Chutzpah in the Grass

I was in Zurich airport returning from a school trip to Europe and picked up the local newspaper Tages-Anzeiger to read on the plane.  A small blurb on the front page mentioned a new controversy concerning the German Nobel Prize laureate Gunther Grass, author of The Tin Drum.  Before now, Grass was controversial not so much for his leftist dogmatism, but his 2006, post-Nobel admission that he had served in the infamous Waffen SS during World War II.  

Curious, I flipped to the culture and business section (in Switzerland I guess they are more or less the same thing) and on page 33 of the newspaper found a photo of the portly, bespectacled author, garbed in brown sweater and tweed jacket, pipe in hand, his drooping grey mustache and sagging jowls providing a serious, yet grandfatherly air.  The headline announced that the 84 year-old Grass wanted to break taboos, no matter what they are.  (Here is a slightly different updated version of the print article.)

And what taboo could that be, I wondered? 

Why the taboo against accusing the Jews of being genocidal maniacs!  It's a relatively recent taboo in the annals of European history, of course, having gone out of fashion in oh, about 1945, after the Jews themselves were almost wiped out in the world's most notorious genocide carried out largely by Grass's countrymen and colleagues.   But before that, well accusing the Jews of genocidal ambitions against the supposedly hated goyim was simply part of the popular culture, made official policy by the Nazi regime, of which the SS was the instrument of policy and implementation, guided by the motto "honor is loyalty."

Grass, the poet, chose to break the taboo through verse, in a terse poem entitled "What Must Be Said" that among other things accuses Israel of criminally possessing nuclear weapons, threatening to destroy the Iranian people, themselves subjugated by a "loudmouth president" -- ahem -- who has occasionally and actually, threatened to destroy Israel.  This specific point is not mentioned in the poem, though Israel's general threat to world peace is.  Maybe Grass omitted Iranian president's tirades for aesthetic purposes.  Endloesung doesn't rhyme with Ahmadinejad?  Perhaps the cadence didn't suit the master.  Or could there be another purpose?  (For those masochists out there, who actually wish to read this gruel, an unofficial translation can be found here.)

The poem has gotten some attention in the United States, though to the extent it has, it largely has to do with Israel's reaction, which was to ban Grass from the Jewish state.   Not that I gather, he's evinced much desire to visit. 

What is Grass is up to?  Well first there is the whole Nazi thing.  Being a card carrying member of the SS used to be a proscribed activity, even on the far left, and hard to live down.  But Grass's admission that he was "drafted" into the SS in the last months of World War II, gained him a little frisson at a point in his life when he was mostly ignored, and couched as it was, ambiguous.  After all, in 1944, Grass was young and impressionable, longing for adventure.  He wanted to join the submarine service and engage in unrestricted naval warfare.  But if his account is to be believed, was instead conscripted into the Waffen SS, though throughout its existence, the SS was mostly a volunteer organization.    

Anyway, coming clean -- at least to the extent Grass chose to -- was an admission.  A coming out of the closet that was at once shameful but probably exhilarating. 

And Grass was only in the Waffen SS, the so-called combat arm of the organization, not specifically tasked with eliminating Jews and other undesirables, although they could be called on in a pinch -- as they were throughout the Russian campaign, in the Warsaw ghetto revolt, the later Warsaw city uprising, and any number of other atrocities, including the murder of Canadian POWs in Normandy, Americans at Malmady, and untold numbers of surrendered Soviet soldiers. The 2d SS Panzer Division Das Reich, a Waffen SS outfit and the unit involved in the improbable closing scenes of "Saving Private Ryan," didn't actually reach the front until several weeks after the battle depicted in the movie.  Why?  They were busy massacring French civilians on their march up from their base in Toulouse. 

Never mind that drafted or no, Grass would have been subject to the most intense indoctrination into the ethos of the organization, of which anti-Semitism was a central tenet.  And never mind too that the SS was fluid organization, with personnel floating between combat units and those more specifically tasked with "cleansing" operations. 

I've personally known two former Waffen SS men pretty well, met while I was stationed in West Germany in the 1980s, and while neither would admit to being a slavering racist or anti-Semite, each harbored hard prejudices.  One, a dance club owner who fought on the Eastern front, saw American forces in Europe as embarked on the same crusade he'd been -- stopping the Soviet hordes.  The other, a local journalist and former West front fighter, basically hated Americans, for the death and torment our planes had rained on him and his colleagues.  Neither was truly remorseful for their service under the double lightning bolts, and I'd bet the farm, that in is heart, neither is Grass. 

