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
Photo: Getty
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That's the Way It Crumbles: Matthew Engel explores Americanisms

The author is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”.

Perhaps, with the ascension of Ruth Davidson to political superstardom and the glorification of Sir Walter Scott on current Scottish banknotes (south of the border, we’re going for Jane Austen on our tenners), we will all revisit Ivanhoe. The story, you’ll recall, is set during the reign of the Lionheart King, who is away on crusade business, killing Muslims by the thousand. Like the good Christian monarch he is.

Scott’s narrative has a prelude. A Saxon swineherd, Gurth, is sitting on a decayed Druid stone as his pigs root in the dirt. Along comes his mate Wamba, a jester. The two serfs chat. How is it, Gurth wonders, that “swine” when it reaches the high tables of their masters is “pork” (Fr porc); cow ­becomes “beef” (Fr boeuf); and sheep turns into “mutton” (Fr mouton)?

The reason, Wamba explains (no fool he), is 1066. Four generations have passed but the Normans are still running things. They have normanised English – and they eat high on the hog. How did pig become pork? In the same way as “minced beef sandwich”, in my day, became Big Mac.

Ivanhoe should be the Brexiteers’ bible. Its message is that throwing off the Norman Yoke is necessary before Britain can be Britain again. What’s the difference between Normandy and Europa? Just 900 or so years. Scott makes a larger point. Common language, closely examined, reflects where real power lies. More than that, it enforces that power – softly but subversively, often in ways we don’t notice. That’s what makes it dangerous.

We’ve thrown off the Norman Yoke – but it remains, faintly throbbing, in the archaeology of our language. Why do we call the place “parliament” and not “speak house”? Is Gordon Ramsay a chef or a cook? Do the words evoke different kinds of society?

Matthew Engel is a journalist at the end of four decades of deadline-driven, high-quality writing. He is now at that stage of life when one thinks about it all – in his case, the millions of words he has tapped out. What historical meaning was ingrained in those words? It is, he concludes, not the European Union but America that we should be fearful of.

The first half of his book is a survey of the historical ebbs and flows of national dialect across the Atlantic. In the 18th century the linguistic tide flowed west from the UK to the US. When the 20th century turned, it was the age of “Mid-Atlantic”. Now, it’s all one-way. We talk, think and probably dream American. It’s semantic colonialism. The blurb (manifestly written by Engel himself) makes the point succinctly:

Are we tired of being asked to take the elevator, sick of being offered fries and told about the latest movie? Yeah. Have we noticed the sly interpolation of Americanisms into our everyday speech? It’s a no-brainer.

One of the charms of this book is Engel hunting down his prey like a linguistic witchfinder-general. He is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”. The first use he finds is “in an ice hockey ­report in the New York Times in 1975”. Horribile dictu. “By the first four years of the 21st century the Guardian was reporting wake-up calls – some real, most metaphorical – two and a half times a week.” The Guardian! What more proof were needed that there is something rotten in the state of the English language?

Another bee in Engel’s bonnet is the compound “from the get-go”. He tracks it down to a 1958 Hank Mobley tune called “Git-Go Blues”. And where is that putrid locution now? Michael Gove, then Britain’s education secretary, used it in a 2010 interview on Radio 4. Unclean! Unclean!

Having completed his historical survey, and compiled a voluminous dictionary of Americanisms, Engel gets down to business. What does (Americanism alert!) the takeover mean?

Is it simply that we are scooping up loan words, as the English language always has done? We love Babel; revel in it. Ponder a recent headline in the online Independent: “Has Scandi-noir become too hygge for its own good?” The wonderful thing about the English language is its sponge-like ability to absorb, use and discard un-English verbiage and still be vitally itself. Or is this Americanisation what Orwell describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four as “Newspeak”? Totalitarian powers routinely control independent thinking – and resistance to their power – by programmatic impoverishment of language. Engel has come round to believing the latter. Big time.

In its last pages, the book gets mad as hell on the subject. Forget Europe. Britain, and young Britain in particular, has handed over “control of its culture and vocabulary to Washington, New York and Los Angeles”. It is, Engel argues, “self-imposed serfdom”:

A country that outsources the development of its language – the language it developed over hundreds of years – is a nation that has lost the will to live.

Britain in 2017AD is, to borrow an Americanism, “brainwashed”, and doesn’t know it or, worse, doesn’t care. How was American slavery enforced? Not only with the whip and chain but by taking away the slaves’ native language. It works.

Recall the front-page headlines of 9 June. “Theresa on ropes”, shouted the Daily Mail. She was “hung out to dry”, said the London Evening Standard. “Stormin’ Corbyn”, proclaimed the Metro. These are manifest Americanisms, from the metaphor “hanging out to dry” to the use of “Stormin’” – the epithet applied to Norman Schwarzkopf, the victorious US Gulf War commander of Operation Desert Storm.

These headlines on Theresa May’s failure fit the bill. Her campaign was framed, by others, as American presidential, not English prime ministerial. But the lady herself is pure Jane Austen: a vicar’s daughter whose naughtiest act was to run through a field of wheat. She simply couldn’t do the “hail to the chief” stuff. Boris, the bookies’ odds predict, will show her how that presidential “stuff” should be “strut”. He was, of course, born American.

Engel’s book, short-tempered but consistently witty, does a useful thing. It makes us listen to what is coming out of our mouths and think seriously about it. Have a nice day.

John Sutherland’s “How Good Is Your Grammar?” is published by Short Books

That’s the Way It Crumbles: the American Conquest of English
Matthew Engel
Profile Books, 279pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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