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17/08/2006

This endless moral flutter

The same old issues, the same old voices. A plea for less Grass and more debate on the Middle East. By Eva Menasse and Michael Kumpfmüller

Günter Grass was in the Waffen SS as a boy and in three months, he didn't shoot once. The entire republic is in a tizzy and yet and yet... why are we left entirely cold? Joachim Fest, Ralph Giordano, Rolf Hochhuth, Martin Walser, Walter Jens, Erich Loest, Dieter Wellershoff and Walter Kempowski all express their understanding, their consternation, their disappointment, even their nausea – none of them is under 75. A class reunion of old German intellectuals who feel chronically inclined or obliged to enlighten us on the same topic: Hitler and me.

Please, no more confessions! Are there no other topics? Where are the voices on the current political and moral issues? It's time for this country to finally liberate itself from the self-reflections of its onion-skinned Nazi discourse, for it to avert its gaze from its own navel and to the larger world. It's time for the lessons of history, preached a hundred times, to finally be applied to the politics of the 21st century before they only – recalling Walser – generate more blind aggression. It's shameful that within three days, the Grass affair has elicted more statements and morally-grounded positions from German writers and thinkers than the war in Northern Israel and southern Lebanon did in the 33 days prior.

All the while, the debate on the Middle East, conducted by few major voices, was accompanied by the bass tone of the German past, impossible to ignore. But like a broken record, it's stuck on "Never again Auschwitz" – widely acknowledged to be an empty phrase that can be filled with anything at all. Leftist German pacifists, who have designed their lives to be the anti-thesis of their Nazi fathers' or grandfathers', demonstrate (as in Berlin in July) "side by side" with Arabs yelling "death to the Jews"! But nobody sees a scandal in that.

We retreat to dismayed pacifism, which may be comfortable in German living rooms but is not, unfortunately, a political position. A political position would be to consider under what circumstances war cannot be avoided. What does Grass have to say on that? And all the others? The well-practiced perpetrator-victim reversal would have also been worth a challenge. The TV pictures, the headlines, the majority of the published opinion wanted to make us believe: Israel is so strong, so aggressive, there are always fewer deaths there, so it must be to blame, somehow. For historical reasons, we Germans are always on the side of the weak. In other words, on the side of the Lebanese civilians. The Israeli civilians are safe in their bunkers.

But where were the German intellectuals who would have said: we don't need Auschwitz to speak out? We are on Israel's side not because Nazi Germany murdered 6 million Jews but because Israel is a democratic state with enemies that want to destroy not only it but all democratic societies of the West? This is not about Jews versus Arabs but about democracy versus murderous fanaticism, enlightenment versus the Middle Ages, human and civil rights versus martyrs and suicide bombers. Let's talk about the terrorist attacks that were prevented in London, let's talk about our relationship to Islam, let's talk about the limits of liberality. This is about us and our future.

No, our old men don't have the sense and courage for that. They stick to their favourite topics. There was no list of celebrities for Israel, but there is now a list of celebrities who object to the Breker exhibition (which Grass, on the other hand, supports). Given these same old reflexes, same old debates and protagonists, there is no room in this country for youth. The elders who lived through the Nazi era distort the perspective with their endless moral flutter. That's the true Methusaleh conspiracy.

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This article originally appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Thursday August 17, 2006.

The authors are both Berlin-based writers. The most recent book by Eva Menasse (born 1970) is "Vienna", by Michael Kumpfmüller (born 1961), "Durst".

translation: nb
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