Whose Auschwitz?

What does the Günter Grass affair tell us about changing German attitudes to the Holocaust?

Günter Grass’s poem “What Must Be Said” was an extraordinary attack on Israel not because of what he said but because of how he said it. Others before him, including many Israelis, have made the substantive criticisms of Israeli policy he made. But Grass not only subtly suggested that Israel was planning a nuclear strike against Iran rather than the other way around, but also implicitly equated Israel with Nazi Germany. In particular, he used the German verb “auslöschen” – which literally means to “extinguish” or “annihilate” but specifically suggests genocide in general and the Holocaust in particular – to describe what Israel planned to do to Iran.

Grass continued this approach in interviews in days following publication of poem – for example by speaking of the “Gleichschaltung” of the German media. The use of such language was an example of a strategy that Dan Diner has called “exonerating projection”. It has a long history on the German left: since the Six-Day War in 1967, the left has frequently implicitly – and sometimes explicitly – equated Israel (as well as the United States and even the Federal Republic itself) with Nazism.

Grass’s attack on Israel has led some to conclude that he is simply an anti-Semite. The Israeli embassy in Berlin immediately compared the poem – which was published just before Passover – to a blood libel. In Germany the columnist Henryk Broder wrote in Die Welt that Grass, who “had always had a problem with Jews”, was “the prototype of the educated anti-Semite” .

However, what the poem and the debate it has provoked are really about is who owns Auschwitz. Implicit in Grass’s poem is the conviction that he and other Germans like him have learned the right lessons from the Nazi past, and conversely that Israel – and those in Germany who support it – have drawn the wrong lessons from it. Israeli critics see this as presumptuous. After all, who is Grass – a former member of the Waffen SS – to lecture them about the right lessons to learn from the Holocaust?

The controversy over Grass’s poem recalls the one that followed the infamous speech that the German writer Martin Walser – a contemporary of Grass – made in Frankfurt in October 1998. Walser’s speech was not about German foreign policy or Germany’s relationship with Israel but about the place of the Holocaust in German public life, but his tone and argument in the poem was similar to that of Grass’s poem. In particular, he spoke of the Holocaust as a Moralkeule, or moral cudgel, that could be used against Germany.

It is no coincidence that it is left-wing figures such as Grass and Walser who are now causing controversy with their views about the right lessons to learn from the Holocaust. It’s precisely because they themselves have struggled so much with the Nazi past (Walser, for example, wrote a famous essay in 1965 called “Our Auschwitz”) that they think they can lecture others – including Israelis – about it in such an aggressive way. They oppose Israel – which they see as a warmongering state or even as a “racial state” – in the name of anti-Nazism.

The really interesting question is to what extent Germans agree with Grass. The immediate reaction to the poem in the German media was universal outrage. But some – especially younger writers such as Jakob Augstein (Walser’s son) – have now begun to publicly defend Grass. There is also a big gap between public opinion and published opinion on this issue: polls suggest that many ordinary Germans agree with Grass that Israel is a bigger threat to world peace than Iran.

Chancellor Angela Merkel is personally committed to Germany’s “special relationship” with Israel – in fact some say she is the most pro-Israeli chancellor in the history of the Federal Republic. In a speech in the Knesset in 2008, she said that “Germany's special historical responsibility for Israel's security” was “part of my country's raison d'état”. But as the Holocaust recedes in significance in Germany, public support for the “special relationship” may be breaking down. An Israeli military strike on Iran, were it to happen, could be a tipping point in German attitudes to the Jewish state.

Günter Grass Photo: Getty Images
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End of an orator: the ancient Roman machinations of Robert Harris's Dictator

Dictator, the final installment in the "Cicero trilogy", finds the great lawyer exiled from Rome.

If ever a Roman was lucky enough to win a great military victory without losing too many of his men, he could return to the city in triumph. He would be paraded through the streets alongside placards proclaiming his successes, trophies and spoils, prisoners and horses. Cicero, who was never one for frivolous excess, triumphed in a different way. It was just a pity that his kind of triumph was also his undoing.

At the beginning of Dictator, the much-anticipated final instalment in Robert Harris’s “Cicero trilogy”, the great orator and lawyer has been exiled from Rome. What Cicero considered to be his great triumph – the quelling of a conspiracy to overthrow the Republic in 63BC – was all his enemies had needed to get him out the way. Illegally, he had put the conspirators to death without trial. A protracted absence from Rome was just the first way in which he would pay for acting so precipitously.

We see him through the eyes of Tiro, his trusty secretary, who is a delightfully subjective biographer of his master’s last 15 years. Tiro has had plenty of time to discover that, for all his kind-heartedness, Cicero can be incredibly tiresome. So when Cicero threatens to kill himself rather than endure the ignominy of his new life in exile, Tiro stands aside, as if to let him get on with it. “He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood,” he says, “let alone his own.”

Self-pitying and incredulous how a man of his intellect could fall from such a high status so quickly, Cicero grows his beard and awaits news from Rome, where the ruthless demagogue Publius Clodius destroys his house on the luxurious Palatine Hill, replaces it with a temple to Liberty and generally dispenses with all justice.

All of which makes this novel just as thrilling but altogether more sorrowful than the first two books. Grim inevitability lurks in the background of every page, as all that Cicero loves most about the Roman Republic goes to pot. When he returns to the city the situation grows still worse: the “triumvirate” alliance uniting Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus begins to crack and the politicians hurtle into civil war, which dominates the second, busier half of the novel.

The events and political upheavals of these years are some of the most complicated in ancient history. Undaunted, Harris remains impressively faithful to the ancient sources, embellishing the gaps with terse dialogue, exhilarating exchanges and witty observations of some of the lesser-known senators.

Tiro is an indispensable guide, proving himself a more objective historian than he is a biographer of his master. Indeed, there are times when he is just as conscientious about describing the significance of events as a modern-day historian would be: “Even allowing for a degree of exaggeration, it was plain from the Commentaries that Caesar had enjoyed an astonishing run of military successes.” Not that this does anything to distract, as Harris skilfully navigates these fraught years in Cicero’s life. His novel often feels like the best kind of narrative history, at once frenetic but measured in its assessment of the characters who brought the Republic to an end.

Although it is true that Cicero is one of the most documented figures of antiquity, capable of providing a fair self-portrait through his own letters, it can be hard to differentiate between how he saw himself and how he was seen. This is where Dictator triumphs. Although it is hard to blame him, given the crises that unfurl between Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) and Mark Antony, Cicero becomes a caricature, ever certain of his own greatness, ignorant of how unhinged he must look to everyone around him. And yet, it is impossible not to warm to him, especially as the darkest days draw near. He was, historically no less than in this novel, a loving father, a defiant believer in a cause, an excellent writer and public speaker, and an intellectual.

Harris’s trilogy leaves one pondering: was Cicero born at the wrong time, or precisely the right time? Without setting himself up to challenge the inevitable return to one-male rule in Rome, he would never have found the fame and legacy he so yearned for, but nor would he have suffered the painful demise that Harris charts so spectacularly. Catapult him back two centuries earlier into the Republic, and his life would have been far more pleasant – pleasant enough for us never to have heard a thing about it.

Daisy Dunn’s “Catullus’ Bedspread: the Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet” will be published next year by William Collins

Dictator by Robert Harris is out now from Hutchinson (£20, 464pp)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror