Demonizing Gunter Grass

Exclusive: German poet Gunter Grass is under withering attack for writing a poem that urges Germany to stop supplying nuclear submarines to Israel, objects to Israel’s threat of war against Iran and suggests both countries accept nuclear inspectors. That last idea has opened Grass to charges of “moral equivalence,” notes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

I first encountered concerns about my tendency toward “moral equivalence” in the early 1980s when as an Associated Press reporter I interviewed Elliott Abrams, then an up-and-coming neoconservative appointed by Ronald Reagan to be the assistant secretary of state for human rights.

At an informal get-to-know-you meeting, I asked Abrams why he so heartily denounced Nicaragua’s Sandinista government for imposing restrictions on the opposition newspaper, La Prensa,while quieting U.S. condemnations of El Salvador’s right-wing military regime for slaughtering thousands of students, labor leaders, clergy, peasants and other dissidents.

Gunter Grass in sketch by Reginald V. Gray

At that time, there were far more violent human rights abuses occurring in El Salvador (and Guatemala) than in Nicaragua, but the Reagan administration was putting the squeeze on the Sandinistas and letting up on the region’s right-wing killers.

Abrams looked at me askance and cautioned that I was edging close to the error of “moral equivalence” that is applying a common human rights standard to pro-U.S. and anti-U.S. countries. Abrams explained that the actions of “totalitarian” states like Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua and “authoritarian” regimes like El Salvador should not be viewed on the same plane.

Abrams’s thinking fit with the then-in-vogue theory of Reagan’s UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick who held that while right-wing “authoritarian” states could reform, left-wing “totalitarian” states could only be stopped through violent regime change. Therefore, leftist offenses were more grievous than right-wing ones, even if less overtly brutal.

Under this so-called Kirkpatrick Doctrine, Abrams saw the Sandinistas, who were  restricting La Prensa which they correctly suspected of aiding a U.S. “destabilization” campaign as far worse human rights violators than El Salvador’s military rulers, though the bodies were piling up in El Salvador, not Nicaragua.

But the problem for me as a journalist, committed to the principle of objectivity (or evenhandedness), was that I wouldn’t apply an obvious double standard playing up non-violent political violations in states opposed by the U.S. government while downplaying brutal human rights crimes in “allied” countries.

Many of my mainstream journalistic colleagues proved to be much more flexible in adapting to the Reagan administration’s edicts on “moral equivalence.” It worked out well for many careers. (By the end of the 1980s, the Kirkpatrick Doctrine would be proven false as formerly communist states peacefully evolved into democracies.)

The Gunter Grass Case

Those memories about my alleged “moral equivalence” flooded back to me this week when I read the press coverage of a nasty dispute in which Israeli leaders launched an all-out P.R. assault against 84-year-old German poet Gunter Grass for writing a brief poem, “What Must Be Said,” criticizing Israeli war threats against Iran.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the writer’s “shameful moral equivalence between Israel and Iran, a regime that denies the Holocaust and threatens to annihilate Israel.” Netanyahu’s “moral equivalence” theme was echoed in the news columns of the New York Times, which accused Grass of “placing Israel and Iran on the same moral plane,” and by German officials.

“Putting Israel and Iran on the same moral level is not ingenious but absurd,” declared German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.

But what exactly had Grass said in that regard? I went looking for an English translation of the actual poem (since German had been my worst class in college). I found an unofficial translation from the Associated Press which is reprinted below. I was struck by how tendentious the attacks had been on Grass’s supposed moral equivalence toward Israel and Iran. That portion of the poem simply says both Iran and Israel should admit international inspectors to examine their nuclear programs.

Grass recommends that “an unhindered and permanent control of the Israeli nuclear potential and the Iranian nuclear sites be authorized through an international agency by the governments of both countries.” In other words, Grass apparently believes that international law should apply to both Iran and Israel, an offense that the Times depicts as “placing Israel and Iran on the same moral plane.”

