Photo Gallery: The SPD and Günter Grass

Foto: Db Bundespresseamt/ dpa/dpaweb

Interview with Opposition Leader Gabriel 'We Have Much to Thank Grass For'

For decades, Nobel laureate Günter Grass has supported Germany's Social Democrats on the campaign trail. Despite massive critique of the author's recent poem about Israel, SPD head Sigmar Gabriel defends Grass in an interview with SPIEGEL. He also says that the Pirate Party still has a lot to learn.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Gabriel, are you upset about losing a popular election campaigner for your party, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD)?

Gabriel: Who would that be?

SPIEGEL: Günter Grass. After publishing his poem critical of Israel, some of your party colleagues have said they forego his assistance in future campaigns.

Gabriel: I hope Günter Grass will continue helping the SPD in campaigns and that he will otherwise remain with us as a provocative literary figure, as well.

SPIEGEL: So you don't share in the widespread public outrage over Grass?

Gabriel: Regarding content, I share in some of the criticism. But some of it is excessive and, in parts, hysterical. Grass equates Iran and Israel in terms of the danger they potentially pose, which I consider wrong. Nevertheless, I feel the approach many have taken to the poem lacks the appropriate gravity. At its heart, the poem is a cry for help.

SPIEGEL: What makes you think that?

Gabriel: Günter Grass warns of an approaching war in the Middle East. At the same time, he makes a passionate plea against all atomic weapons. The text falls short in its description of the conflict and is, in my view, problematic. But I don't understand what's supposed to be so objectionable about it that one would not only refuse Grass entry into Israel, but also declare him a persona non grata within Germany's political culture.

SPIEGEL: Which parts of the poem do you find problematic?

Gabriel: Iran is the only country in the world that's threatening to erase another country from the map as part of a collective genocide. Characterizing the president there as a loudmouth is a dangerous trivialization. Jews all over the world who escaped the mass killing of the Nazis rightly point out that Hitler was also trivialized as a loudmouth for far too long. From that history, Israel has drawn an unambiguous conclusion: An Israeli government will never stand idly by as the country's existence is threatened. While it may be warranted to criticize Israel's consideration of carrying out a military strike on Iran, one has to understand this fundamental stance.

SPIEGEL: Yet you still consider the criticism of Grass to be excessive?

Gabriel: The poem is a permissible expression of a political opinion and alludes to the imminent danger of war. But the omissions and juxtapositions it contains unfortunately detract from the real issue. That is something for which one can reproach a wordsmith like Günter Grass.

SPIEGEL: What, then, do you think the real issue is?

Gabriel: We do need to ask ourselves how we can prevent this approaching war. For example, we have to be prepared to maintain an effective economic and oil boycott of Iran for an unforeseeable amount of time, even if doing so might have negative consequences for the German economy and German prosperity. At the same time, Iran needs an international overture so that it renounces its atomic program. We must also liberate the Palestinians from being hostage to Iranian policies and regional terrorism. Accordingly, we can no longer look on as the current Israeli government makes the two-state solution impossible through settlement policies that violate international law. But it was already clear to me during my first reading of the poem that precisely that wouldn't happen and that Grass would first take center stage in the debate, instead.


Gabriel: Because it was foreseeable that the self-appointed guardians of political correctness wouldn't miss a chance to finally bring out the big cudgel against Grass. They finally wanted to really give it to this man they had branded as a do-gooder. On top of that is the fact that Grass took a long time before going public about his membership in the Waffen SS as a young man. It didn't take much imagination to envision how the debate would proceed.

SPIEGEL: Grass didn't do himself any favors by claiming in his poem that he was breaking a taboo. Yet it was a taboo that doesn't exist. Similar strategic devices are popular among anti-Semites as well.

Gabriel: Günter Grass is not an anti-Semite. But it's really alarming just how deeply rooted anti-Semitic resentments still are in our country. Perhaps that's why we react so hysterically in such debates, because we sense this deeply anchored anti-Semitism and therefore want to quickly suppress everything, which seems to somehow play into it. Finding the right form of debate regarding Israeli policies will remain a challenge in Germany. Even with every conceivable and warranted criticism, the danger always arises that it will be exploited by those who consciously or unconsciously present anti-Semitism in a new guise.

