Günter Grass and the German neurosis

Maciej Zurowski looks at a literary scandal and the bourgeoisie's attempt to cope with its past

“Abominable”, “irritating”, and “over the top” - these are the attributes that the German tabloid Bild, otherwise known for agitating the local populace against ‘lazy Greeks’ and suchlike, used to describe a poem, ‘What must be said’, by Günter Grass, which was recently published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. When Ephraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center attributed “a deep-seated prejudice against the Jewish people” to the famous German writer, he was being mild in comparison. The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, reminded the public of Grass’s ‘Nazi past’: “Coming from a former member of the Waffen SS,” he remarked dryly, the poem was “perhaps not surprising”.[1] Within days, Netanyahu banned the author from entering Israel.

Of course, such expressions of outrage are not uncommon in rightwing circles whenever Israel’s foreign policies are the object of even the mildest critique. Every time somebody evokes the Jewish holocaust to block criticism of Israel’s ruling elites, it is as if the dignity of six million is posthumously trampled underfoot. Consequently, few readers were surprised to learn that Grass’s poem contained little that a sane person could conceive as anti-Jewish. In his timid, thoroughly pacifist warning against the looming Israeli attack on Iran, Grass took care to refer to Israel as “a land to which I am, and always will be, attached”, while calling upon both Iran and Israel to allow a “free and open inspection” of their nuclear capabilities by an “international authority”.[2]

If anything about the poem can be described as over the top, it is Grass’s belief in the collective guilt of all Germans, including himself, for the atrocities perpetuated under the Nazi dictatorship. Born into a petty bourgeois Catholic home in 1927, Grass reached adolescence after the last hope of successful resistance to Hitler had been stamped out by SA jackboots. Aged 17, he was drafted into a Waffen SS tank division. These were the last months of the war - a time when even the once infamously loyal and ideologically hardened elite corps of the Third Reich sent anyone who was still in possession of their limbs to the rapidly receding front. Readers may decide to what extent the teenage Grass can be held responsible for Nazi atrocities.

To some, the author’s apologies for his “own origins, tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,” are not enough. International observers may well have been astonished at the intensity and sheer uniformity with which the entire German cultural and political establishment pounced on Grass like a pack of starved coyotes. Germany’s ‘literary pope’, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, called it a “repulsive poem” and the editor of the centre-left German daily Die Zeit went so far as to accuse the author of “swinging in the Auschwitz club”. Not one of Grass’s plentiful German detractors has found it necessary to discuss the actual contents of his poem.[3]

Beate Klarsfeld, the German Left Party’s candidate for presidency, also jumped in on the act. During her heyday in 1968, Klarsfeld publicly slapped a former Nazi propagandist, the Christian Democratic chancellor, Kurt Kiesinger. Now, however, the pro-Israel hardliner and ‘Nazi hunter’ was not embarrassed to compare Grass’s poem to a Hitler speech, absurdly claiming that Grass might just as well have replaced the word “Israel” with “international finance Jewry”. Of course, almost any polemic will assume a Nazi-like timbre if certain words are replaced with “international finance Jewry”.

The reader should bear in mind that Günter Grass is not known as a political provocateur or literary enfant terrible. His classic novel The tin drum (1959) may have been too racy for the prudish mores of post-war Germany, but it eventually set the blueprint for official German Vergangenheitsbewältigung - ‘coping with the past’. In a symbolic fashion, Nazism was associated with collectivism, connoted by the regular marching beat of the storm trooper drums and contrasted with the sensual, imaginative rhythm played by the main character, who metaphorically envisions a free Germany.

Characteristically, his novel Hundejahre (1963) sees its protagonists constantly vacillating between the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP), switching allegiances and party memberships with great ease. This scenario is a projection of Grass’s idealism more than it is representative of historical trends. Styling himself as an opponent of all ‘ideologies’, Grass inevitably absorbed the dominant ideology, according to which the communist and fascist movements were simply two sides of the same totalitarian coin. Unable - or unwilling - to make out divergent class interests behind their political manifestations, Grass plumped for liberal democracy as the best possible option for the German nation.

