Günter Grass’s “What Must Be Said” is not much of a poem, considered in literary terms, even in the original German, but a great kerfuffle has arisen over it, with Grass being banned from entering the state of Israel by the current Israeli regime, having his “Nazi past” resurrected as evidence of alleged antisemitism expressed somehow by the poem, even though his time serving in the German military in the Second World War consisted mainly of surviving basic training and then wandering about the country as a foot soldier barely out of adolescence amidst the wrack, ruin and chaos of the war’s closing days, virtually clueless about where he would wind up. Grass never participated in the organized murder of Jews or any other group in disfavor with the Nazis, and there has never been a shred of evidence–other than Grass’s own account, wherein he doesn’t attempt to conceal, despite his insignificant role in the atrocious activities of the Third Reich, what he still today regards as a moral stain–that he was involved in any of the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis upon humanity in general and even, ultimately, upon the German people whom the Nazis led into bloodlust and bloodshed.
But you wouldn’t know it for all the fuming and foaming over Grass and his–to be frank–rather bad poem. Grass, for having committed the crime of criticizing Israel, is now officially regarded by the Israeli government as a monstrous, unrepentant Jew-hating Nazi.
As an ethnic Jew, I find nothing antisemitic or even vaguely pro-fascist or pro-Nazi in what the poem has to say–about Iran, and Germany selling arms to Israel, and rash and intolerant talk of war–or in how it says it. And so while I wouldn’t teach it or study it alongside the poetry of Shakespeare or Dickinson or Pablo Neruda or County Cullen or even Woody Guthrie, what it has to say is important enough for me to point to it, not for its poetic value but for its ethical plangency and solicitude.