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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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage