What Must Be Said

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What must be said 
by Günter Grass
Original titleWas gesagt werden muss
TranslatorBreon Mitchell (English translation used in this article)[1]
First published inSüddeutsche Zeitung, La Repubblica, El País
Subject(s)Iran–Israel relations, nuclear proliferation
Genre(s)Prose poetry
Publication date4 April 2012 (2012-04-04)

"What Must Be Said" (German: "Was gesagt werden muss") is a 2012 prose poem by the German writer Günter Grass, recipient of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Literature.[1] The poem discusses an alleged threat of annihilation of the Iranian people and the writer's fears that Germany's delivery to Israel of a sixth Dolphin class submarine capable of carrying[2] nuclear warheads might facilitate an eventual Israeli nuclear attack on Iran, and thus involve his country in a foreseeable crime.[3]

The poem was first published on 4 April 2012 by the Süddeutsche Zeitung, La Repubblica and El País, triggering four days later the declaration by Eli Yishai, the Israeli Minister for the Interior, that Grass, who had visited Israel in 1967 and 1971,[4][5] was now persona non grata.[6]


The poem is written in prose and consists of 69 lines in 9 unrhymed stanzas. The basic theme is that it is hypocritical to blame Iran unilaterally for perhaps also having a desire to acquire nuclear weapons when Israel itself has a "growing nuclear potential". Grass adopts the assumption that Israel is planning a "first strike" preventive war against Iran that could wipe out the Iranian people. He deplores the fact that Germany is furnishing Israel with a submarine capable of delivering nuclear bombs, and says no one in the West dares to mention Israel in connection with nuclear weaponry.[7] The author assesses that an attack on Iran would be a crime, to which Germany would become an accomplice.

A noticeable stylistic theme is that in six of the nine sentences, the theme of silence is repeated as "silence", "general silence", or "forbidding myself to name [the country]".[8] The author first asks himself "Why [was] I silent for so long?"[8] and answers it with "because my heritage, which is forever burdened by an unclearing stain, prohibits, to deliver this fact as a spoken truth to the state of Israel, to which I feel ... and want to stay connected".[8] Continuing, he is demanding that no further German "submarine shall be delivered to Israel, with the specialty of delivering annihilating warheads to where the existence of one single nuclear bomb is unproven".[8] These are delivered by "my country, which is time after time caught-up ... for its very own and unprecedented crimes, ... on a pure commercial basis, even though declared with fast tongue as reparation".[8] He continues that he feels it as an "incriminating lie and constraint".[8] to keep the "general silence about these facts",[8] even though it "promises punishment as soon as it is broached"[8]—the common verdict: "Anti-Semitism".

He further criticises the "Western hypocrisy" and hopes "that many will want to get rid of their silence, to demand from the initiator of this recognizable danger [Israel], to abstinence from violence".[8] Finally he demands that an "unhindered and permanent control of the Israeli nuclear arsenal and the Iranean nuclear complexes by an international authority will be allowed by the governments of both countries"; only this way "Israelis, Palestinians, and even more everybody who is living face to face as enemies in this region occupied by delusion and craziness, and last not least ourselves, can be helped".[8]


Political controversy[edit]

Translations were published in a number of countries, generating significant controversy, particularly in Germany and Israel. This intensified on 8 April, four days after publication, when Eli Yishai, Israel's Minister for the Interior, banned Grass from entering the country.[9] The decision was based on a 1952 law barring former members of Nazi organizations from entering Israel.[6] Yishai said: "Grass's poems are an attempt to guide the fire of hate toward the State of Israel and the Israeli people, and to advance the ideas of which he was a public partner in the past, when he wore the uniform of the SS."[10] This was a reference to Grass's acknowledgement in 2006 that he had been drafted into the Waffen-SS when he was 17 years old.[11] The Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, said the decision "smacked of populism".[12] In announcing the ban, Yishai also demanded that the author should have his Nobel Prize withdrawn.[9] The Swedish Academy responded by stating that no discussion has, or will, take place concerning the rescinding of his award.[13]

Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman criticized the "egoism of so-called Western intellectuals, who are willing to sacrifice the Jewish people on the altar of crazy anti-Semites for a second time, just to sell a few more books or gain recognition" and demanded that European leaders condemn the work.[10]

