BERLIN -- It's rare that poems cause such anger and excitement. The only other case I can recall was Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" which once "awoke a perfect storm of derision and abuse". That was a century and a half ago, but somehow Grass still awakens "derision and abuse". But this time it's Günter Grass, a Nobel Literature Prize winner, with his poem "What Must Be Said". And the subject matter is war and peace.
Grass denies the right of any country - and he is courageous enough to include Israel - to wage a heavily armed first strike against Iran based on the possibility that Iran might also acquire atomic weapons.
What is said in "What Must Be Said"
He neither praises the Iran government in any way nor does he speak in any way against the people of Israel, for whom he stresses his lasting sympathy, but he does indeed warn of the terrifying imminence of war and points out that Israel already has atomic bombs, while Iran does not. He also denounces Germany's sales of potentially atomic-armed submarines, one after the other, to Israel and calls for international inspection and control of all atomic weapons in the area, whether present Israeli ones or possible future Iranian ones, in the hopes of saving the entire region - or far more - from catastrophe.
In a personal note, he admits his hesitance in issuing this warning earlier because of his own biography and because of the danger of being accused of anti-Semitism. But in his waning years, with his "last ink", as he puts it, he finds it impossible to keep silent in the light of so much hypocrisy - and such a menacing situation.
Attacks on the poem and the poet
Immediately after the poem was published, virtually the entire German media jumped on him - before some critics even bothered to read it. This ignorance of its contents or, more likely, an unwillingness to discuss them with a shred of open-mindedness or even fairness, led to attacks on both the poem and the poet for three main reasons:
Reason one: Grass is an old man.
His last best seller was some years ago; he now putters about with arts and crafts. He should sit by his hearth and mind his own business. His best days are past. A response to this is obviously difficult; he is undeniably 84.
Reason two: (which recalled the old attacks against Walt Whitman) The poem was not really poetry; without either rhyme or meter it was really disguised prose.
As if lyric quality really mattered - it was the content which counted. After all, Grass had already received the Nobel Prize and many other prizes (mostly for his prose) and was seeking no additional laurels for timeless literature. But he had something to say!
Reason three: constantly alluded to, was his participation during World War Two in a unit of the Waffen-SS, a particularly nasty section of Hitler's military forces.
Most critics disregarded or dismissed the fact that he was only 17 when he was assigned to this military unit and was in it only from November 1944 until he was wounded in April 1945. He claims that he never fired a shot himself but did help load artillery shells. Frequently mentioned is the fact that he kept this secret until late in life, most probably due to shame.
But it must be asked: Did this past secret disqualify him from uttering any political view for the rest of his life? Or didn't his writings, most notably his famous novel "The Tin Drum" (filmed by Volker Schlöndorf), a dramatic, deeply engaged attack on the entire fascist structure and crimes of the Nazis, make good for those juvenile five months?
A little West German history
Then too, during all the decades since 1945 the very same media now attacking him so self-righteously almost totally "neglected" the fact that all West Germany was dominated to an amazing extent by former Nazi bigwigs - up until they finally died out. And not by such young recruits but by the bloodiest of generals who completely built and commanded the new army.
A host of incriminated ex-Nazi diplomats represented the Bonn government abroad; the police departments, secret services, courtrooms, academic lecture rooms and government positions up to the topmost heights were heavily laden with truly guilty men.
Indeed, the mighty giants behind the swastika flags, those who profited from the conquests and the slave labor, not the individuals but banks and corporations with names like Krupp, Siemens, Bayer, BASF and Deutsche Bank, still dominate the scene today.
And many newspapers currently attacking Grass were built up after 1945 by editors who won their spurs as propagandists for Hitler. Unlike Grass, few of all these men ever confessed their former sins - or publicly regretted them.
Cynical use of "anti-Semitism"
Except in one question. The new ruling powers in West Germany found very quickly that all those sins, not just those of the past but present and future ones, were mildly overlooked if they loudly and stoutly rejected open anti-Semitism while embracing any and all policies of the Israeli government. This rule, carefully watched over, provided the entrance ticket for an ascent into the so rewarding ranks of the western democracies. And this strategy, at first more a mask than anything else, soon developed into a close bond between all ruling parties in Germany and the far right forces in Israel, up to and including the openly racist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Premier Benjamin Netanyahu.
This largely one-legged posture explains why any questioning of the top-level German-Israeli alliance represents an earnest threat and must immediately be squelched. Over the years the taboo was rarely violated; this explains the malevolence of the attacks against Grass.