It is not as if he had never been exposed to alternative points of view. As a member of the Gruppe 47 literary circle, Grass rubbed shoulders with communists, such as its founder, Hans-Werner Richter. Richter, after being expelled from the KPD for ‘Trotskyism’ in 1932, rejoined the party after Hitler’s rise to power and worked in the underground resistance. Following a brief time in Gestapo custody, he was drafted, sent to the front, and captured by the Americans. Understandably, he did not have much time for the post-war ‘collective guilt’ campaign that he, like all other Germans, was subjected to by the psychological warfare department of the US armed forces. In 1947, his paper Der Ruf was banned for “nihilism” (read: communist thought) and expressions of protest against the anti-German chauvinism collectively endured after the defeat of the Third Reich.


“We have to be tough with Germany,” opined Roosevelt - “and I mean the German people, not just the Nazis. We either have to castrate the German people or you have to treat them in such a manner that they can’t just go on reproducing people who want to continue the way they have in the past.” The measures planned for the defeated Germany involved, among other things, ‘industrial demilitarisation’ - ie, the destruction of Germany’s productive capacity, together with its banking system - and a deliberate repression of the standard of living to near-starvation levels. From ‘collective guilt’ to collective punishment: a new Versailles, but a less humane one.

However, the new administration under Truman soon realised that you cannot have global capitalism with a key player excluded - or even “made to starve”, as had been Roosevelt’s desire. For years, pragmatic American capitalists had understood that the wanton destruction of Germany’s economy would lead to a severe crisis all over western Europe - and this, in turn, would deliver the European peoples into the arms of Stalin, whose army was goose-stepping just around the corner.

With the first signs of their predictions becoming painfully apparent, there was a sharp change of line. After ‘deNazification’ came ‘democratisation’: ie, the rapid integration of Germany into the new imperialist order. With the onset of the cold war, all manner of former NSDAP and SS functionaries were pardoned and - hey presto - made their way back into the political and economic establishment, be it as ‘democratic’ capitalists or Christian Democratic Union officials.[4] This ‘democratisation’ process, crucially, involved contractual arrangements with Israel and a commitment to Wiedergutmachung (‘compensation’): ie, reparation payments to the same country. Thus, the institutional ‘anti-fascism’ of West Germany - in reality a veneer for its integration into transatlantic imperialism - involved a firm geopolitical, financial and ideological commitment to Israel. Socialist holocaust survivor organisations, such as the Union of Anti-Fascists, meanwhile, were subjected to bans and disbarments.[5]

It was in this atmosphere that Günter Grass came into his own and authored his most important work. Many among the centre-left intelligentsia were dissatisfied with the cultural philistinism that accompanied the 1950s-60s reconstruction and the swiftness with which former Nazis got another shot at the lofty heights of German society. For these culturati, Grass, who had become a sort of ‘conscience of the nation’, offered consensual social democratic moderation, cultural sophistication and solemn meditation over the National Socialist past.

Not least through his novels, the Gruppe 47 literary association were able to become part of the ideological establishment. Combined with his undeniable talent, Grass’s conviction that the German people had a particular duty to uphold liberal democracy provided the left with a place in the new republic where they could make themselves comfortable. For in those days, even those to the left of Grass hailed the liberal-democratic German constitution as a wise piece of writing designed to guard human dignity and avert a repeat of history. In a 1962 article for Konkret magazine, a young Ulrike Meinhof - then close to the illegal KPD - described this Grundgesetz as a constitution that was “not dominated by the dictate of individual interest groups” and had been authored by “the best men that could still be found ... after 12 years of Nazism”.[6]

Likewise, in the first two decades after the war, the German left held an unambiguously pro-Israel stance. For many, this began to change with the outbreak of the 1967 Six Day War - if, understandably, in a far more cautious fashion than was the case in other European countries. Ulrike Meinhof’s commentary at that time was symptomatic of this gentle turning of the tide. While careful to acknowledge the Israeli state’s right to exist and condemning extreme anti-Israel statements made by Arab leaders, Meinhof, now a prominent spokeswoman of the new left, expressed some sympathy for Arab nationalism and attempted to make sense of the United States’ geopolitical interests in the Middle East.

