The Politics of Poetry: This must be said

In his recent poem, Germany’s greatest living writer, Günter Grass, questions his government’s role in militarising West Asia, and talks of Israel’s nuclear arsenal as a threat to the world
Mehru Jaffer Vienna

There may be disagreement over the quality of the verse, but there are many who agree with Günter Wilhelm Grass when he says What Must be Said, in his latest poem. There are many who agree with the Nobel prize-winning German writer not because they are anti-Semitic, but due to deepening concern at the massive sale of arms to Israel by the German government.

“The poem is very provocative, but necessary to show the danger of a pre-emptive strike planned by some people in the Israeli government,” Robert Rosner, an 88-year-old Austrian of Jewish origin, told Hardnews in Vienna.

Rosner is against a pre-emptive strike by Israel because he has first-hand experience of the horrors of violence and war. He was forced to flee to England along with hundreds of other Jewish people on the eve of the last World War. In 1938 Austria was annexed by Adolf Hitler, the German leader who rounded up the Jewish population there for extermination.

Rosner remains one of the few who returned to Vienna after the war was over. He says he wanted to return,  unlike his siblings whose memory of atrocities against the Jewish community was so traumatic that the idea of returning to the city made them sick with fear and insecurity. They preferred to migrate to other, more neutral parts of the world.

Over the years, Rosner has visited Israel several times. Once, he even toyed with the idea of living there. But despite having lost many members of his family to concentration camps built by Hitler to wipe out the Jewish people, Vienna is where Rosner returned to educate himself and to raise a family.

Before 1938 the Jewish population in Austria numbered 2,00,000. First, the property-owning Jews and the intelligentsia were attacked by the Nazi regime, and later, daily persecution took place all over Austria. About 42 synagogues were torched in Vienna alone, and by the time mass deportations, executions and the war were over, the Jews of Vienna added up to a grand total of 800 people.

What happened to the Jews at the hands of Germany’s Nazi regime was terrible, but Israel’s present-day foreign policy is no less grotesque. And the arms bought by Israel from Germany are used to kill Palestinians.

What happened to the Jews at the hands of Germany’s Nazi regime was terrible, but Israel’s present day foreign policy is no less grotesque

However, it is not Israel or Jews that Grass seems to address. In his poem, Grass questions the German government’s role in militarising the entire West Asia region. Because Germany started the last World War, military issues are an important factor here.

Germany’s Constitution had restricted the sale of arms by German manufacturers. In recent times, the restrictions have been eased and exports have increased. Nearly 70 per cent of Germany’s defence manufactures are sold abroad.

Ordinary citizens are worried that Germany might be participating in a suicidal arms race around the world, and particularly in the West Asia.Germany sells arms not just to Israel, but to Saudi Arabia as well. This is what makes Iran ncomfortable, this arming by European arms manufacturers of both Israel and Saudi Arabia.

In his poem without rhyme or beauty, Germany’s greatest living writer now 84 years old, talks about Israel’s secret and unsupervised nuclear weapons arsenal, which he sees as a threat to the world.

Germany sells arms not just to Israel, but to Saudi Arabia as well. This is what makes Iran uncomfortable, this arming by European arms manufacturers of both Israel and Saudi Arabia

The Israeli government is incensed at being spoken about in the same breath as Iran by Grass who served in Hitler’s army as a 17-year-old. The poem focuses on hawks in Israel impatient to attack Iran. In September when the weather is pleasant in West Asia, Israel would like to launch air strikes against Iran. This is the plan.

Should Grass not speak about this? Today the dilemma before the German-speaking world is not over what is said about Israel but who says what should be said. The protest against Grass for saying what he did is related to his having served in Hitler's Nazi military towards the end of World War II.

Hitler killed approximately six million European Jews, including women and children. He also killed millions of gypsies, homosexuals, disabled people and of German ethnic origin, skyrocketing the total number killed to 17 million people. Weighed down by guilt, Germans cannot do enough for Israel today to make up for the holocaust.

Sylvia Wendrock is a 30-year-old German artist living in Vienna. She suffers from chronic depression  because she fails to understand why her grandparents were part of the youth organisation that Hitler founded all over Europe. Sylvia told Hardnews that her grandparents are not alive and she can no longer talk to them about questions that haunt her day and night.

“I think they were pro-Hitler because they grew up in those times. They were teenagers when the war began...,” falters Sylvia, clearly unable to come to terms with the guilt over her beloved grandparents, tears streaming down her lovely face.

What bothers Sylvia most is that nobody will talk about these things. She would like to hear more people  speak out openly against racism, injustice, cruelty and acts against humanity  around the world. It makes her angry to see people use public space to make narcissistic statements for personal publicity instead.

Asked about her reaction to the controversial poem by Grass, Sylvia admits that she is ashamed to read it. It is difficult for her to respond objectively to issues of concern to Jewish people. Sylvia is unsure of the exact intention of Grass in writing the poem. She fears that he may have written it for publicity and this thought makes her miserable.

People doubt Grass' goodwill due to his Nazi past. He confessed to it only in 2006, years after he had accepted the Nobel prize for literature in 1999.

In the poem Grass explains why he chose to break his silence now. He says that he is tarnished and realisesthat whenever he speaks about Israel the truth will not be noticed, only his guilt.

Elisabeth Al Himrani, 80, does not have an exalted opinion of the poem but she admires Grass for writing what he did even at the expense of his reputation.

The Israel government is incensed at being spoken about in the same breath as Iran by Grass who served in Adolf Hitler’s army as a 17-year-old

“Grass must have been aware of the backlash against him but he still wrote the poem. That is brave of him. The reaction to the poem and the automatic defence of Israel without thought is also an expected one,” says Elisabeth, who lived in the Austrian countryside during the war.

She remembers a lot of trains constantly rolling past her home. She suspects that these trains may have carried loads of people of Jewish origin to be killed by the Nazi regime in various concentration camps.

“It is not such a bad idea for Grass to say through this poem to his government that it is time to introspect,” Elisabeth continues after a long silence. The poem may not be good for the writer in his twilight years but it is good food for thought for Germans, Elisabeth feels.

Germany's closeness to Israel troubles people. There is concern over the military equipment supplied by Germany to Israel. It was after the two countries signed yet another submarine deal that Grass protested in poetry.

The sentiment is not about anti-Semitism. It is about anti-war.

Israel's threat of pre-emptive war is a real threat to world peace. That many Germans are for a preemptive strike against Iran is also a real threat to world security.

Grass' poem is a writer's attempt to warn against this threat and to prevent tragedy at a time when more imaginative ways need to be invented to deal with historical wrongs.

Wars are waged not because evil flows in the DNA of an entire society. Wars are always waged for more power, territory and wealth.

Hitler's war was no different.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2012