But there is now a new worrisome element explaining the vigor of such attacks against anyone undermining this status quo. In the face of recent Israeli actions -- the terrible civilian casualties in the attack on Gaza, the fearful attack on the Mavi Marmara in the Mediterranean, a seepage of information about the oppression of Palestinian villages in the occupied areas, the refusal to suspend the expansion of Jewish settlement in these areas and, indeed, the construction of a Wall reminiscent of Berlin, have been having an effect on public opinion and, much delayed, even on a few public figures eager to win votes -- or becoming simply honest.
Germany and Israel today
Shortly before the Grass poem, Sigmar Gabriel, head of the Social Democratic Party, wrote in Facebook after a visit to the West Bank city of Hebron that there was no justice for Palestinians there, that it was an "apartheid regime" for which there could be no justification. He, too, was immediately attacked but at least partially stood his ground. No, he had not meant to equate Israel and its government with the old apartheid regime in South Africa, he wrote, he was a friend of Israel, but he considered the Israeli settlement policy to be wrong. "The humiliating treatment of Palestinians in Hebron ...is a cause of really great anger, even with someone like myself who supports Israel. This is what I tried to express."
Such open sentiments are on the increase. What makes this issue so much more complicated here is of course Germany's unparalleled guilt against the Jewish people. This demands that any criticism of Israeli policy must scrupulously avoid any implied equation of the Netanyahus with the Jewish people, in Israel or anywhere else, especially since there is a numerically small but potentially dangerous pro-Nazi element eager to take advantage of any feelings against Israel to rationalize Hitler's genocide.
At the same time the present leaders of the Jewish community (or the official ones, in any case), while necessarily opposing real anti-Semitism, also use that same label in attacking any and every form of criticism of Israeli policy, especially if it comes from the left - or from even mildly leftish people like Günter Grass. (Strangely enough, some far-right Netanyahu fans suddenly find themselves on the same wagon with some neo-Nazis, who are down-playing anti-Semitism in order to attack the much larger, more vulnerable and far more easily identifiable target, the allegedly common enemy, the Muslims.)
At least one important Israeli fueled the fires in such an arrogant manner that they soon backfired. Interior Minister Eli Yishai proclaimed Günter Grass persona non grata and said he would not be welcome in Israel. This riled many in both countries who otherwise denigrated the Grass poem. Some journalists noted that Grass had no such travel plans anyway.
Others, in Israel, pointed out that the very same views, the rejection of any "pre-emptive" military strike against Iran, have been stated over and over by many Israelis, including Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad espionage organization. Others worried that while someone like Grass or Noam Chomsky is barred from the country, vicious racists like the Dutch rabble-rouser Geert Wilders or the French neo-fascist presidential candidate Marie Le Pen are welcomed. And for German leaders, who have always demanded freedom of speech and press in Russia, East Germany and currently in Syria or Iran, such a ban because of a poem is embarrassing to say the least.
While some noted personalities, especially those who have been waving the anti-Muslim banner most fervently, continue with their attacks, the effects of his clear and quite moving words have undoubtedly had an effect. His books, though usually best-sellers, were not too easily digestible except for intellectuals, but a recent poll showed that well over 50 percent of the population now support him, with a large number stating that they do not consider his words to be anti-Semitic. It seems undeniable: his poem has led not only to much controversy but also with it to wide-spread thinking and re-thinking.
Postscript on May elections:
Although they tend to stress local issues, elections in May in Schleswig-Holstein and the key state of North-Rhine-Westphalia are already affected to a degree by the poem.
Social Democratic leaders, with a few notable exceptions, have said they no longer wish any support from Grass, who in earlier years was a favored campaign speaker on their behalf. The other big party, the Christian Democrats, certainly will have nothing to do with him.
But, aside from such leaves - or sharp blades - connected with Grass, both elections will be of special importance to the four smaller parties for other reasons.
The Free Democrats, still members of Angela Merkel's national coalition but internally split, are virtually fighting for their political survival. The Greens, though certain of remaining in the legislatures in both states, face the possibility that they will be shoved under the table at a wedding of the two main parties, as in Saarland after a recent election there. They may even be overtaken by the young new party, the Pirates, which hopes to break its way into both state legislatures and has good chances of becoming a new political factor nationally, although - aside from free internet use and political transparency - it remains vague on almost all major issues, national or international.
The Left Party, which has some seats in both legislatures, may well miss the 5 percent hurdle and lose them all due in great measure to its difficult internal situation in the past year - now complicated by the decision of Gesine Loetzsch to resign as co-president because of the illness of her husband and remain only as Bundestag delegate from her East Berlin election district. The Left too is affected by the Grass poem, for some leading members are basically pro-Netanyahu, while others active support secular and democratic Palestinian positions. One drama follows the other, in Germany as elsewhere.
Photo: Günter Grass at a book reading in Berlin in 2006. Fritz Reiss/AP