In powerful prose, she criticised Israel’s “false friends” at home, the German right. “What led to a questionable reconciliation,” Meinhof wrote, “is not the recognition of the Jews’ humanity, but the harshness of their warfare [and] the use of napalm; not the understanding of our own crimes, but the Israeli blitzkrieg, solidarity with the brutality, the displacement and the conquest.” In Sinai, argued Meinhof, chauvinistically applauding the Israeli troops’ victory over the Soviet-backed Arabs, the German right had symbolically “won Stalingrad after all”[7].

The new left began to ask questions: how could it be that media tsar Axel Springer, a sworn enemy of the left, who employed former Nazi functionaries in his editorial staff, was at the same time known as Germany’s “biggest friend of Israel”? When a meeting of the Gruppe 47 was interrupted by students protesting against ‘the establishment’, Hans-Werner Richter dissolved the circle, accepting that the avant-garde was now to be found elsewhere. Günter Grass did not share Richter’s view - nor did he, like many others, become radicalised when the repressive class character of the West German republic became increasingly apparent. Instead, he expressed ‘worry’ about the student movement and its “moral absolutism”[8] - something that, in his view, ‘we Germans’ ought to abstain from.

Collective guilt

If the ‘collective guilt’ thesis no longer applied to the ‘democratic’ German elites, it reappeared, albeit in implicit form, in the school curriculum - now firmly aimed at the young subjects of bourgeois rule. To this day, school students are treated to repeated lessons about the Third Reich and the Jewish holocaust from the fifth grade onwards - allegedly to ‘warn’ them against a repeat of history. Typically, the rise of Nazism is depicted as a case of mass hypnosis, whereby a cunning movement ignited the nation’s dangerous love of authoritarianism and, on the back of a weak and far too permissive democracy, proceeded to turn western civilisation on its head.

The proportional representation system of the Weimar Republic, so the narrative goes, led to a chaotic and inefficient multitude of parties unable to cope with the demands of the world economic crisis. Extremist forces were permitted to thrive and enter parliament, tricking the ignorant masses into accepting ‘simple solutions’ to complicated problems. And complicated problems, so the implication attests, can only be truly understood by the wise and benevolent political elites of our liberal democracies.

In a country where Prolet is a common slur even among the left, images of the mob unleashed are never far away where institutional anti-fascism is taught. In retrospect, we are led to believe, the NSAPD really became a workers’ party of sorts - even if, in the end, the entire Volksgemeinschaft allowed itself to get carried away. National socialism, so children are taught, was a system that allowed social losers to become somebody, goose-stepping in unison to the drumbeat of hate - instead of just staying in the gutter where they belong, as is the case in our meritocracies. Small wonder it all led to terror and genocide!

From there, it all becomes a question of moralistic pondering over questions of responsibility - a favourite pursuit of the German chattering classes, albeit rarely a fruitful one. For there are few lessons to be drawn from an evaluation of the Third Reich which treats the German nation as an organic body, united in resentment over the Great War and lusting for easy scapegoats, or else lacking the exemplary courage of conscientious military bigwigs like Claus von Stauffenberg.

In German classrooms, there is little time for the SPD right wing’s betrayal of November 1918, their arrangements with the old elites, their unleashing of the Freikorps - the very seed of Nazism - to crush the workers’ councils and butcher the revolutionary leaders. The existence of a German working class, which, instead of joining the fascist battalions, overwhelmingly continued to vote social democrat and communist when it still could,[9] is not something that official German history teaching rushes to acknowledge.

Neither does it go out of its way to investigate which social classes were prepared to support a movement such as Nazism and why. Instead, blame is put at the door of ‘us Germans’ more broadly: moral failure, if not outright complicity, are the central themes contemplated with regards to all those individuals to whom it did not occur to single-handedly take on the combined forces of the National Socialist state apparatus after 1933.[10]

German institutional anti-fascism, furthermore, teaches that the Nazi concentration camps were rechtsfreie Räume - places in which the rule of law had been suspended. Fundamental civil rights such as the protection of the individual against state despotism, it is claimed, can only be guaranteed by the Rechtsstaat, the rule-of-law state that had been abolished by Hitler. The underlying purpose of official German history teaching, it is fair to say, is to consolidate the young citizen’s allegiance to that rule-of-law state.

