Günter Grass, Germany's most famous living author and the 1999 recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature, sparked outrage in Germany on Wednesday with the publication of a poem, "What Must Be Said," in which he sharply criticizes Israel's policies on Iran.
"Why only now, grown old, and with what ink remains, do I say: Israel's atomic power endangers an already fragile world peace?" Grass writes in the poem. The 84-year-old also criticizes the planned delivery of submarines "from my own country" to Israel, a reference to Germany's plan to deliver Dolphin-class submarines to Israel that are capable of carrying nuclear-armed missiles. At the same time, Grass also expresses his solidarity with Israel.
In the poem, published by Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper and other European dailies on Wednesday, Grass also calls for people to "insist that the governments of both Iran and Irael allow an international authority free and open inspection of the nuclear potential and capability of both." It is widely believed that Israel possesses nuclear weapons, although it has never been proven.
In response to the publication, the Israeli Embassy in Berlin issued a statement offering its own version of "What must be said." "What must be said is that it is a European tradition to accuse the Jews before the Passover festival of ritual murder," the statements reads. "Earlier, it was Christian children whose blood the Jews allegedly used to make their unleavened bread, but today it is the Iranian people that the Jewish state allegedly wants to annihilate. What also must be said is that Israel is the only state in the world whose right to exist is openly doubted. That was true on the day of its founding and it remains true today. We want to live in peace with our neighbors in the region. And we are not prepared to assume the role that Günter Grass is trying to assign to us as part of the German people's efforts to come to terms with the past."
'A Tendency Toward Megalomania'
Others have also reacted. The Central Council of Jews in Germany has called the poem an "aggressive pamphlet of agitation." Ruprecht Polenz, the chair of the German parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee and a senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, told the daily Mitteldeutsche Zeitung that, while Grass is a literary great, "he has difficulties whenever he comments on politics and is often wrong." Polenz's CDU colleague Philipp Missfelder said "the poem is tasteless, ahistorical and demonstrates a lack of knowledge about the situation in the Middle East."
Grass, however, has found support from the head of the German PEN chapter, Johano Strasser, who also warned against exporting German weapons to Israel on Wednesday in a radio interview.
The German newspaper Die Welt, which apparently got an advance copy of the poem, published a response on Wednesday by Henryk Broder, a journalist at the newspaper who is the country's most prominent Jewish writer. The Berlin-based polemicist, who himself is famous for his outspoken views, attacks Grass in an editorial. "Grass always had a problem with Jews, but it has never articulated it as clearly as he has in this 'poem'."
He writes that "Grass has always had a tendency toward megalomania, but this time he is completely nuts." He also criticizes Grass for claiming in a 2011 interview with Israeli journalist Tom Segev that 6 million German soldiers were "liquidated" by the Soviets after World War II. The figure is extremely controversial as it hints at a direct comparison with the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust.
Grass, Broder writes, "is the prototype of the educated anti-Semite, who is well-meaning when it comes to Jews. Haunted by feelings of guilt and shame and also driven by the desire to settle history, he is now attempting to disarm the 'cause of the recognizable threat.'"
'The Same View as Ahmadinejad'
The last time Grass made headlines in earnest was back in 2006, when he revealed for the first time in his autobiography, "Peeling the Onion," that, as a 17-year-old near the end of World War II, he had served as a member of the Waffen-SS. The author came under intense criticism at the time. Many accused him of having concealed the fact that he had been a member of the SS for decades, even as he publicly criticized others for their Nazi pasts time and again. Some at the time alleged he had lost his authority as a moral figure.
Wednesday's poem is not the first time Grass has come out with critical views of Israel. In a 2001 interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, he offered his own solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "Israel doesn't just need to clear out of the occupied areas," he said at the time. "The appropriation of Palestinian territory and its Israeli settlements are also a criminal activity. That not only needs to be stopped -- it also needs to be reversed. Otherwise there will be no peace."
Welt journalist Broder alleges the statement is "no less than a demand for Israel to not just cede Nablus and Hebron, but also Tel Aviv and Haifa." Just like Hamas and Hezbollah, Broder alleges, "Grass does not differentiate between the 'occupied areas' of 1948 and 1967." By calling the "appropriation" of Palestinian territories a "criminal act," Broder claims, Grass shares the same view as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Editor's note: Corrections have been made to the prose of Günter Grass' poem quoted in this story to reflect the official translation of the work.