The issue of Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal has been a sensitive almost unmentionable topic in the U.S. press as Israel ratchets up war threats against Iran for allegedly harboring ambitions to build a nuclear bomb (although its leaders have disavowed such an interest and have let in international inspectors to check).

But Gunter Grass is now being turned into a global pariah for suggesting that Israel and Iran should live under the same set of rules. Egad! Moral equivalence!

Like others who have dared to criticize aggressive Israeli policies toward Palestinians and other Muslims, Grass also is facing hyperbolic denunciations and ad hominem attacks, including references to his brief service at the end of World War II as a 17-year-old German assigned to the Waffen SS.

Grass had tried to join the German navy but was pressed instead into the Waffen SS, which the Nuremberg Tribunals later declared guilty of war crimes although absolving 17- and 18-year-olds, like Grass, who were forced into this military arm of the Nazi Party at the end of the war.

Still, Israel’s Interior Minister Eli Yishai referred to that distant piece of Grass’s personal history in announcing Israel’s decision to ban Grass from the country. “Grass’s poem fans the flames of hatred against Israel and the Israeli people, thus promoting the idea he was part of when he donned an SS uniform,” Yishai said.

The heated debate that has swirled around Grass has increasingly ignored what the Nobel Laureate actually wrote, focusing instead on whether he’s an anti-Semite or simply an eccentric old poet long past his prime. The Times article about Israel banning Grass was typical because it picked up the attack themes against the poet without quoting from his poem.

While ignoring Grass’s actual words, the Times article by Ethan Bronner and Nicholas Kulish from Jerusalem summarized the poem in the most negative terms, accusing Grass of “echoing language and themes that have long stirred anti-Semitism.”

But the Times offered no examples of these alleged offenses beyond the poet’s supposed crime of suggesting an equivalence between Israel and Iran regarding international law being applied to both countries’ nuclear programs.

The Actual Poem

Here is the translation of Grass’s controversial poem, “What Must Be Said”:

Why do I stay silent, conceal for too long

What is obvious and has been

Practiced in war games, at the end of which we as survivors

Are at best footnotes.

It is the alleged right to the first strike

That could annihilate the Iranian people_

Subjugated by a loud-mouth

And guided to organized jubilation_

Because in their sphere of power,

It is suspected, a nuclear bomb is being built.

Yet why do I forbid myself

To name that other country

In which, for years, even if secretly,

There has been a growing nuclear potential at hand

But beyond control, because not accessible to inspections?

The universal concealment of these facts,

To which my silence subordinated itself,

I sense as an incriminating lie

And coercion–the punishment is promised

As soon as it is ignored;

The verdict of “anti-Semitism” is familiar.

Now, though, because in my country

Which time and again has sought and confronted

Its very own crimes

That is without comparison

In turn on a purely commercial basis, if also

With nimble lips calling it a reparation, declares

A further U-boat should be delivered to Israel,

Whose specialty consists of guiding all-destroying warheads to where the existence

Of a single atomic bomb is unproven,

But fear wishes to be of conclusive evidence,

I say what must be said.

But why have I stayed silent until now?

Because I thought my origin,

Afflicted by a stain never to be expunged

Forbade this fact as pronounced truth

To be told to the nation of Israel, to which I am bound

And wish to stay bound.

Why do I say only now,

Aged and with my last ink,

The nuclear power Israel endangers

The already fragile world peace?

Because it must be said

What even tomorrow may be too late to say;

Also because we–as Germans burdened enough–

Could become suppliers to a crime

That is foreseeable, wherefore our complicity

Could not be redeemed through any of the usual excuses.

And granted: I am silent no longer

Because I am tired of the West’s hypocrisy;

In addition to which it is to be hoped

That this will free many from silence,

Appeal to the perpetrator of the recognizable danger

To renounce violence and

Likewise insist

That an unhindered and permanent control

Of the Israeli nuclear potential

And the Iranian nuclear sites

Be authorized through an international agency

By the governments of both countries.

Only this way are all, the Israelis and Palestinians,

Even more, all people, that in this

Region occupied by mania

Live cheek by jowl among enemies,

And also us, to be helped.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.