This narrative fails to mention that Hitler, while suspending civil liberties by means of emergency legislation, left the right to private property intact, just as he had promised the old elites, thus preserving the one truly inalienable essence of bourgeois law. Enshrined in the liberal-democratic German constitution since the student protests of 1967-68, likewise, is a set of laws that suspend certain civil rights in case of ‘emergency’ and, most crucially, give “every German” the right of “resistance against anybody who attempts to do away with the constitutional order”.[11] Since only the forces at the direct disposal of the bourgeois state are armed, it is not hard to work out who stands a fair chance of resisting whom in case of such an “emergency”.

Combined with a set of special laws policing the discussion of Nazism and banning Germans from reading documents such as Mein Kampf, the unscientific discourse surrounding the subject gives an impression of German chauvinism as unchanging and ahistorical - a beast deeply ingrained in the Teutonic soul, always threatening to raise its ugly head if not kept in check by the repressive apparatus of the bourgeois state. Rather maliciously, Grass’s What must be said is now being presented as further evidence to this. But in truth, the ethnic nationalism of the Nazi era was a product of its time and specific social conditions, and so was the phantasmagorical repertoire of anti-Semitic imagery.

The chauvinism of the contemporary German right is an entirely different beast. In line with the country’s integration into the ‘international community’, it insists on Germany’s leading position in Europe, but accepts its role as a junior partner of the United States. A kind of ‘positional chauvinism’. Just as the German right has long been committed to the Israeli project, the German equivalent of the Murdoch empire, Axel Springer AG, lists in its corporate constitution its intention to “support the vital rights of the state of Israel”. [12] Thus, the tirades against Islamists, ‘asylum cheats’ and ‘criminal foreigners’ found in the pages of its esteemed tabloid, Bild, are accompanied by expressions of solidarity for the ‘Jewish project’.

Although the vast majority of Germans are opposed to anti-Semitism, there are indications that the officially sanctioned ‘anti-fascism’ is counterproductive. Many school students are unwilling to persevere through presentations that aim at emotional consternation rather than a real understanding of history, and in various surveys a large percentage of respondents state that they would rather end the perpetual “commemoration culture” altogether. Such surveys are routinely presented as evidence that the spirit of Nazism still lurks deep in the German psyche - as are those in which respondents express a critical attitude towards the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinian people.[13] With all the embarrassment, guilt and shame that younger generations are implicitly expected to feel about a time they have never experienced, far-right fringe groups find it easy to recruit demoralised youth by, rather ludicrously, depicting Germany as an ‘oppressed nation’.

Critical defence

Throughout the decades, Grass continued to stand firmly on the grounds of the German constitution. True to the official ‘never again’ mantra, he has opposed ‘extremism’ of all stripes and backed every SPD chancellor from Willy ‘Berufsverbote’ Brandt to the neoliberal Gerhard Schröder. It is precisely for this reason that the political and cultural elites have found it necessary to attack him so vehemently. It is not some loony lefty, but the establishment’s figurehead intellectual, who has dared to criticise Israel. From there, they figure, it is only a small step to question Germany’s bonds with Israel and, by extension, its commitment to Atlanticist imperialism. If you are to believe a recent New York Times article, they may well have something to worry about: broad layers of the German public support Grass against the frothing intelligentsia, which is making itself look very stupid and cowardly indeed.[14]

There is no question that communists should defend Günter Grass against the smear campaign. Not only because accusations of anti-Semitism are used to suffocate any criticism of Israel - a penchant penetrating into the ranks of the German left - but because it is instrumentalised as an ideological defence of any imperialist endeavours, including those of the German bourgeoisie. Why did Germany enter the Balkans conflict in the 1990s? According to its Green ex-foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, that happened because of Germany’s “historical responsibility with regard to the dictators of the world”. Why does Germany sell arms to Israel, thus furthering not only Israeli, but also its own, hegemonic interests in the Middle East? Because of what the Germans did to the Jews, of course. Ruling class self-interest is depicted as ‘ethical responsibility’, the aggressive expansion of capital as ‘moral obligation’.

