George Jonas on Gunter Grass: Great author or big jerk? (NATIONAL POST COMMENT) 04/12/12)
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Last week, Germany’s respected Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper
published the poetic ruminations of a former member of the Waffen-SS,
Hitler’s elite fighting force. The 84-year-old author called his poem
something that “needed to be said.”
“Tomorrow could be too late,” he wrote. The Jewish state “could wipe
out the people of Iran” using a “first strike.” As for his country,
Germany, by selling another Dolphin-class submarine to Israel, it
could become “accomplice to a crime.”
Excuse me, Nurse, who is this guy? Is he taking his pills?
Here’s a hint: He can’t be some right-wing knuckle-dragger. It’s
2012, not 1932. Anyone who wants his poem about Jews plotting the
annihilation of Iran’s population published in a mainstream Munich
newspaper had better have impeccable left-wing credentials and a
Nobel Prize in Literature.
Next, novelist Gunter Grass (congratulations, you guessed) poses a
rhetorical question: What took him so long? Why not years ago? Why
was he saying only now, “in his old age, using his last ink,” that
Israel’s atomic power was “endangering the fragile peace of the
Good question, Herr Grass. Why?
Well, first, because of Nazi Germany’s “matchless” crimes against the
Jews (please note that Grass, unlike his protégés in Tehran, is no
Holocaust-denier) and second, his fear of being accused of anti-
Nobel laureate Gunter Grass an anti-Semite? Perish the thought! But
then what actually has changed? Does Grass no longer consider Nazi
crimes to have been matchless? Or is he no longer afraid of being
accused of anti-Semitism?
What made him lose his fear? Could the winds of political fashion
have shifted? Has anti-Semitism stopped being a career-breaker or
even a social handicap, especially when disguised as anti-Zionism? Is
it because Grass, who has always been attuned to nuances, senses that
it’s becoming prudent to flaunt what would have been imprudent to
admit only a few years ago?
Is it because the great author is a jerk?
More than half a century has passed since the native of the Free City
of Danzig, today Gdansk, made a literary splash by publishing a
remarkable novel. Called The Tin Drum, it was the first of three
evocative tales that became known as The Danzig Trilogy. Released in
1959, when Grass was 31, The Tin Drum, along with two subsequent
volumes, Cat and Mouse (1961) and Dog Years (1963), contributed to a
philosophical movement aimed at Germans “coming to terms” with their
history — a movement some described as exercises in self-forgiveness
under the guise of atonement.
Can jerks or fools paint magnificent landscapes or write remarkable
books? They certainly can; it isn’t even rare. And if there’s
something even easier than for jerks or fools to create great art
occasionally, it’s for great artists to be occasional jerks or fools.
Stop right there, someone might say. Fool, yes; jerk, maybe, but
great? Insofar as people know of Grass outside Germany, they know of
him only as the author of a book about the Nazi era, published 53
years ago. A phenomenon rather than a novel, it made a stir in the
1960s, but couldn’t be described as having had a lasting impact on
I suggest it did, though. True, the 84-year-old icon made his mark as
a political activist for left-wing causes, rather than a writer,
after his 1959 debut; as a type of Lenin’s “useful idiot,” a sucker
for sinistral doctrines and dictators. It’s also true that winning
the Nobel Prize for Literature, as Grass did in 1999, isn’t like
winning it for chemistry. The literary Nobel Prize has the same
modest nexus with literature as the Nobel Peace Prize has with peace.
As often as not, both are lifetime achievement awards, issued by the
Social-Democratic International, a.k.a. the gnomes of Scandinavia, to
senior apologists of left-wing aesthetics and ideas.
Grass used to have a certain moral authority in Germany (if this
isn’t a contradiction in terms), but elsewhere most people wouldn’t
have known whether to mow him or smoke him. Even in Germany, his
authority was shaken to the core in 2006, when he belatedly revealed
having been a member of the Waffen-SS.
It wasn’t being conscripted into an SS Panzer division at 17 that
hurt Grass; it was not admitting it until his seventies. Many Germans
remembered that in the 1980s, it was Grass who took it upon himself
to castigate U.S. president Ronald Reagan for saying a few
conciliatory words over Germany’s war dead in a cemetery that
included some Waffen-SS graves.
A bit thick, yes. Jews would call it chutzpa.
What has changed in 80 years? The players, mainly; the plot, very
little. In 1932 it was Hitler laying the groundwork for the
Holocaust. As the curtain rises in Munich in 2012, it’s a remorseful
participant in the Nazi Holocaust, former SS-Schütze Grass, who at
the risk of being mistaken for an anti-Semite uses his last ink to
assist the Holocaust-deniers of Tehran to develop, without Israeli
interruption, the nuclear technology needed for an Islamist
Holocaust. Full circle. This is where we came in. (© 2012 National
Post, a division of Postmedia Network Inc. 04/12/12)
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