Sunday, April 08, 2012

Günter Grass's wretched poem

I'm now finally reading Günter Grass's wretched poem itself, in English translation, kindly provided by the Atlantic. This is what the translator wrote about it:
His poem, "What Must Be Said," is overtly and boldly political. It is not exactly the prettiest prose in its original German, and the English doesn't read much better. Translating it below, I've tried to untangle some of the needlessly Teutonic constructions where it doesn't undo the deliberately winding and parenthetical tone too much. Even more concise German can sound circuitous to an English ear, but Grass's writing here is an extreme example. The poem is, from a purely communicative standpoint, a relatively inefficient denunciation - akin to writing up a paragraph of solid reasoning and then cutting it up and sticking little bits in fortune cookies.
Following are my comments on some of the poem:
It is the alleged right to first strike
That could annihilate the Iranian people--
Enslaved by a loud-mouth
And guided to organized jubilation--
Because in their territory,
It is suspected, a bomb is being built.
"The alleged right to first strike" - if Israel does in fact attack Iran (which I very much hope it does not!), it will not be attacking with nuclear weapons (which is what a "first strike" refers to) - it will be attacking the sites in Iran where the uranium is being enriched to weapons level (Natanz, Fordow) and where, according to some intelligence reports, a nuclear trigger was being tested (Parchin). It will not be bombing Iran with atomic bombs. Israel's goal is not to annihilate the Iranian people, it is to stop Iran's nuclear program.

The "loud mouth," I presume, is Ahmedinejad - but he is not the true leader of the country (although he is a loud mouth) - that honor goes to Khamenei, the supreme Ayatollah and heir to Khomeini.

It's true that a bomb is suspected of being built - and most intelligence services (including the US and Israel) don't think the Iranians have yet decided actually to build the bomb.
Yet why do I forbid myself
To name that other country
In which, for years, even if secretly,
There has been a growing nuclear potential at hand
But beyond control, because no inspection is available?
Indeed, why is he forbidding himself to name that country? It's common knowledge (according to foreign sources) that Israel has nuclear weapons. Mordechai Vanunu spent eighteen years in prison for revealing secret information and photographs of the program for the Sunday Times newspaper in 1986. He was released from prison in 2004. Several books have been written on the Israeli nuclear program, including two by Avner Cohen - The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with the Bomb (2012) and Israel and the Bomb (1999).
The universal concealment of these facts,
To which my silence subordinated itself,
I sense as incriminating lies
And force - the punishment is promised
As soon as it is ignored;
The verdict of "anti-Semitism" is familiar.
Again, I don't understand why Grass refers to "universal concealment." There is no universal concealment of the existence of an Israeli nuclear program. The Israeli press writes about it, always preceding its reports with the phrase "according to foreign sources," since the Israeli government maintains a policy of "nuclear ambiguity," refusing to confirm that it has a program. There has been a lot of discussion about the existence of the program outside Israel as well, even by the Iranians!

This appears to be part of the false meme that somehow it is forbidden to criticize Israel out of fear of antisemitism, when there is widespread criticism of Israel in many countries from both the left and the right. In the US we find this criticism from people on the paleoconservative right (Ron Paul, Pat Buchanan) and the far left (Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, Alice Walker, etc.), and the criticism is far more extensive in European countries, like Britain and Germany itself.
Now, though, because in my country
Which from time to time has sought and confronted
Its very own crime
That is without compare
In turn on a purely commercial basis, if also
With nimble lips calling it a reparation, declares
A further U-boat should be delivered to Israel,
Whose specialty consists of guiding all-destroying warheads to where the existence
Of a single atomic bomb is unproven,
But as a fear wishes to be conclusive,
I say what must be said.
I don't understand, again, why he is now upset about the fact that Germany is selling submarines to Israel - Israel already owns several of them. The first two were given to Israel by Germany after the Gulf War, the cost of the third one was split between Israel and Germany, two are currently being built, and Germany just agreed to sell Israel another submarine at a discounted price. A Deutsche Welle article of March 20, 2012 says that "Experts say the latest order from Israel is capable of carrying nuclear-capable, mid-range rockets, although this has not been confirmed." An article from the Jerusalem Post of December 19, 2011 reports about the submarines: "Widely believed to be Israel’s second-strike capability with their reported ability to launch cruise missiles with nuclear warheads, the Navy’s submarines are shrouded in an aura of mystery and prestige." If this is true, then nuclear missiles on the submarines are intended not for a first strike, but for a second strike, after Israel has been attacked by nuclear weapons - that is to say, the weapons on the submarines, if indeed they exist, are intended to retaliate against an attack by another country. Their purpose is, therefore, deterrent - to prevent another country from attacking Israel out of the knowledge that it would also suffer terrible losses.
Why though have I stayed silent until now?
Because I thought my origin,
Afflicted by a stain never to be expunged
Kept the state of Israel, to which I am bound
And wish to stay bound,
From accepting this fact as pronounced truth.
If he means by the "stain never to be expunged" his service in the Waffen-SS, he had the right impulse to keep silent! He's right, in my opinion, that he is the wrong person to hector Israel, in an inaccurate way, against attacking Iran, especially since he implies that an Israeli strike would annihilate Iran. If he had written a reasoned article on the dangers of Israel attacking Iran, the possibility of a terrible war breaking out as a result of the attack, his wish that Germany not supply submarines that might be used for nuclear missiles - then we wouldn't be having this conversation about him.