SPIEGEL: Does Israel represent a danger to world peace, as Grass claims it does?

Gabriel: No. What could become a danger to world peace is Iran's nuclear program and the country's open threat to annihilate Israel.

SPIEGEL: Then we don't understand why you're so determined to defend Grass.

Gabriel: I've already said that I disagree with him on some key points. For me, it's about the scale and the form of the criticism. At first, for example, the debate in Israel was very rational and composed. But then some politicians couldn't resist the temptation to raise their profile in the upcoming election. Banning him from entering the country is absurd. I would have preferred the Israeli government or the Hebrew Writers Association to invite Grass to debate his poem and his views.

SPIEGEL: Some of your party colleagues have reacted similarly to the Israelis and declared that, despite his past involvement in SPD election campaigns, his presence is now unwelcome.

Gabriel: Writers like Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll have shaped my political biography. For me, as the head of the SPD, there's also the fact that Grass has always supported the Social Democrats. That's why I find the issue of whether one can still invite him to campaign events somewhat disconcerting. Think of what Grass has accomplished for the SPD, of the beatings he took when he campaigned for (former SPD leader and Chancellor) Willy Brandt. To disavow him now would be cowardly and ungrateful. Not just the SPD, but the entire country has much to thank Grass for.

SPIEGEL: Have you told him that in person?

Gabriel: Yes, of course.

SPIEGEL: Reinhold Robbe, a former SPD member of German parliament says that Grass has disqualified himself, that his time is passed.

Gabriel: My friend Reinhold Robbe is president of the German-Israeli Association (DIG), and his dedication against anti-Semitism and for Israel is exemplary. But, in this case, I don't agree with him.

SPIEGEL: In other words, Grass can act like a court jester and say whatever he pleases.

Gabriel: That makes no sense because Grass is anything but a jester. He is entitled to be treated in a serious rather than a knee-jerk fashion. In fact, I've experienced these reflexive reactions myself. I've been going to Israel and the West Bank for 20 years. I have friends who live in a kibbutz right near the Gaza Strip and have been terrorized by rockets coming out of the Palestinian territories for years. And it's precisely because I consider myself a friend of Israel that I can't keep silent about the fact that the Israeli government tolerates human rights violations in the Palestinian territories and in Hebron, in particular.

SPIEGEL: Is that why you used "apartheid," a highly charged political term, to describe what you had witnessed in the West Bank city of Hebron on your Facebook page?

Gabriel: Others have used this term before me, including Nobel Prize-winner Desmond Tutu, Israeli politicians and Americans, such as President Jimmy Carter. But within moments of having written that apartheid ruled in Hebron, I was branded an anti-Semite. I would've liked to see the situation in Hebron provoke at least the same amount of outrage.

SPIEGEL: You would seem to have recognized your mistake. In a correction, you backed away from your wording.

Gabriel: No. I clarified that I was giving an account of my impressions of Hebron and that I was not equating the state of Israel with an apartheid regime. Israel continues to be the only democratic country in this troubled region. And making this equalization would be downplaying South African apartheid.

SPIEGEL: You are saying that the term "apartheid" was correct?

Gabriel: It describes the fact that people live according to two sets of laws in places like Hebron. One group practically has no rights. I don't care which term you use for that, but one can't just keep silent about it. And, when it comes to human rights violations, one needs to be careful to not lose credibility by downplaying them with diplomatic language.

SPIEGEL: You don't appear to be worried about being applauded by the wrong side. But that's precisely what has happened.

Gabriel: That was a negligible share, and I responded to it clearly and unambiguously.

SPIEGEL: Why do politicians have to be on Facebook these days? To be at least somewhat able to keep up with the Pirate Party?

