What has to be said – and who has to say it

Germans are entitled to opinions and to the choice of whether or not to voice them. We should welcome it when they do – even regarding Israel.

Günter Grass

This post is about the Günter Grass poem “What must be said”. If you haven’t read the poem yet, please do so before reading the rest of this post (German/English/Hebrew).

Lisa Goldman shared a NYT piece about how the poem has made more Germans speak up about Israel, sometimes even in ways that make Israeli lefties feel uncomfortable.1

One commenter on Lisa’s post responded: “the creators of Holocaust should keep their mouth shut for the sake of decency”. This would, in and of itself, be a reasonable comment, except that at this point in history, the people actually behind the Holocaust are for the most part dead – a fate far more pleasant than they deserve, as it were – and this kind of comment aims simply to silence all German criticism of Israel. Oddly enough, you don’t hear it when Germans voice opinions supportive of Israeli policy.

I have heard at least one Jewish and one non-Jewish German say they prefer that everyone in Germany just keep their mouth shut on Israel and not have an opinion either way. I can actually understand this and respect it. But it’s one thing to say to a group you belong to “hey guys, let’s just stay out of this” and quite another to tell a group you very much don’t belong to “hey guys, why don’t you stay out of this”.

There’s also something ironic about Israelis, who are typically so keen to tell anyone who hasn’t been in the military not to dare criticize it, telling the state that started the last world war to shut up about starting world wars. Yeah, like they would know anything about how that goes. Of course, this would be a different story fifty years ago. If the people criticizing Israel’s plans to plunge the world into war were ex-Nazi leadership or German politicians who had been active in the time of Hitler’s rise to power – as opposed to pacifists who had been drafted into the Nazi army as teenagers – it would make sense to tell them to STFU, and maybe to give them a fair trial and some swift, cruel, and unusual punishment.2 But the people being told to shut up are not in any way, shape, or form the “creators of the Holocaust”, unless you are the kind of racist/nationalist who doesn’t think individuals do things except as part of a collective, and that the collective bears full responsibility after the individuals involved are dead.

The people being told to shut up here are in a unique position to inform international discourse. The generations forming the majority of the German public were not involved in the Holocaust, but in the subsequent denazification and the long aftermath of collective self-examination. Aren’t we always wiser for having made mistakes? Shouldn’t this be even more so when it was one of the most awful mistakes collectively made anywhere, by anyone, ever? Sure, there are some unreflected Germans whose silence merely mirrors the incredibly heavy taboo on this topic and some of them hold despicably racist/nationalist opinions still. But Grass’s message is not anti-Semitic. It is pacifistic, very brave, and basically friendly criticism. Like many of us, he sees the potential for a terrible war on the horizon, and Israel stirring it up over a mere possibility of future threat.

Germans have reflected collectively on the unacceptability of war and nationalistic violence more than perhaps any other national group in the world. If they choose to remain silent because they don’t trust themselves, due to their culture’s past, that’s their prerogative. But who are we, who did not grow up in the guilt-and-atonement-ridden German context, to shut them up? Isn’t one of the lessons of the Holocaust – and European Totalitarianism in general – that individuals should be allowed to have their own opinions, and if they so choose, voice them, too? Have the unspeakable crimes of one generation of Germans revoked their offsprings’ status as human beings?


  1. This is not to say that Israeli lefties are used to offensive comments about Israel – but that some of the comments Germans are making may be beyond what we accept as honest criticism. []
  2. Intellectually, I don’t believe in vengeance or violence or really even punishment, as such. But when it comes to violent racists, especially Nazis, I can’t think of anything more emotionally satisfying than knowing they suffer unspeakable physical pain, wrong as it may be. []

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