I'm glad that he feels "bound" to Israel and that he wishes to "stay bound" - and that "binding" certainly doesn't exclude thoughtful, even harsh criticism of Israel and its leadership - but this foolish poem is not that useful criticism.
Why do I say only now,
Aged and with my last ink,
That the nuclear power of Israel endangers
The already fragile world peace?
Because it must be said
What even tomorrow may be too late to say;
Also because we--as Germans burdened enough--
Could be the suppliers to a crime
That is foreseeable, wherefore our complicity
Could not be redeemed through any of the usual excuses.
So what he's worried about is that because Germany is selling this submarine to Israel, that could possibly carry nuclear missiles, which might be used during a second strike by Israel after the country has suffered a nuclear first strike (which would probably kill most Israelis) - that Germany would then be responsible for the deaths of the people who are killed in that second strike. His concern seems to be all for the country that might be hit by that second strike, after it has done its best to destroy Israel!

Why not be concerned for the survival of Israel? It seems to me that if he feels a moral commitment to Israel, which in the previous stanza he asserts that he feels, that commitment should be expressed here. His fear is all for what Israel might do in retaliation, not for what might first be done to Israel. Is he deliberately misunderstanding why Israel would want a second strike capability? In this section of the poem he is taking the side of Iran entirely, without acknowledging the threats emanating from its leaders.
And granted: I am silent no longer
Because I am tired of the hypocrisy
Of the West; in addition to which it is to be hoped
That this will free many from silence,
That they may prompt the perpetrator of the recognized danger
To renounce violence and
Likewise insist
That an unhindered and permanent control
Of the Israeli nuclear potential
And the Iranian nuclear sites
Be authorized through an international agency
By the governments of both countries.
"The perpetrator of the recognized danger" is apparently Israel - which has not yet done anything except issue verbal threats against Iran's nuclear program, and has possibly killed some Iranian scientists and launched the Stuxnet virus against Iranian computers. Iran, on the other hand, has supported both Hezbollah and Hamas which have already perpetrated attacks against Israelis and Jews in other countries, and Iran on its part threatens to launch hundreds of long-range missiles against Israeli targets in the event of an Israeli attack upon its nuclear program. Why shouldn't Iran "renounce violence" if Israel must do the same?

In this stanza he finally admits the existence of "Iranian nuclear sites" - good for recognizing reality.

Iran doesn't seem particularly interested in having its nuclear sites controlled or inspected by an international agency - it has most recently refused to let the IAEA inspect the Parchin military base, where the work on a nuclear trigger has been suspected to occur.

Again he talks about how his being "silent no longer" is supposed to "free many from silence" - where is this alleged silence occurring? Plenty of people over the years have criticized Israel for its (alleged) possession of nuclear weapons, and have also insisted that Iran isn't developing nuclear weapons. I do not hear this silence that he claims has existed until he decided to write this rather badly-written poem.
Only this way are all, the Israelis and Palestinians,
Even more, all people, that in this
Region occupied by mania
Live cheek by jowl among enemies,
And also us, to be helped.
Why does he now mention "Israelis and Palestinians"? I thought this poem was about Iran and Israel! What has the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians have to do with the threat of an Israeli attack upon Iran, or the threat of an Iranian development of a nuclear bomb?

I occasionally write poems, and even more occasionally publish them on this blog. Even my poor efforts are better written that this piece of tendentious drivel! This is not a poem, it is a really bad example of agitprop.


  1. Perhaps this poem was written in collaboration with Noam Chomsky.

  2. Hmm. That would explain the wretchedness of the thing as a poem.