Gabriel: One doesn't have to be on Facebook, and the Pirates' success is only marginally linked to Facebook. If one believes that the Pirates are primary an Internet party, one doesn't understand their success among voters. They are an expression of widespread discontent with what people have experienced as the mainstream political system. The good thing about the phenomenon is that those who are discontented still believe in our democratic constitution. Otherwise, they wouldn't back a party which operates within the framework of this constitution.

SPIEGEL: It sounds like you're not completely unhappy about the new competition.

Gabriel: First and foremost, I acknowledge them as a reaction to the crisis of democracy. But on the day the Pirates genuinely establish themselves, if not before, it will no longer be enough to be a protest party. That might not yet be completely clear to some in the Pirate Party, but one has a mandate as a representative. When it's enough for someone to merely comment on developments, they should become a journalist rather than a representative. I want to make things happen. At some point, the Pirates will have to want to be proactive as well. On the day that they become conscious of this demand, they will change and become the object of protest and discontent themselves.

SPIEGEL: Kurt Beck, the governor of the southwestern state of Rhineland-Palatinate, recently lost his cool on a talk show because he could no longer stand the way a Pirate representative, also a guest on the show, was behaving. Can you sympathize with his reaction?

Gabriel: Of course. We Social Democrats can't just sit there like cold fish whenever self-appointed members of the avant-garde ignorantly rattle on about other people's hard lives or say with a shrug that they haven't thought about an issue. Some Pirate Party members neither understand that one can't be indifferent about the fate of the Schlecker employees (ed's note: bankruptcy recently forced this major drug store chain to release 11,000 employees) nor realize that not every citizen can or wishes to always participate in democracy online. In fact, this notion has something elitist about it.

SPIEGEL: How so?

Gabriel: There are only few people who can even afford this kind of constant participation. Incidentally, the demand for an unconditional minimum income also has something elitist about it. How am I supposed to explain to a nurse who works difficult shifts that she not only has to earn enough to support herself, but is now supposed to also give part of it away so that others can pursue their hobby as a career? Real life is happening outside and not in front of a computer.

SPIEGEL: Are the Pirates a left-wing party?

Gabriel: You'll have to ask the Pirates. They apparently are perceived as such. But such labels are of secondary importance. The problem facing the German left has always been its love of defining itself. But, in doing so, it forgets that it's ultimately about building majorities to shape the country in a fairer and more equitable way. In the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, we've never had a societal majority left of center as large as we do now.

SPIEGEL: As such, you should be part of a governing majority at the moment.

Gabriel: This societal majority unfortunately doesn't assume the shape of a political majority but, instead, is increasingly fragmented.

SPIEGEL: Is the Pirate Party a potential coalition partner?

Gabriel: Apparently not. A leading member of the Pirate Party just said that he considers ruling coalitions passé. He wants to form a coalition on every single issue. But, when it comes to political decision-making, it's not just about weighing factual arguments in an ostensibly objective manner. It's also usually about conflicting social interests -- as well as about organizing oneself into alliances and coalitions. As long as the Pirate Party fails to understand this, I won't be devoting much thought to coalitions with it.

SPIEGEL: Instead, your thoughts might primarily be centered on your newborn daughter. How is that going to change your life?

Gabriel: As a practical matter, it will change my daily and weekly schedules. And, of course, as happens with all parents, there is now a wonderful new focus in life.

SPIEGEL: Will you take parental leave?

Gabriel: Yes, even if it will obviously look much different than it does with normal workers. This year, I will be devoting three months primarily to my child and, in doing so, I'll be trying to make it easier for my partner to return to her career.

SPIEGEL: Does that mean you'll be staying at home?

Gabriel: During vacations and in these three months, for the most part, yes.

SPIEGEL: And what about after that?

Gabriel: We'll do exactly what millions of other working parents do: look for a day-care facility, juggle a lot and do without some things. But, in return, we have obviously also gotten something completely unique in our life. And it might just be that some people will also be completely happy to not always have me at SPD headquarters.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Gabriel, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Konstantin von Hammerstein and Christoph Hickmann
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