West Berlin, June 3, 1967. A renowned leftist German writer sits before a group of students at Berlin’s Free University, speaking. The students share the writer’s political ilk, but are of a different generation. The writer, middle-aged and already shackled with the burden of his country’s history and the personal guilt of a secret past, makes a simple request of his youthful compatriots. As a small Jewish state a few thousand miles away, borne from the ashes of the Holocaust and surrounded by enemies, sits ominously on the precipice of existential war, it is incumbent on the university’s student body to pass a resolution of support for the country in question.
The student response is itself ominous, a signal that the German left is moving, and is leaving the aging writer behind. No, they say, we will not pass your resolution. We will not let you transfer your own guilt upon us. We are not like you; we are a part of the post-war generation. We feel no special obligation to Israel. The resolution fails, and the new German left has developed its new position on Israel.
The students in question would become known to history as part of Germany’s “1968 Generation,” a symbol of the ongoing struggle for the soul of a country still dealing with, and reeling from, its past.
The writer was none other than Gunter Grass.
One cannot understand the complicated relationship that the German intellectual left, and with it, Gunter Grass, has with Israel without first struggling with what 1967-1968 (let alone 1933-1945) meant to Germany. Just as Israel geared up for the 6-day War that would change it forever, change was sweeping over Germany, too. The first postwar generation was coming of age, they were entering college, and – difficult as it may be to believe – many of them who had grown up in silent homes were learning about whom their parents had been and what they had done for the very first time. Keep in mind that Germany did not begin teaching the Holocaust to its children on May 8, 1945; for the next decades, the silence in German history classrooms was often deafening. By 1967, a sudden economic slowdown, a growing sense of authoritarianism in politics, and social turmoil from the Vietnam War and from the new revelation of Germany’s past had formed the perfect storm for the creation of a neue Deutsche links.
It was in this context that a new Jewish question – that of a rapidly developing Israel in perpetual war with its underdeveloped (and, mind you, formerly Western-colonized) neighbors – emerged as a hot-button issue in Germany. These ‘68ers reviled fascism, colonialism, Western domination, and bigotry, and more than anything, they reviled that their parents seemingly embodied all of these characteristics. Israel was never the center of the German leftist revolution during this time, but given the backdrop, the shift in political discourse on Germany’s own past, and therefore on its relationship with Israel’s going forward, was all but inevitable.
Prior to 1967, no greater supporters of the Jewish State could be found than on Germany’s left. They sympathized with their former victims, felt the horror of the crimes committed by the previous generations against Jews during the Holocaust, and maintained that it was Germany’s responsibility to ensure a precariously-positioned Israel’s survival in the face of constant threat of extermination. For the German left, it was a perfect combination of moral redemption: the Jew, still weak, still struggling for her very survival, surrounded yet again by a belligerent enemy bent on destroying her, must be helped, and we must be the ones to help her. The German left’s humanistic predisposition and moral outrage at their Nazi predecessors lent itself naturally for wholehearted sympathy and “everlasting” support for Israel.
The Six-Day War changed all that, and transformed the left’s perfect narrative into one of competing tensions. Israel’s victory would become its greatest crime, turning her, in the leftist youth’s eyes, from the victim to the aggressor, to the West’s newest colonialist. In so doing, it punched Germany in its other historical guilt muscle – that of its own colonialist past. From the shadows of Tel Aviv’s bomb bunkers and disaster shelters emerged Israel’s miraculous defeat of her neighbors – and with it, her subsequent occupation of Sinai, Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. For the left, sympathy turned to the new victim in the form of the Arab countries surrounding Israel – despite the fact that, but for their failure to win the war, they too would have been the perpetrators.
Indeed, it became Germany’s rightists who would arise to defend Israel most vociferously in the months following the war, again for their own reasons. Though many still harbored hatred for Jews, the rightists loved Israel’s strength, its ability to defend itself, its emergence from Auschwitz. What they loved the most, perhaps, was the relief that Israel’s miraculous defense allowed Germans themselves to feel. You see? They are strong, those Jews. We need not feel so guilty anymore; they can defend themselves now.
