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What ‘never again’ means for Günter Grass

In an awkward, cliché-laden “poem,” German Nobel laureate Günter Grass has announced to the world that he had to break his silence about an issue that has burdened him for too long: even at the risk of being labeled an antisemite, he simply had to sound the alarm about the terrible threat to world peace posed by Israel…

There is already a huge outcry against Grass’s strange poem, and many of the responses refer to the last time Grass broke a very long silence – and also caused a huge outcry: In August 2006, shortly before the publication of his autobiography, Grass revealed in an interview that he had served in the Waffen SS.

 

That was a truly sensational revelation given the fact that Grass had carefully cultivated the image of a moral authority who was always ready to admonish Germans that they had to face up to their Nazi past. Unsurprisingly, Grass is now again alluding to Germany’s dark history, but he does so with a twist that has become quite popular: by now, many Germans and Europeans seem to feel that they can claim to have learnt the often invoked “lessons” of the Holocaust so much better than the Jews – and in particular so much better than the Jews in Israel.
 
Indeed, the idea Grass is hawking now is quite popular: Remember the controversial Eurobarometer poll of fall 2003 that revealed that 59 percent of EU citizens regarded Israel as the greatest threat to world peace? Back then, embarrassed European officials tried to dismiss the poll as some kind of aberration, but that was quite plainly not what it was, because other polls showed similar results. To quote just one example: A BBC poll published in March 2007 revealed that Israel was viewed as the country with the most negative influence in the world, and interestingly, Germany was the European country with the largest percentage of respondents who viewed Israel in these terms: 77 percent of Germans rated Israel’s influence as negative — even in some Muslim countries, Israel actually fared slightly better.
 
While it has been documented that there is a clear correlation between sharply critical attitudes towards Israeli policies and a propensity for antisemitic views, Grass has of course tried to shield himself against accusations of antisemitism by announcing that he was fully expecting them, and by emphasizing that he feels a strong connection with Israel. But many of the reactions to his bizarre “poem” show that this hasn’t quite worked. One excellent example is Josef Joffe’s comment at Zeit Online, where Joffe argues (in German) that Freud would have been pleased with this demonstration of long-repressed resentments bursting out.
 
I think Joffe outlines a dynamic that I have tried to explore in an essay I wrote some five years ago after Grass revealed the long-kept secret of his service in the Waffen SS. I argued there that efforts to come to terms with Germany’s Nazi past – and the many cases of European collaboration – gave rise to a “grand narrative” that structured history in terms of victims and perpetrators.
 
In the prism of this “grand narrative”, Germans – and, to some extent also Europeans – related to Israel primarily as the state of the victims who had survived the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis.  But eventually, Germans and Europeans began to regard also themselves as victims of the Nazis, while the Jewish state – that had become an “occupying power” after its victory in the Six-Day-War – was increasingly often criticized as a perpetrator.
 
Taken to the extreme, the resulting inversions are all too familiar: Gaza is the Warschau Ghetto, Israeli soldiers are the new Nazis, and the Palestinians are the new “Jews”, i.e. victims.
 
Even if only a minority embraces this inversion fully, everyone knows that it exists and that it has been legitimized by countless intellectuals and public figures – and the perceived exculpatory appeal of this inversion is certainly enormous.
 
Günter Grass would likely object to the idea that he is among those who demonize Israel as a Nazi-like perpetrator. Yet, he does so quite clearly when he refers to a possible Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear program as a potentially genocidal crime that can be anticipated. His “poem” is his attempt to avoid any German “guilt” for this “crime,” since Grass worries Israel could use German-manufactured submarines to strike Iran. This concern stands in stark contrast to Grass’s apparent silence about the role of German companies in facilitating Iran’s nuclear program.
 
Ultimately, Grass demonstrates in his poem that the meaning of the pledge “never again” is very different for the historic perpetrators and their victims: for the former Waffen SS recruit, the most important thing is to be never again seen as a perpetrator – and since he firmly believes Israel is eager to launch a devastating attack on Iran, he has no doubt who should be blamed as the perpetrator.
 
It is revealing that it apparently matters little for Grass that Iran is led by a Holocaust-denier who has repeated the most vicious threats against Israel over and over again, or that a regime-allied analyst would pen a long-winded article to explain “The Fiqh [Islamic Jurisprudence]-Based Reasons for the Need for Israel’s Annihilation.” For Grass, Ahmadinejad is just a “loudmouth” who oppresses his people – the very same people that, in the view of Grass, faces a genocidal threat from Israel just because somewhere in Iran, there may be a “suspected” atom bomb.
 
The longer one ponders the curious fact that Grass doesn’t think it worthwhile to wonder if Iran’s theocrats might be as eager as the Nazis were to make good on their threats against the Jews the clearer it becomes: his claim that he feels connected to Israel couldn’t be more hollow – he knows nothing about Israel, and he has no idea what “never again” means for the people that his former comrades worked so hard to wipe out. His most urgent need is to think of Israel’s Jews as dangerous: potential perpetrators of a Nazi-like crime.
 
As a young man at the end of the war, Grass was clever enough to get rid of his SS uniform before he could be captured, but it seems he never quite got rid of what he learned about the Jews while he wore the uniform: “Die Juden sind unser Unglück.”

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