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March 7, 2015

Günter Grass and “What Must Be Said”

by Anne Paddock

This past week, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu on the invitation of US Representative, John Boehner, addressed the US Congress on nuclear weapons and specifically how dangerous Iran would be with these weapons of mass destruction. Few would dispute that point while others would go even further asserting that none of the countries in the Middle East should have nuclear weapons. But, no one has made this bold statement more eloquently than Günter Grass, the 87-year old Nobel Prize laureate, German writer (novelist, poet and playwright) and artist (illustrator, scepter, and graphic artist).

Grass is best known for his novels including The Tin Drum (1959), Cat and Mouse (1963), Dog Years (1965), and his memoirs: Peeling the Onion (2007), The Box (2010), and Grimm’s Words: A Declaration of Love (2010) but he is also known as the author of the controversial poem “What Must Be Said” (2012) – which reveals the hypocrisy of the German military when they decided to sell and deliver a submarine that could be used to launch nuclear warheads against Iran.

Unfairly criticized and declared persona non grata in Israel, Grass has been a life long advocate of peace and a supporter of the Social Democratic Party of Germany. He has often criticized Germany and went on record opposing the unification of Germany, afraid the country would resume its role as a “belligerent” nation.

What Must Be Said are the words of a “hesitant” German to call out both the German and the Israeli government and the western powers for their policies and actions on nuclear warheads in the Middle East. The danger of selling Israel a submarine capable of launching nuclear warheads into Iran is portrayed in the poem with the question asked: Does Israel have the right to launch a nuclear warhead onto Iranian soil and wipe out the Iranian people because the country may be developing their own nuclear warheads? And, why isn’t Israel subject to the same supervision and inspections as Iran?  The poem points out the hypocrisy of the world powers and how dangerous it is to allow nuclear warheads in an area fraught with tension, aggressive behavior, and fragility.

Günter_GrassGünter Grass was born in 1927 in Poland and was drafted into the SS in 1944, when he was 17 years old. He was wounded several months later, captured, and sent to an American prisoner of war camp. After the war, he was unable to return to Poland because the Soviets annexed Danzig, his hometown and so he went to western Germany where he worked in a mine and studied stone masonry, sculpture, and graphic arts. Grass then went on to publish his first novel (The Tin Drum) in 1959 and subsequently moved to Berlin, where he has lived for the past 55 years.

It wasn’t until 2006 that Grass revealed he was drafted and served in the SS for two months before he was wounded. Critical of the Nazis throughout his life, Grass was criticized for following his draft orders to report for service at 17 years of age – legally, a child. He has spoken publicly of the shame associated with this youthful transgression which by all accounts is sincere. To be fair, none of us would want to be judged for the decisions we made or were forced to make at 17.

In the spirit of the conversation before our lawmakers this week, let us also consider the words of Günter Grass in What Must Be Said: the 69-line poem written in 9 stanzas.

What Must Be Said

Why have I kept silent, held back so long,

on something openly practised in

war games, at the end of which those of us

who survive will at best be footnotes?


It’s the alleged right to a first strike

that could destroy an Iranian people

subjugated by a loudmouth

and gathered in organized rallies,

because an atom bomb may be being

developed within his arc of power.


Yet why do I hesitate to name

that other land in which

for years – although kept secret –

a growing nuclear power has existed

beyond supervision or verification,

subject to no inspection of any kind?


This general silence on the facts,

before which my own silence has bowed,

seems to me a troubling, enforced lie,

leading to a likely punishment

the moment it’s broken:

the verdict “anti-Semitism” falls easily.


But now that my own country,

brought in time after time

for questioning about its own crimes,

profound and beyond compare,

has delivered yet another submarine to Israel;

(in what is purely a business transaction,

though glibly declared an act of reparation)

whose speciality consists in its ability

to direct nuclear warheads toward

an area in which not a single atom bomb

has yet been proved to exist, its feared

existence proof enough, I’ll say what must be said.


But why have I kept silent till now?

Because I thought my own origins,

tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,

meant I could not expect Israel, a land

to which I am, and always will be, attached,

to accept this open declaration of the truth.


Why only now, grown old,

and with what ink remains, do I say:

Israel’s atomic power endangers

an already fragile world peace?

Because what must be said

may be too late tomorrow;

and because – burdened enough as Germans –

we may be providing material for a crime

that is foreseeable, so that our complicity

will not be expunged by any

of the usual excuses.


And granted: I’ve broken my silence

because I’m sick of the West’s hypocrisy;

and I hope too that many may be freed

from their silence, may demand

that those responsible for the open danger

we face renounce the use of force,

may insist that the governments of

both Iran and Israel allow an international authority

free and open inspection of

the nuclear potential and capability of both.


No other course offers help

to Israelis and Palestinians alike,

to all those living side by side in enmity

in this region occupied by illusions,

and ultimately, to all of us.


Translated by Breon Mitchell. You can read the poem in the original German here.

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