On Wednesday of this week, the German author Günter Grass published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung a new poem entitled, Was gesagt werden muss (“What must be said”). The poem, addressing the conflict between Israel and Iran, criticizing Germany for sending submarines to Israel, and reproaching Israel’s growing nuclear power as one that could “wipe out the Iranian people” (“das…iranisiche Volk auslöschen könnte”), has incited public outrage in Germany.

Photo courtesy of Christoph Müller-Girod

Grass is probably most famous for his first novel, “The Tin Drum” (die Blechtrommel), published in 1959 and has written many other works provocatively and critically dealing with Germany’s Nazi past at a time when few were willing to come to terms with the history of 1933 to 1945. Influencing all his works is his motivation to write in order to prevent forgetting the past (Schreiben gegen das Vergessen), a goal which helped him earn the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999.

This intense literary involvement with Germany’s recent past has also shaped his newest poem. Though it no doubt addresses the contemporary political conflicts between Israel and Iran, it seems much more to be about Grass’s deeper anxieties as a German with his history (he admitted in 2006 that he was drafted at 17 into the Waffen-SS) and the history of his land in relation to the Jewish people, whom he evidently and problematically equates with the Israelis. Indeed, for the majority of the poem, Grass repeatedly questions his hesitation to openly express his views, ultimately suggesting that he has up until now remained silent due to the fear that as a German, “tainted” (“behaftet”) by his country’s history, he would be punished, the “verdict” being accusations of antisemitism.

In the immediate reactions to his poem, this is exactly what has happened. While several German politicians and commentators, taking up Grass’s political views and suggestions regarding Israel-Iran conflict, have criticized his lack of political expertise and his ignorance of the complexity of Middle Eastern politics, others have labeled Grass’s poem and Grass himself as antisemitic. Henryk Broder, for instance, a journalist for the major German newspaper die Zeit and a prominent Jewish writer, has characterized Grass as the “prototype for the educated antisemite.” In another public statement on Grass’s poem, the Israeli Embassy in Berlin asserted that “it is a European tradition to accuse the Jews before the Passover festival of ritual murder.” Articles, such as die Zeit‘s “Der Antisemitismus will raus” and der Spiegel‘s “Günter Grass’s Lyrical First Strike,” also echo to varying extents the general judgment of the work as antisemitic.

Was gesagt werden muss is prefaced with the header, Gedicht zum Konflikt zwischen Israel und Iran (“Poem on the conflict between Israel and Iran”). However, this poem and even more so its reception seem in the end to point to another conflict within Germany and within Germans regarding the country’s past actions and its present identity. These strong and lasting tensions, even if not always explicitly articulated, do seem always to lie close beneath the surface of German artistic, social, and political discourses, ready to emerge at controversial moments like these.

Click here to read Grass’s poem.