26 comments for “Demonizing Gunter Grass

  1. April 16, 2012 at 18:24
    contains links to the proliferating Grass story. Yes, and thank you for recalling that Grass had tried to join the Navy, as anyone who read that marvelous novella of youthful sex in wartime CAT AND MOUSE might recall. One ought to behold the utter ignorant righteousness that prevails on the neo-con sites berating Grass for having been in the Waffen SS as a 17 year old. If you refused to be pressganged you might be shot, the SS had degenerated, there were no more volunteers as in the 30s, they had foreign division created out of the whole cloth of Ukranians and the like. Grass goes out of his way to acknowledge his people’s crimes and the stain on his name for having been an SS member for a few months during the end of the war. However, if you judge the reactions of the Israeli government you notice how incredibly insecure these blowhards like Netanyahoo and Avigdor Liebermann, a Moldavian, are. Ditto for the German establishment which is at the beck and call of their guilt, which the current Israeli government has instrumentalized. Then if you look at how Obama basically succumbed to the Israelis, merely postponing the attack on Iran until after the elections, and threw in a basket full of bunker busting bombs, you realize the ugly games the the latest coming of the American Neo-Cons and AIPAC is playing. There is a lot of support out there for Grass,fortunately.

  2. April 15, 2012 at 18:55

    Minne till Nobellister …..
    Günter Grass var hel livet kommunist
    Och han erkänner att han var barn solat tysk
    Jag var barn soldat i fånge länge
    Jag överlevde krigs idiotiska form …
    Nu skriker Günter Grass mot kriget
    Poem skriver mot Israelisk Zionister
    De var också barn soldater i Tyskland
    Som grundade med terrorism Israel …
    Günter Grass skriker mot kriget nu som kommer
    Atom bomber som ska fly över hälla världen
    USA förbereder sig med atom bomber mot Iran
    Världen ska bli bara sand
    Günter Grass, Jag stöder ER
    Inte Lex Valensa Nobel Freds Priser Idiot
    Vi måste kämpa mot kriget NU
    I morgon är försenad efter atom döden …
    Homo Sapiens rund i världen alla
    ”Röt Front” mot kapital och
    USA – judisk – fascist – zionistisk apor
    NU, I morgon ska bli försenad, Vi ska bli i döden …
    Homo Sapiens rund i världen
    Gör UPPSTÅNDELSE mot atom krig till Freden
    Rebell kom och bli soldat
    Med Günter Grass mot atom krig och död!

    Stefan d-r D Tcholakov

    [email protected]

    Växjö – SVERIGE

  3. chuckthebull
    April 13, 2012 at 15:08

    What i find disturbing is so many people in powerful positions are so deeply duplicitous and despicable..What is it that makes these ziobots tick? what makes the Israeli zionist meme stick so hard in the harts of minds of people that they would stuff down their human soul to adopt a mentality of deception and manipulation? is it just money? power? position? what makes them so disgusting and ugly as human beings? What makes them so devoid of empathy of the suffering they cause indirectly or directly by their actions and words? what tribal pride sick psychology breads these people? And why are there so many of them now? are we devolving as a species?

  4. Jonathan Brunson
    April 13, 2012 at 08:42


  5. ilse
    April 11, 2012 at 15:39

    I was looking forward to reading Robert’s article, and am not disappointed reading it now.
    Thank you.

  6. charles caruso
    April 11, 2012 at 13:02

    The names of all the above correspondents are probably now nestling comfortably in some Mossad (CIA) file.

    Careful what you write folks, or we’ll see you in Gitmo.

    Big Bibi is listening.

  7. Dwight Powers
    April 11, 2012 at 12:34

    I seem to notice, that whenever anyone, anywhere, dares to challenge Israel on it’s policies, both foreign and domestic, then ‘those someones’ will always be accused of being ‘anti-semetic’. I guess I too am / are guilty of praticing “moral equivalence” since my return from a 13 month tour as a Marine in Vietnam, whom upon return, became a very proud and active member of Vietnam Veterans Against The War (V.V.A.W.). My own father once called me “a communist” when I told him that I was against the war in Vietnam and was a member of V.V.A.W. Why does telling “truth to power” seemingly always result in name calling and labeling? Will I be villified by some, because I hate war and warn of a seemingly imminent attack by Israel upon Iran? Once again Mr. Parry, thank you for yet another fine piece of journalism.

