keeping quiet. The thoughts he gives voice to in his poem express the ways in which his conscience is torn. And that is why I say that disagreeing with the conclusions someone arrives at in no way confers the right to claim that they should not express their beliefs.
Precisely because so many people tell me I’m not responsible for having fought in Vietnam, I find myself deeply chagrined by claims both that Grass is culpable and that he should therefore shut up. In America, we encounter the converse: People don’t want to hear me talking about guilt, because then they might be expected to assume some as well. This strikes me as a fairly clear-cut case of shooting the messenger when you don’t want to hear the message. Grass actually foresaw this. He published another poem shortly before this one, in the New York Review of Books, “Words in Farewell,” marking the death of his editor, Helmut Frielinghaus.
Who now will be first to sense,
and tactfully refrain from saying,
that something’s in the bush—unforeseen—
thrashing about with words?
In the end, Grass chooses to speak, and in hearing him I’m reminded of some of the final words from the brave and critical Tony Judt, who observed in his posthumous Thinking the Twentieth Century that “The reason I get into Middle Eastern issues is not because I think I can influence what’s going on in Jerusalem; others are much better placed for that. I see it as my responsibility to try to influence what goes on here in the U.S., since it is in Washington rather than Jerusalem that the problem will be solved. It is our American failure to address this subject that worries me. And it is our conversation that needs attention.”
Glenn Petersen is the chair of the Anthropology and Sociology Department at CUNY Baruch College. He also flew in U.S. Navy reconnaissance aircraft in 1966 and 1967 in Vietnam.
(Photo courtesy of Das Blue Sofa)