Avi Primor, former Israeli ambassador to the European Union and to Germany, argued that the poem violated a taboo of German public discourse, where there is a fear of criticizing Israel; Grass was drawing attention to the hypocrisy of saying behind closed doors what cannot be said in public. Primor added that there is no anti-Semitism in Grass's work, that his publications have been opposed to Nazism, and that it is a mistake to link the poem to his membership of the Waffen-SS, given that he repudiated Nazi ideology. "It is important to pay attention to the message of the poem," he said.[14]

German Health Minister Daniel Bahr told Die Welt that the Israeli government's reaction had been "totally excessive".[12] Regarding the poem itself, he said that it was "sad to see that someone who has experienced all the controversies of post-war Germany remains marked by so much prejudice and stubbornness".[6]

Philipp Missfelder, chairman of the Junge Union and a member of the Bundestag, said the poem "plays into the hands of the Iranian aggressor. That is fatal and goes well beyond a so-called friendly critique."[6]

The Iranian deputy culture minister, Javad Shamaqdari, offered effusive praise of the poem in a letter to Grass: "I have read your literary work, highly responsible both from a human and historical point of view, and I found it extremely timely. Telling the truth in such a way may truly awaken the west's silent and dormant conscience".[15] And Iran's state-owned Press TV said: "Never before in Germany's postwar history has a prominent intellectual attacked Israel in such a courageous way. Metaphorically speaking, the poet has launched a deadly lyrical strike against Israel."[16]

In an interview with the German newspaper, Welt am Sonntag, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the poem was "shameful" and constituted a "collapse of moral judgment", and that Grass had "created a perfect moral misrepresentation...where the firefighter and not the arsonist becomes the true danger".[17][18]

Response from literary figures[edit]

Hamid Dabashi, who teaches literature at New York's Columbia University, argued that the poem's importance lay in the context of the author being ostracized by the content of his own work: "The daring imagination of Günter Grass' poem—a heroically tragic act precisely because the poet is implicated in the moral outrage of his own poem—is significant precisely because it captures this German and by extension European logic/madness of colonial conquest and moral cannibalism."[19]

Klaus Staeck, president of the Berlin academy of art, told reporters, "It's got to be possible to speak openly without being denounced as an enemy of Israel."[16]

In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki called Grass's text "a disgusting poem", opining that its sole purpose was to cause a scandal and draw attention to himself, and that he knew attacking Jews would achieve this.[20]

The German-born Israeli writer, ex-Knesset member and political activist Uri Avnery argues that, while the text can certainly be criticised—the idea of Israel "wiping out" the Iranians in a preventive "first strike" is wildly exaggerated—there is nothing in it demanding 'stern condemnation'. There is, he adds, 'no reason for Germans to abstain from criticizing Israel', and there is nothing in Grass's poem that de-legitimizes the State of Israel. Indeed, to the contrary, Grass has, he notes, declared his solidarity with that country.[21]

The Hebrew Writers Association in Israel threatened to call for International PEN to distance itself from Grass.[22]

An Israeli poet, Itamar Yaoz-Kest, published a poem in response, entitled "The Right to Exist: a Poem-Letter to the German Author", which addresses Grass by name. It contains the line: "If you force us yet again to descend from the face of the Earth to the depths of the Earth—let the Earth roll toward the Nothingness." This is seen as referring to the Samson Option, Israel's alleged deterrence strategy of massive retaliation with nuclear weapons as a "last resort" against nations whose military attacks threaten its existence.[23]

Uri Avnery called it: "polemic in the guise of a poem".[24] D. G. Myers said that it gave expression to a "new European anti-Semitism that pretends it is merely anti-Zionism".[25]

Other responses[edit]

Grass has struck a nerve with the broader public, articulating frustrations with Israel in Germany that are frequently expressed in private but rarely in public.[26] Demonstrators in several German cities showed their support for Grass during the annual Ostermärsche (anti-war protests).[27]

On 7 April, someone in Göttingen wrote "shut your mouth" in red paint on a sculpture commissioned and donated by Grass to commemorate free speech.[28]