I spent half a year in Germany in 2008, from March until September. I have German ancestry, and hold both an American and a German passport (though I consider myself American). I know enough from my time there to know that the old forms of anti-Semitism persist in Germany today, both on the far left and the far right. I experienced it myself on my final day in Germany, as I fixed a kippah to my head and walked the same streets of Berlin that my relatives once walked, and visited the gravestones under which many a Donig now rest. But Germany’s struggle with Israel cannot only be explained by this, so for the moment, forgive me if I leave this explanation behind.
Those close to me know that I carry a ring around my neck that was given to me on one of my final nights in Berlin by a close German friend whose grandfather gave it to him shortly before committing suicide. His grandfather claimed he had obtained it as a soldier during the Second World War from a Jewish woman whose life he saved. I know not whether the story is true; but I do know what that story, and my possession of that ring, says about Germany today. My generation – today’s youth in Germany – is still struggling with the lessons of their grandparents, of the 1968 Generation’s parents.
For the vast majority of German leftists whom I met who were willing to struggle with their country’s past (and most do so valiantly), the question of Israel has since become an internal struggle over what the correct lesson is to draw from Auschwitz. Is it never again to the Jews – an understanding that, given Germany’s crimes against them, it is therefore Germany’s special responsibility to protect and defend the Jewish people? Or is it never again to humanity – that because the Holocaust showed the incredible dangers of racism and bigotry, oppression in all forms must be combatted? For many who were part of the 1968 Generation (though certainly not all), and for a good part of the German left since swept in with its wake, the answer has taken form in affirmation of the latter. Both questions come from intentions at once noble and ignoble; some, including most of my close friends in Berlin, wished to turn their sense of responsibility into a fortification of moral character. Others perhaps seek merely a catharsis, a release from that unpleasant burden of responsibility, so that they may move on with their lives.
It is not my position to prescribe which never again is correct, and which is not. But alas, those struggles over the lessons of Auschwitz have revealed just how easy it can be to confuse an attempt to deal with guilt or hold responsibility with an attempt to relinquish or project it upon someone else. For my generation, for my friend who gave me that ring, I cannot know what motivations to ascribe. For the German anti-Israel left, particularly for those members of the 1968 Generation, I have my suspicions. For Gunter Grass, however noble his essay’s stated intentions, however learned he has become in the school of historical moralism, I have no doubt.
For Grass, it matters not at all Israel’s reasons for its actions, nor the threats it faces; it matters not at all what its enemies desire; not at all whether peace is achievable; not at all whether Camp David moves from frosty to freezing; not at all whether Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas wish to eliminate it. Israel is nothing more or less than a neo-colonialist that Grass desperately wishes to condemn, so that he may cleanse himself of his own past. If the Iranians and the Palestinians can become the Jews, and the Jews can become Germany, then the Germans are freed. This is the dark underbelly that paves the way for the Grass’s Israel-bashing.
And herein lies the world according to Gunter Grass. It makes no sense to argue whether Grass is either pro-Israel or anti-Israel. In 1967, he tried to pass a resolution. In 2012, he tried to write a poem. Both times, Grass failed. Indeed, Grass is neither pro-Israel, nor anti-Israel. Gunter Grass is simply guilty. And the only remaining question for Gunter Grass is how to be guilty correctly.
Gunter Grass thought he looked a thousand miles east in his diatribe, and thought he had given his assessment of the situation there. Israel endangers plunging the world into another war. Israel wants to eliminate Iran. Israel acts with hate and with violence.
Gunter Grass believed he was looking toward Jerusalem. I suspect Gunter Grass was looking into a mirror. In it he saw the eyes of a man who once thought he could love Israel, and therefore could love himself for taking such mercy on his victim. He saw a man who hated Israel for having won the Six-Day War so decisively, for having the audacity to become so strong that it could defend itself without needing to put its fate in the hands of the Gunter Grasses of the world.
He saw a wrinkled face and a greyed mustache fading dangerously into irrelevance, but determined this time to be at the forefront of the political tide before it could pass him by the way it did 45 years ago. He saw a man still shackled with the same guilt he held in 1967, still looking for a repository for its release.
I suspect Gunter Grass was looking into a mirror. And I suspect that when Grass looked into that mirror, he hated what he saw.