Relations between Israel and Germany in the Shadow of Günter Grass’s Poem

Shimon Stein

Institute for National Security Studies (Tel Aviv)

Shimon Stein is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (Tel Aviv). He joined the INSS research staff after a long career in the Foreign Service. He served as Israel's ambassador to Germany (2001-2007). Prior to this appointment he served in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as deputy director general for the CIS, as well as Eastern and Central Europe. Ambassador Stein held additional MFA posts in Washington, Germany, and Israel, and was a member of Israel’s delegation to multilateral negotiations on arms control.

Ambassador Stein is also an international consultant, working for American, German, and Israeli articles. He publishes articles regularly in the German press on foreign and security issues. He has been a participant in AICGS' programs on German-Israeli relations and reconciliation.

In an era in which the lifespan of news items is measured in hours rather than days, the poem “What Must Be Said” by playwright and poet Günter Grass managed to remain in German headlines for more than a week. Why was the criticism of the contents of the poem (which earned the description “disgusting” by one literary critic) as widespread as it was? What raw nerve did Grass touch that set off the controversy? Was there anything new, really, in the poem’s motifs? What may be concluded about the relationship between the two nations from the debate that flared up, or can nothing be learned about Germany’s conduct on the issue Grass used so cynically, i.e., Germany’s response to the possibility of an Israeli military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities?

In an attempt to understand Grass’s motives to publish the poem, many commentators are driven to explore the poet himself, i.e., his advanced age and the narcissistic tendencies that he and other elderly notables, who find it hard to make peace with sinking into public obscurity, develop to cope with their situation, and who know that there is nothing better for reminding everyone of their existence than using loaded subjects such as Israel and Jews. The chance that statements such as the ones made by Grass would pass unnoticed was zero. In this sense, Grass was wildly successful, though his success was twinned with the question of his anti-Semitism. Most critics opined that he is not an anti-Semite even if he, according to most critics, made use of anti-Semitic clichés in his critique of Israel.

In studying the poem’s main themes one finds nothing new; these have accompanied Israel-Germany relations for a long time. Grass’s statement that Israel (as a nuclear nation) jeopardizes world peace is not new. Those who follow Israel’s image in German public opinion in particular, and European public opinion in general, remember an opinion poll undertaken by the EU at the height of the second Intifada (October 2003) among fifteen EU members. One of the questions referred to the nations representing a threat to world peace; 59 percent of respondents ranked Israel first, ahead of the United States, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Furthermore, the use Grass makes of words (the elimination of the Iranian people, or Germany’s partnership in the crime Israel is going to commit) with their clear echoes to the Nazi era is also not new. During Israel’s battle against Palestinian terrorism all through the years of the second Intifada, media coverage included reporting that used Nazi terminology to describe Israel’s conduct against the Palestinians (this is not the place to expand on the issue of how German society confronts its sense of guilt; suffice it to say that the ability to point to the victim, in this case Israel, as currently representing the collective Jew as a victim that has, through its own conduct, become a murderer, helps it cope with its unique sense of responsibility).

Even the claim about the need to break the long-standing silence and call a spade a spade, i.e., criticize Israel for its conduct, is not new. Talk of a supposed taboo on criticizing Israel is an integral part of the anti-Israel discourse that has been conducted in Germany for several decades. Had Grass’s memory not betrayed him, he would certainly have remembered the anti-Zionist, anti-Israel, and anti-Semitic attacks of his left-leaning friends in the 1960s. In recent years we have seen increased criticism of Israel’s Palestinian policies and the issue of building in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. In general, it is doubtful if any other nation is subject to such microscopic coverage as Israel receives in the German media.

Because the points Grass raised in his poem are not new, what caused the furor of the media and some of the political elite (parenthetically, one notes that unlike the responses by the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, and the controversial decision by the Interior Minister − except for the criticism made by Foreign Minister Westerwelle − the Chancellor did not speak out on the issue)? Can the response be explained by the fact that Grass is flesh of the other German flesh (and flesh of the Nazi Germany flesh), someone whose outlook helped shape an entire generation, a Nobel Prize laureate Germany was proud of, who embarrassed the elites by expressing himself in a politically incorrect fashion? In other words, if it was not the contents – none of which was new – that aroused the ire. Was the reason for the furor the way in which the criticism was couched and the person who authored it?

Further evidence of the gap that exists between the criticism of Grass by the media and politicians, on the one hand, and the public’s stance, on the other, can be found in a whole host of public opinion polls held after the poem’s publication. In these surveys, the majority of respondents expressed support for Grass. This, too, is not news. For years it has been possible to discern a disparity between the official German government position, particularly that of Chancellor Merkel’s government, and the public’s stance on Israeli government policies in general. A German government that is more attuned to public opinion when shaping its policies is liable in the future to adopt positions that are less comfortable for Israel than current ones.

If, in fact, Grass meant to encourage debate on the issues of Israel’s nuclear arms, the Iranian threat and its possible implications for an Israeli military operation, and Germany’s response to the threat should Israel attack and/or be attacked, the way in which he did it caused the straightforward discussion to be sidelined in favor of a discussion of the poet and his motives.

As one of the six nations negotiating with Iran, Germany shares the EU’s policy on Iran. Unlike the U.S. and Israel, which feel that all options for handling the crisis are on the table, Germany rules out the use of force. The German Defense Minister expressed the German government’s concern about an Israeli military move to Defense Minister Barak on his recent visit to Germany. In order to assess how Germany would respond to a preemptive Israeli strike, one should remember the words of Chancellor Merkel on her nation’s commitment to Israel’s security (which is non-negotiable) and that such a statement would not be emptied of contents at a time of crisis, just as there would be no room for German neutrality at a time of crisis. Even if the probability that an Israeli strike would arouse German public criticism is high, the German government would show solidarity and, if necessary, also extend its help. A joint American-Israeli strike would make it easier to support Israel.

Whatever the reasons for Grass writing his poem and publishing it at this time were, the debate aroused by the contents emphasizes yet again that more than six (almost seven) decades after the Holocaust, it is impossible to hold a matter-of-fact discussion between Israelis/Jews and Germans without that dark cloud hovering over the discourse.

Ambassador Shimon Stein was the Israeli Ambassador to Germany from 2001-2007 and has been a speaker at past AGI events.

For more on this topic:
What Really Must Be Said, by Dr. Lily Gardner Feldman

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.