    • David Hamilton
      April 11, 2012 at 13:07

      Excellent, Dwight.

  8. Frances in California
    April 11, 2012 at 12:24

    All countries possessing nuclear weapons should be subject to non-state inspections; in fact, all countries trying (against everyones better judgment) to use nuclear power should be comprehensively inspected. If the whole world turns into Fukushima, no one survives. Duh! Israel has become like the Black Knight on the Bridge in Monty Python’s ‘Holy Grail’ – just get out of your own dang way, dude!

  9. Gregory L Kruse
    April 11, 2012 at 12:02

    I have nothing but contempt for those Jews who still believe that some old God promised them a certain piece of land, and that they have the right to torture, evict, and kill anyone who is found on it along with their children and livestock. That idea was dreamed up by an old codger in the middle of a restless night. Those so-called Christians who follow heretics like Hagee in hope for the destruction of Jerusalem so that they will be swept up(?) into heaven where they will watch the rest of us burn or roast, are beyond contempt. It would take a poet to fashion language capable of plumbing the depths depravity displayed by professors of these concepts, who have gathered large and influential followings, but who are only interested in the power, fame, and wealth their positions promise them, but, in fact, do not believe in God. Yes, the human mind can survive exponential hypocrisy, and many hypocrites flourish. If I were God, I would judge them not by their success in gathering power and wealth, but by their success in spreading pain, misery, and despair.

  10. Hillary
    April 11, 2012 at 09:42

    The meaning of “anti-Semite” seems to be “anyone Zionists wish to silence”.

    Has it now become a badge of courage ?

    Extreme lengths Zionists are prepared to go to prevent criticism of Israel.

    Hate Speech Laws to Shield Israel from Accountability ?

  11. rosemerry
    April 11, 2012 at 02:50

    As Gilad Atzmon has pointed out, Israel is MORE guilty because it is a “democracy”, therefore the people are responsible for the actions of their government.
    Abrams is a convicted criminal who was the “pardoned”; his wife a vicious anti-Palestinian blogger. Grass has writen in a way that no rational reader could find fault with. The strange Israeli and German reactions show their inability to consider Israel as inhabited by normal humans, only by chosen ones whose actions are always right.

  12. Joe Vitovec
    April 11, 2012 at 02:46

    It is supremenly hypocritical for Israel to ‘play’ the Nazi card regarding Gunter Grass, in view of the fact that two of Israel’a Prime Ministers, Begin and Shamir, were members of the so-called “Stern Gang” which negotiated with the Nazis and offered to collaborate against the British during WWII.

  13. incontinent reader
    April 11, 2012 at 00:44

    Mr. Parry- Thank you for publishing a translation of the whole poem. It is the only way to understand and appreciate what Grass has said. These are eloquently stated essential truths that cannot be denied.

  14. Michael
    April 10, 2012 at 23:42

    Can the Times be any more predictable?

    Ethan Bronner, former head of the NYT Jerusalem office, doesn’t have the best track record with objectivity (his son was in the IDF). And I’m not saying that all of his articles are tainted or biased – he does a solid job hiding his personal believes most of the time – but then there are pieces where it is full-on Zionist and you wonder whether you are inside Netanyahu’s head or if you are reading the world’s most influential newspaper.

    In terms of Grass: I think it is one thing to be against the poem, but to bar him from entering the country and flagging him as an anti-Semitic is silly and dramatic.