Anyway, Grass obviously figured that his past is now water under the bridge.  Like any good radical -- and what were the Nazis if not romantic radicals? -- he sensed where the winds are blowing.  That the left today was just about ready for his full blown anti-Semitism, never mind that the left, as it always has been, is loaded with Jews.  After all, Jews invented the modern left, from Marx to Trotsky to Chomsky.  And the fact is, there is not a whole lot of daylight between Grass and the supposedly pro-Israel leftist outfit J Street, and even less between Grass and Chomsky, who was himself banned from Israel a few years ago.   Left-wing Israeli author Tom Segev managed to work up some ire over Grass, but not enough to label him an anti-Semite, rather begging aged writer to spill his last drops of ink on another "beautiful novel."

Grass may be a pathetic, washed up ex-Nazi, but he is also a lionized author with a Nobel on his shelf.  With not much time left, little to lose, and evidently still hungry for the limelight, he's found his swansong -- one that echoes back to the virility of youth.  And whatever his flaws, Grass is no fool.  He knows his audience and he knows the fate of "taboo breakers" as far as they are concerned.  He might feel a little pain in the short term -- easy for an old Frontkampfer -- but is likely to be canonized in the end.  Taboos are nothing but an anthropological term as far as Grass's fellow travelers are concerned.  They are by definition artificial and bad.  Breaking them is progressive and good. 

And so the Nazi reinvents himself again, not as a guilty pacifistic scold, but rather, as he was in his prime, wearing the skull and crossbones on his cap, an anti-Semite and proud of it, even if, as he declaims in his poem, it is only a label, a sigil, a taboo that obscures the truth.  That the Jews -- or is it only Benjamin Netanyahu? -- really are evil. 

My honor is loyalty.  Thus did Grass swear over half a century ago, to a movement and organization that had already killed tens of millions.  He apparently remains loyal still.  Either that or he's just got a lot of chutzpah.  Either way, he should burn in hell. 

I was in Zurich airport returning from a school trip to Europe and picked up the local newspaper Tages-Anzeiger to read on the plane.  A small blurb on the front page mentioned a new controversy concerning the German Nobel Prize laureate Gunther Grass, author of The Tin Drum.  Before now, Grass was controversial not so much for his leftist dogmatism, but his 2006, post-Nobel admission that he had served in the infamous Waffen SS during World War II.  

Curious, I flipped to the culture and business section (in Switzerland I guess they are more or less the same thing) and on page 33 of the newspaper found a photo of the portly, bespectacled author, garbed in brown sweater and tweed jacket, pipe in hand, his drooping grey mustache and sagging jowls providing a serious, yet grandfatherly air.  The headline announced that the 84 year-old Grass wanted to break taboos, no matter what they are.  (Here is a slightly different updated version of the print article.)

And what taboo could that be, I wondered? 

Why the taboo against accusing the Jews of being genocidal maniacs!  It's a relatively recent taboo in the annals of European history, of course, having gone out of fashion in oh, about 1945, after the Jews themselves were almost wiped out in the world's most notorious genocide carried out largely by Grass's countrymen and colleagues.   But before that, well accusing the Jews of genocidal ambitions against the supposedly hated goyim was simply part of the popular culture, made official policy by the Nazi regime, of which the SS was the instrument of policy and implementation, guided by the motto "honor is loyalty."

Grass, the poet, chose to break the taboo through verse, in a terse poem entitled "What Must Be Said" that among other things accuses Israel of criminally possessing nuclear weapons, threatening to destroy the Iranian people, themselves subjugated by a "loudmouth president" -- ahem -- who has occasionally and actually, threatened to destroy Israel.  This specific point is not mentioned in the poem, though Israel's general threat to world peace is.  Maybe Grass omitted Iranian president's tirades for aesthetic purposes.  Endloesung doesn't rhyme with Ahmadinejad?  Perhaps the cadence didn't suit the master.  Or could there be another purpose?  (For those masochists out there, who actually wish to read this gruel, an unofficial translation can be found here.)

