Günter Grass rails against a crime foretold

My fellow blogger, James Wall, has written eloquently of reactions to the publication of a new poem by Günter Grass called Was gesagt werden muss (What must be said). The poem condemns the silence that surrounds Israel’s nuclear capacity and its threat to world peace.

In particular Jim Wall points to the complicity of Western politicians and journalists, who “have long enforced that silence by unspoken and unwritten common agreement.” Of course, Western support for Israel has a long history and sometimes that support has been right, and sometimes wrong. But the world can no longer ignore the destabilization inherent in Middle East politics if it is serious about achieving and maintaining peace. One has one’s doubts how serious that aim is.

Günter Grass (left), novelist, poet, playwright, illustrator, graphic artist, sculptor and recipient of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Literature, is widely regarded as Germany’s most famous living writer. He has spent a lifetime trying to come to terms with his own past (he was conscripted into the Waffen SS as a teenager in 1944), his own country’s past, and the traumatic legacy of Nazism and totalitarian oppression.

The controversy over Was gesagt werden muss will resound for quite some time – witness varied responses in The New York Times (6 April 2012), The Guardian (8 April 2012), The Spectator (9 April 2012) and many other media outlets. The essential point remains: Grass has touched the raw nerve of Israel’s self-aggrandizement and the West’s self-interested support of Israel at all costs.

Grass asks himself, implicitly asking all of us: “Why have we been so silent?”

“Why is it only now I say,
in old age, with my last drop of ink,
that Israel’s nuclear power endangers
an already fragile world peace?
Because what by tomorrow might be
too late, must be spoken now,
and because we—as Germans, already
burdened enough—could become
enablers of a crime, foreseeable and therefore
not to be eradicated
with any of the usual excuses.”

Jakob Augstein, a columnist for the leading German newspaper, Der Spiegel (6 April 2012), comments:

“A great poem it is not. Nor is it a brilliant political analysis. But the brief lines that Günter Grass has published under the title ‘What Must Be Said’ will one day be seen as some of his most influential words. They mark a rupture. It is this one sentence that we will not be able to ignore in the future: ‘The nuclear power Israel is endangering a world peace that is already fragile’.”

Great writers are prophetic. Let’s hope Günter Grass is not crying in the wilderness.

Jim Wall’s blog can be found here. Günter Grass’s complete poem in English can be found here.

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