What Must (and Must Not) Be Said

Günter Grass and the enduring power of a taboo

Opinion | Dardis McNamee | May 2012

Nobel laureate Günter Grass has made a career of talking about hard things. Like Oskar, the central character in his 1959 novel The Tin Drum, Grass is gifted with a piercing shriek that can be used as a weapon. His latest cry was a poem, "What Must Be Said", that appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung and elsewhere on 4 April. The poem, which we have translated and published in the Voice of Others column [see here, or page 15, TVR May 2012], criticises Israel for it’s aggressive posture toward Iran, but also Germany for its "complicity", through the "all-very-business-like" delivery of nuclear submarines geared to destroy a country "where the existence of a single atom bomb is as yet unproven."

I myself am grateful to Grass. Given the heated debate that is still going on as I write this column, "What Must Be Said" clearly needed to be said.

The outrage was predictable, and came from many sides. One representative example was Hermann Grohe, Secretary General of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), was quick to assert Germany’s "fundamental" support for Israel: "I am appalled by the tone and the direction of the poem," Grohe wrote in a statement, pointing out that Iranian President Ahmadinejad "denies the Holocaust" and rejects international monitoring of its nuclear program. "It is unfortunate that someone like Günter Grass seems not to have learned anything from history."

But it was harder to respect Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu whose attacks were strongly ad hominum, directed at Grass as a person rather than at the the poem: "Günter Grass’ shameful moral equivalence between Israel and Iran... says little about Israel and much about Mr. Grass," Netanyahu was quoted in The Guardian the following day, suggesting that Grass’ 2006 revelation that he had been a member of the Waffen SS [drafted at the age of 17 in the final months of the war –ed.] discredits any later political judgment he might have. Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai has banned Grass from visiting the country, claiming that the poem would "fan the flames of hatred against Israel and the Israeli people."

But while heavily criticised by western leaders and many journalists, Grass drew quite a different reaction from the German public, receiving wide support on a Facebook site "Support Günter Grass – What Must Be Said" and a dozen more in the days to follow, plus countless blog entries, and in a flurry of simultaneous street demonstrations Saturday, Apr. 21 in Berlin, Stuttgart and elsewhere. A sampling of the entries revealed a sense of relief to have the subject out into the open.

"Mr. Grass has struck a nerve with the broader public, articulating frustrations with Israel here in Germany that are frequently expressed in private but rarely in public, where discourse is checked by the lingering presence of the past," wrote Nicholas Kulish in the International Herald Tribune, reporting from Berlin.

Taboos are powerful things, and behind the shield of idealism, conviction hardens into ideology, and belief into dogma. Over time, it becomes no longer possible to voice objections or discomfort; out of practice we lose our ability to describe, and gradually even to notice in the first place. This can happen with any belief system, whether involving politics or religion, managing a company or raising a child. Perhaps it is in the natural course of things that an idea – as with the life of a person – passes through an evolutionary arc from liberal revolution to the tyranny of conformity.

Hence Disraeli’s oft-quoted remark: "If you’re not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, but if you’re not a conservative at forty you have no brain." Revolution is easy; governing is hard.

But I also see this arc as a danger: I have watched as a wave of powerful social reforms in civil rights, the anti-war movement, feminism, the sexual revolution and the counterculture – all involving profound shake-ups to existing power structures – gradually calcified into a suffocating climate of political correctness. In the world of PC, all opinions were given equal weight, all contributions equal value, regardless of merit.  In search of greater fairness, we weren’t supposed to acknowledge difference. The goal was laudable, and the evolutionary change we accomplished was real. But overtime it also became a form of tyranny, an impoverishment of language, and even a veil over our ability to perceive.

So I am grateful to Günter Grass, for breaking a taboo, for speaking out about a topic that political correctness had silenced for so long. Grass may or may not be right.  But Israeli militarism with German submarines is certainly something we ought to be able to talk about without resorting to personal attacks.

Other articles from this issue