The poem has gotten some attention in the United States, though to the extent it has, it largely has to do with Israel's reaction, which was to ban Grass from the Jewish state.   Not that I gather, he's evinced much desire to visit. 

What is Grass is up to?  Well first there is the whole Nazi thing.  Being a card carrying member of the SS used to be a proscribed activity, even on the far left, and hard to live down.  But Grass's admission that he was "drafted" into the SS in the last months of World War II, gained him a little frisson at a point in his life when he was mostly ignored, and couched as it was, ambiguous.  After all, in 1944, Grass was young and impressionable, longing for adventure.  He wanted to join the submarine service and engage in unrestricted naval warfare.  But if his account is to be believed, was instead conscripted into the Waffen SS, though throughout its existence, the SS was mostly a volunteer organization.    

Anyway, coming clean -- at least to the extent Grass chose to -- was an admission.  A coming out of the closet that was at once shameful but probably exhilarating. 

And Grass was only in the Waffen SS, the so-called combat arm of the organization, not specifically tasked with eliminating Jews and other undesirables, although they could be called on in a pinch -- as they were throughout the Russian campaign, in the Warsaw ghetto revolt, the later Warsaw city uprising, and any number of other atrocities, including the murder of Canadian POWs in Normandy, Americans at Malmady, and untold numbers of surrendered Soviet soldiers. The 2d SS Panzer Division Das Reich, a Waffen SS outfit and the unit involved in the improbable closing scenes of "Saving Private Ryan," didn't actually reach the front until several weeks after the battle depicted in the movie.  Why?  They were busy massacring French civilians on their march up from their base in Toulouse. 

Never mind that drafted or no, Grass would have been subject to the most intense indoctrination into the ethos of the organization, of which anti-Semitism was a central tenet.  And never mind too that the SS was fluid organization, with personnel floating between combat units and those more specifically tasked with "cleansing" operations. 

I've personally known two former Waffen SS men pretty well, met while I was stationed in West Germany in the 1980s, and while neither would admit to being a slavering racist or anti-Semite, each harbored hard prejudices.  One, a dance club owner who fought on the Eastern front, saw American forces in Europe as embarked on the same crusade he'd been -- stopping the Soviet hordes.  The other, a local journalist and former West front fighter, basically hated Americans, for the death and torment our planes had rained on him and his colleagues.  Neither was truly remorseful for their service under the double lightning bolts, and I'd bet the farm, that in is heart, neither is Grass. 

Anyway, Grass obviously figured that his past is now water under the bridge.  Like any good radical -- and what were the Nazis if not romantic radicals? -- he sensed where the winds are blowing.  That the left today was just about ready for his full blown anti-Semitism, never mind that the left, as it always has been, is loaded with Jews.  After all, Jews invented the modern left, from Marx to Trotsky to Chomsky.  And the fact is, there is not a whole lot of daylight between Grass and the supposedly pro-Israel leftist outfit J Street, and even less between Grass and Chomsky, who was himself banned from Israel a few years ago.   Left-wing Israeli author Tom Segev managed to work up some ire over Grass, but not enough to label him an anti-Semite, rather begging aged writer to spill his last drops of ink on another "beautiful novel."

Grass may be a pathetic, washed up ex-Nazi, but he is also a lionized author with a Nobel on his shelf.  With not much time left, little to lose, and evidently still hungry for the limelight, he's found his swansong -- one that echoes back to the virility of youth.  And whatever his flaws, Grass is no fool.  He knows his audience and he knows the fate of "taboo breakers" as far as they are concerned.  He might feel a little pain in the short term -- easy for an old Frontkampfer -- but is likely to be canonized in the end.  Taboos are nothing but an anthropological term as far as Grass's fellow travelers are concerned.  They are by definition artificial and bad.  Breaking them is progressive and good. 

And so the Nazi reinvents himself again, not as a guilty pacifistic scold, but rather, as he was in his prime, wearing the skull and crossbones on his cap, an anti-Semite and proud of it, even if, as he declaims in his poem, it is only a label, a sigil, a taboo that obscures the truth.  That the Jews -- or is it only Benjamin Netanyahu? -- really are evil. 

My honor is loyalty.  Thus did Grass swear over half a century ago, to a movement and organization that had already killed tens of millions.  He apparently remains loyal still.  Either that or he's just got a lot of chutzpah.  Either way, he should burn in hell.