The Guardian's Jerusalem correspondent, Harriet Sherwood, wrote: "Amid the torrent of denunciation, some Israeli commentators said Grass had raised an important issue and that criticism of Israeli policies was routinely portrayed as antisemitism."[29]

Tariq Ali made the same complaint in his survey of the reactions, in an article in Counterpunch, arguing that Grass had foreseen the reactions, and that criticism of his poem in Germany assumed that 'all Germans are guilty for eternity for the crimes of the Third Reich'.[30]

The poem was defended by a number of Jewish and Israeli individuals. The Israeli decision was criticized in an editorial in Haaretz, Israel's oldest daily newspaper was headed, "Israel has reacted with hysteria over Gunter Grass."[31]

Journalist Larry Derfner wrote: "Günter Grass told the truth, he was brave in telling it, he was brave in admitting that he'd been drafted into the Waffen SS as a teenager, and by speaking out against an Israeli attack on Iran, he's doing this country a great service at some personal cost while most Israelis and American Jews are safely following the herd behind Bibi [Netanyahu] over the cliff."[29]

Several distinct views were run in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Writer Gideon Levy said of Grass and the writer José Saramago, another critic of Israeli policies: "After we denounce the exaggeration, after we shake off the unjustified part of the charge, we must listen to these great people. They are not anti-Semites, they are expressing the opinion of many people. Instead of accusing them we should consider what we did that led them to express it.[32]

In the same newspaper, Anshel Pfeffer argued that: "Logic and reason are useless when a highly intelligent man, a Nobel laureate no less, does not understand that his membership in an organization that planned and carried out the wholesale genocide of millions of Jews disqualifies him from criticizing the descendants of those Jews for developing a weapon of last resort that is the insurance policy against someone finishing the job his organization began. What could be more self-evident?"[33]

Ravit Hecht wrote that Grass had been the object of an 'unbridled assault' for thinking differently, and criticised the ease with which the Holocaust is pulled out, desecrating its memory, every time something disturbs the elected leadership or "the masses of Israelis" in order to arouse nationalist feelings and make political capital out of them, something more troubling than Grass' disparaging poem.[34]

Grass's rejoinder[edit]

Grass told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that the poem was aimed at the current Israeli government, not the country as a whole. He voiced particular criticism of the government's policy of continuing to build settlements despite a United Nations' resolution.[35] He said that, with hindsight, he should have made it clearer that it was the government he was criticizing. Netanyahu, he said, was damaging Israel.[29] He added: "I have often supported Israel, I have often been in the country and want the country to exist and at last find peace with its neighbours."[29] On 11 April, in an article for the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Grass compared the ban on his entering Israel to his treatment by dictatorships in Myanmar and East Germany.[36]