  15. April 10, 2012 at 23:02

    That remark from Netanyahu prompts a fast quip reply stating “pardon me but what is so special about Israel to place it on a special platform?” Funny in a way, because my biggest complain has been Netanyahu and fellow neocon constant claim of our equivalence, it became so annoying I wrote President Obama informing him that in my book we are not even country cousins and want a DIVORCE from that constant “unbreakable commitment” furthermore who made that commitment without asking the public?. Personally I do not like the word “unbreakable” period, there is a finality to it unfit for free people like a dog collar around our neck, that is why we have a divorce, people can make mistakes, things can change. So, except for business contracts, valuable friendships can exist without written unbreakable commitment, especially with foreign entities any way, George
    Washington must be shaking his grave.

  16. April 10, 2012 at 22:33

    The Israelis may be no angels, but this is simply not the time to attack Israel. Israel is a strategic ally of the West against fundamentalist Islam. A weaker Israel strengthens Hamas and other extremist Moslems. Especially now that the Mohammedan lobby has decided to raise the heat on Israel, I propose a moratorium on denunciations of that country, unless accompanied by balancing measures that prevent fundamentalist Islam from gaining an advantage.
    Igor Slamoff

    • photon's feather
      April 11, 2012 at 00:23

      The Mohammedan lobby? What Mohammedan lobby?

      Far and away the most powerful foreign political lobby has got to be AIPAC. Israel has gotten away with – and continues to get away with – the most heinous crimes, and woe to any politician who dares to question anything that rogue state might do.

      The US government actively covers up Israeli crimes and bows down before Israeli thugs. I am sick of the accusations that all criticism of Israel stems from anti-Semitism, including that of “self-hating Jews” – and I am sick of Israel claiming any sort of moral superiority. The have none.

      It is quite true that it is wrong to place Israel and Iran on the same moral plane. That is an insult to Iran. Iran has never attacked a neighbor. Israel cannot claim the same. Israel cannot even claim that it has never attacked an ally, in fact, its greatest ally. I will never forget the U.S.S. Liberty – and Israel can go straight to hell, for all I care.

      • Roger Thomas
        April 11, 2012 at 01:23

        Photon, I agree with every word you say. I am sick of seeing those sanctimonious Zionist spokesmen and especially Netanyahu peddling their false moral superiority. They daily commit crimes against humanity not seen in a so-called developed country since introduced by the Nazis.

        Zionist atrocities over more than 60 years is one of the main factors in the rise of Muslim fundamentalism. Kill off Zionism and Muslim fanaticism will all but disappear.

        • rosemerry
          April 11, 2012 at 02:44

          Surely slamoff is some sort of ironic “joke”.

      • Lenore Gittis
        April 11, 2012 at 18:20

        To photon’s feather – AIPAC is not the “most powerful foreign lobby.” Look to the Saudi lobby instead.

        • photon's feather
          April 12, 2012 at 12:12

          The Saudi lobby? Really? When did the “Saudi lobby” go marching through the halls of congress as AIPAC recently did? What congress member is afraid of a Saudi pac attacking them with the vilest of lies and vicious commercials?

          Take a stand against Israel – or simply decline to defend Israel – and you endanger your congressional seat. But you can shout yourself hoarse about Saudi Arabia with little acrimony aimed at you even on the floor. Unless you go after oil company interests, you can have at Saudi Arabia.

          I am not aware of the US repeatedly using its UN veto to shelter the Saudis in the face of world denunciation, but we are constantly defending Israel. And if the Saudis had attacked a US ship in their waters, never mind in international waters, do you think any president would have covered up for them? Do you think the government would have hastened to the beds of survivors and imposed gag rules on them?

          You have got to be joking.

  17. Peter Dyer
    April 10, 2012 at 22:27

    Well said, Robert.

  18. Dr. Don
    April 10, 2012 at 20:53

    OMG, Goldhagen–another over-the-top touchy pro-Semite and last-ditch defender of all things Israeli. Why should NOT Israel be subjected to the same international standards as any other country? Anyone who has read any of the writings of Gunter Grass over the years knows perfectly well the man’s humanity spans all ethnicities and nationalisms and finds abhorrent unthinking violence to the human spirit. Thanks, Mr. Parry for providing both a translation of the poem in question and a reasoned discussion of the issue of moral equivalence.

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