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24 April 2012updated 27 Sep 2015 4:00am

Whose Auschwitz?

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

By Hans Kundnani

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.

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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.