Translations of the poem were published in national newspapers and their websites from 5 April 2012.[37] In Norway, a national newspaper published a translation on 10 April.[38] The poem has already been translated into at least 17 major languages.[39]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Günter Grass: 'What Must Be Said'", The Guardian, 5 April 2012.
  2. ^ Ronen Bergman; Erich Follath; Einat Keinan; Ottfried Nassauer; Joerg Schmitt (4 June 2012). "Operation Samson: Israel's Deployment of Nuclear Missiles on Subs from Germany". Der Spiegel (23). pp. 20–33. Retrieved 4 June 2012.
  3. ^ "Guenter Grass says Israel a threat to peace", [sic spelling of name], Associated Press, published in San Francisco Gate, 5 April 2012.
  4. ^ Lahav Harkov, Herb Keinon, Benjamin Weinthal,'Yishai declares Grass persona non-grata' at The Jerusalem Post, 8 April 2012.
  5. ^ 'Nur zweimal in Israel,' at Die Welt, 11 April 2012.
  6. ^ a b c d Weinthal, Benjamin. "Berlin politicians split over Grass travel ban", The Jerusalem Post, 9 April 2012.
  7. ^ Uri Avnery,'Gunter the Terrible,' at Counterpunch, 13–15 April 2012.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Günter Grass -- What must be said -- Was gesagt werden muss".
  9. ^ a b "Minister wants Nobel Prize withdrawn: furious Israel bars Günter Grass for critical poem". Spiegel Online International, 9 April 2012.
  10. ^ a b Azriel, Guy. "German poet declared unwelcome in Israel", The Guardian, 9 April 2012.
  11. ^ Kundnani, Hans. "Child's play", Prospect magazine, 19 November 2006.
  12. ^ a b "'Israel's Government Has Reacted Absurdly'", Spiegel Online International, 10 April 2012.
  13. ^ "Att vara ständig". Akademiblogg.wordpress.com. 5 April 2012. Retrieved 13 April 2012.
  14. ^ Magnezi, Aviel. "Israel no longer taboo in Germany?", YNet News, 9 April 2012.
  15. ^ "Iran congratulates Gunter Grass",Agenzia Giornalistica Italia, 7 April 2012.
  16. ^ a b Harding, Luke and Sherwood, Harriet. "Günter Grass's Israel poem provokes outrage", The Guardian, 5 April 2012.
  17. ^ Weinthal, Benjamin (21 April 2012), "PM: Günter Grass poem a 'collapse of moral judgment", The Jerusalem Post, retrieved 23 April 2012
  18. ^ Seibel, Andrea; Wergin, Clemens; Borgstede, Michael (22 April 2012), "Netanyahu – "Günter Grass has hurt us profoundly"", Welt Online, retrieved 23 April 2012
  19. ^ Dabashi, Hamid. "Günter Grass, Israel and the crime of poetry", Al Jazeera, 10 April 2012.
  20. ^ Volker, Weidermann. "Es ist ein ekelhaftes Gedicht", Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 8 April 2012.
  21. ^ Uri Avnery, 'Gunter the Terrible,' at Counterpunch, 13–15 April 2012.
  22. ^ Sela, Maya. "Israeli writers call on international literary community to rebuke Gunter Grass", Haaretz, 9 April 2012.
  23. ^ Ronen, Gil. "Israeli Letter-poem to Grass: If We Go, Everyone Goes", Israel National News, 8 April 2012.
  24. ^ Uri Avnery, Gunter the Terrible, at CounterPunch, 13–15 April 2012.
  25. ^ D. G. Myers, "Poison Pen", Jewish Ideas Daily, April 16, 2012.
  26. ^ Kulish, Nicholas (13 April 2012). "With Günter Grass's Poem, Germans' Anti-Israel Whispers Grow Louder". The New York Times.
  27. ^ Goldman, Yoel. "Support for Günter Grass takes center stage at German anti-war protests", The Times of Israel, 7 April 2012.
  28. ^ "Germany official: Israel’s reaction to Grass' criticism 'exaggerated'". Haaretz, 9 April 2012.
  29. ^ a b c d Sherwood, Harriet."Günter Grass barred from Israel over poem", The Guardian, 8 April 2012.
  30. ^ Tariq Ali, The Disgusting Attacks on Guenter Grass, at Counterpunch, 10 April 2012.
  31. ^ "On Guenter Grass, Israel has reacted with hysteria", Haaretz editorial, 9 April 2012.
  32. ^ Levy, Gideon. "Israelis can be angry with Gunter Grass, but they must listen to him", at Haaretz, 8 April 2012.
  33. ^ Pfeffer, Anshel."The moral blindness of Gunter Grass," at Haaretz, 6 April 2012
  34. ^ Ravit Hecht, "What on earth can Gunter Grass and Ido Kozikaro have in common?," at Haaretz 12 April 2012
  35. ^ Aderet, Ofer and the Associated Press. "Gunter Grass: Poem critical of Netanyahu's Iran policy, not Israel", Haaretz, 7 April 2012.
  36. ^ Hickley, Catherine (11 April 2012). "Grass Compares Israel to Myanmar, East Germany After Entry Ban". Bloomberg. Retrieved 13 April 2012.
  37. ^ For example, "Günter Grass: "Ce qui doit être dit"". Lemonde.fr. Retrieved 13 April 2012.
  38. ^ Grass, Günter (10 April 2012). "Det som må sies". Aftenposten (in Norwegian). Erik Fosnes Hansen (translator). p. 19.
  39. ^ "Günter Grass: "What Must Be Said"".

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