Of course, we should be critical of Grass’s poem. Not the state of Israel, but imperialism, with the United States at its helm, is the biggest threat to world peace - the German capitalist class plays a role in this just as much as that of the Israelis. Then there is Grass’s naive call for an “international authority” to inspect nuclear capabilities - inevitably dominated by the very power that uses Israel as a Trojan horse in the Middle East. However, his greatest weakness lies in his inability to escape a nationalist framework. As a German writer, Grass continues to identify with the history of the German nation - even if he does so in a negative sense. History, to him, is a history of the relationships between national collectives.

Grass’s former colleague from the Gruppe 47 circle, the Marxist writer and playwright Peter Weiss, took a quite different approach when investigating Germany’s past. While emphasising the necessity of resistance under any circumstances in the three volumes of his central novel, The aesthetics of resistance (1975, 1978 and 1981), he situated the rise of Nazism within the failure of the proletarian movement rather than an intrinsically evil national psyche.

In his play The investigation (1965), Weiss dramatised the 1960s Frankfurt trials, during which the butchers, bureaucrats and human cogs in the machinery of the Auschwitz death camp were convicted. Without altering the verbatim of the court proceedings, Weiss broke up authentic witness and defendant statements into verses, allowing the grim accounts to speak for themselves. In one of the play’s 11 cantos, one holocaust survivor makes a statement that disturbed many at the time, and should still provide certain ‘anti-fascists’ with food for thought:

If we speak today about our experiences
with people who were not in the camps
these people always regard them
as something unimaginable
And yet it was the same men there
who were both prisoners and guards
We came to the camp
in such great numbers
and there were so many who brought us there
That what happened ought to be
comprehensible even today
Many of those who had been chosen
to play the role of prisoners
were brought up with the same values
as those
who played the role of guards
They had worked hard for the same nation
and for the same incentives and rewards
and if they hadn’t been prisoners
they might just as easily have been guards
We must get rid of our exalted attitude
that this camp world
is beyond our comprehension
We all know the society
which had produced the regime
that could bring about such a camp
we were familiar with this order
from its very beginnings
and so we could still find our way
even in its final consequences
which allowed the exploiter
to develop his power
to an hitherto unknown degree
and the exploited
had to deliver up his own guts


1. www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/apr/05/gunter-grass-israel-poem-iran.

2. Full poem at www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/apr/05/gunter-grass-what-must-be-said.

3. This is in contrast to the liberal press in other countries, which, like The Guardian and Ha’aretz, chose to play ‘good cop’: they argued that Grass’s statements were over the top, while defending his right to make them.

4. In fairness, it should be mentioned that in East Germany, likewise, many former Nazi functionaries made a second appearance in governmental posts, the armed forces, and the police and security services.

5. See ‘Berufsverbote’ section in ‘Jailbirds, extremists and white power rockWeekly Worker January 6 2011.

6. ‘Die Würde des Menschen’ Konkret no10, 1962. Reprinted in UM Meinhof Die Würde des Menschen ist antastbar Wagenbach 1980.

7. ‘Drei Freunde Israels’ Konkret no7, 1967. Reprinted in UM Meinhof Die Würde des Menschen ist antastbar Wagenbach 1980.

8. See S Mews Günter Grass and his critics: from the tin drum to Crabwalk New York 2008.

9. See also ‘Authoritarianism’ section in ‘Divided by a common language? Weekly Worker June 30 2011.

10. Suffice to say, the desperate yet heroic work of the underground KPD after 1933 is barely mentioned.

11. See Article 20 of the German Grundgesetz at www.iuscomp.org/gla/statutes/GG.htm#20. In addition to this, 27 existing articles of the constitution were altered in case of “emergency”, as of June 27 1968.

12. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Axel_Springer.

13. http://forward.com/articles/150663/anti-semitism-still-high-in-germany.

14. www.nytimes.com/2012/04/13/world/europe/with-gunter-grasss-poem-germans-anti-israel-whispers-grow-louder.html.