The Moral Blindness of Gunter Grass

The German writer is the last person who should be speaking out against the Jews' doomsday weapon.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Gunter Grass
Gunter GrassCredit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

On Wednesday afternoon I interviewed Hans Futter, a retired engineer and entrepreneur, for a story that will be appearing in Haaretz next week about the last Jewish school in Nazi Germany. Mr Futter was born in a town on the Baltic coast in the 1920s and before he was 18 was forced to leave his home and join the stream of millions of refugees who across Europe.

After the interview I switched on my computer and went online and read about Gunter Grass who was born in the same decade, along that Baltic coast and also became a refugee at the age of 17. There all resemblance between the two men ends.

As a young Jew, Hans was faced with a stark choice - to flee the country of his birth or face a terrible fate. Grass chose to be one of those Futter was fleeing. He lost his home after Germany lost the war.

After the war Hans Futter rebuilt his life in a new country alongside his brother Gerald, the fate of their parents and youngest brother unknown. Grass remained in Germany and became its moral voice and conscience. And as that conscience, he published this week a political poem warning his country not to become "a subcontractor to a forseeable crime" by supplying Israel with submarines.

And upon reading those first translated quotes from Grass' polemic, "What Must Be Said," this column begins writing itself. Because even before the analytical mind starts to respond to the baseless allegation that Israel is threatening to annihilate the entire Iranian people, the screen is turning red and the tips of my fingers are demanding the satisfaction of smashing into the keyboard over and over again to say just what I think about the poet. Because for once there is no need for logical reasoned debate and balancing right against left. Because on any other day there is time to calmly address the question of whether Israel needs a nuclear capability and whether it should continue to refuse signing the Non-Proliferation-Treaty. But not on the day that Grass erupted in verse. Because there is something so obviously wrong about him saying this, something so morally blind that all arguments are superfluous.

Logic and reason are useless when a highly intelligent man, a Nobel laureate no less, does not understand that his membership in an organization that planned and carried out the wholesale genocide of millions of Jews disqualifies him from criticizing the descendants of those Jews for developing a weapon of last resort that is the insurance policy against someone finishing the job his organization began. What could be more self-evident?

This is not about all Germans. They have every right to express their geopolitical views, and even Grass can be as critical of Israel as he wishes. Certainly there can be no law limiting his freedom of speech, but some things are so fundamental that they should not even need laws. It is a matter of basic human decency.

One German-Jewish commentator has already accused Grass of being the "prototype of the polite anti-Semite who claims he is a friend of the Jews." But I believe Grass when he writes he is "aligned with Israel." I don't think he hates Jews in any real sense of the word. An Israeli diplomat in Berlin likened the poem to a classic blood libel. But there is nothing libelous about what "What Must Be Said." Grass simply wrote his misguided assessment of Israel's nuclear intentions.

It makes much more sense to attribute the moral blindness of Grass to his massive ego and vanity, as does Sebastian Hammelehle, Der Spiegel's astute literary editor who is worth quoting at length. "Grass is such a vain man," wrote Hammelehle on Wednesday, "that, when asked to write for the German weekly Die Zeit on the occasion of prominent German writer Heinrich Boll's death, he wrote almost exclusively about himself. Now he has packed his political opinions into a poem that is almost as simple. What pathos! It might have been better if he hadn't begun his verses with the word 'I' at the beginning of each sentence, and instead debated the situation in Israel more thoroughly. Then he very quickly would have gotten an idea about how the people of Israel must feel in psychological terms, being surrounded by enemies."

That's the problem with ego and vanity - it totally skews the judgment of even the most conscientious writer. How else to explain the fact that seven years ago, when he sat down to write his memoirs, Grass apparently thought that if he finally revealed the dark truth about his past in the Waffen SS, people would just let that go by the wayside and continue to see in him only the man who wrote the "The Tin Drum."

Who can blame a 16-year-old boy, swept up in patriotic fervor, for volunteering during wartime? Grass does not deserve any punishment for his war service, but history has marked him to the rest of his days. How could he have imagined that there would not be a price to pay, unless his bloated self-importance hid the reality from him? Having served in the organization that tried, with a fair amount of success, to wipe the Jews off the face of the earth he should keep his views to himself when it comes to the Jews' doomsday weapon. And if the 84-year-old writer has become so lost in self-adulation that he can't realize something that simple, the editors of the respectable newspaper should have found the way to gently point it out to him. He is not just another boy born on the Baltic coast in the 1920s. He did something along the way that tainted him. Forever.



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