Günter Grass, Jörg Haider, Kurt Waldheim

Yes, I’m also sick and tired of the Grass saga, but it continues – in part because the octogenarian Nobel laureate seems to enjoy the spotlight. In response to Israel’s decision to declare him persona non grata, Grass has now published an op-ed comparing Israel’s conduct to the dictatorial regimes of Communist East Germany and junta-ruled Myanmar, since he had previously been banned by these two regimes.

However, Grass could gain a different perspective if he consulted Wikipedia’s List of people declared persona non grata. The chronological list features Grass at the very bottom; close to the top is Kurt Waldheim, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations and President of Austria, who was declared persona non grata in the U.S. and several other countries (Israel downgraded its diplomatic relations with Austria during Waldheim’s presidency) because he had been dishonest about his wartime service in the German army, which included assignments that raised suspicions about his knowledge of, or involvement in, war crimes. (An interesting summary of the relevant background can be found here.)

A bit further down the list, there is an entry noting that in 2000, Israel declared the far-right Austrian politician Jörg Haider persona non grata.

A BBC report from 2000 connects the cases of Waldheim and Haider. Under the headline “Israel’s hard line against Haider,” the BBC explained:

“Israel will be watching Austria carefully as the far-right Freedom Party joins a coalition government despite international warnings.

Israel had threatened to isolate Vienna politically if the party was allowed a share in power […] It is not the first time there has been tension between the two countries. Israel has criticised Austria in the past for not coming to terms with its role in the World War Two.

In 1986 Jerusalem withdrew its ambassador to Vienna when Kurt Waldheim, alleged to have been involved in Nazi persecution during the war, was elected as the country’s president.

Many Israelis feel the public support for the Freedom Party confirms that Austria has not come to terms with its Nazi past. And the Jewish State founded in the wake of the Holocaust believes it should lead the battle against right-wing radicalism in Europe.

Israel is heading the international campaign against Joerg Haider’s Freedom Party, with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak announcing he would recall his country’s ambassador to Vienna, Nathan Meron.

“We here in Israel, and I believe the whole of the Jewish people, will never be able to accept a kind of no-response or not tough enough response to the emergence of neo-Nazi figures and parties into the leadership of Western Europe,” Mr Barak said.

Israel also said it would refuse to issue a visa to Joerg Haider if he decided to visit the country.”

It is noteworthy that when Haider was killed in car crash in 2008, antisemitic sites immediately suspected a “Zionist Jew job.” Similarly, it shouldn’t be forgotten that in the case of Waldheim, the revelations about his wartime service “were rejected [in Austria] as undue influence and manipulation by Jewish organizations from abroad, sweeping Waldheim to an election victory on a mixture of misguided national pride and anti-Semitism.”

As anyone who has followed the recent critical commentary about Grass will know, there is plenty of reason to conclude that Grass’s place on a list featuring Waldheim and Haider is not entirely undeserved.* Moreover, it should not be overlooked that German citizens born before January 1, 1928, are required to apply for a visa to visit Israel, and when Interior Minister Eli Yishai declared Grass persona non grata in Israel, he invoked the relevant provisions by noting that Grass had served in the SS.

Last but not least, two quotes from bloggers who defended the decision to bar Grass from visiting Israel.

Eamonn McDonagh has argued:

“Though I can see that there might be some valid tactical objection to the decision to exclude Grass, on the grounds that it shifts the focus of the debate and makes him into some sort of victim, I can’t see why the government of Israel isn’t entirely justified in excluding from its territory a person who once participated, however marginally and at however young an age, in the attempt to exterminate European Jewry, and who has once more made it clear that he thinks Jews pose a special danger to humanity.”

Similarly, FresnoZionism argues that those who criticize the ban ignore that sometimes, it doesn’t really make sense to pretend that there can be a constructive debate:

“[Grass’s] freedom of expression is not being limited by the ban — he can say whatever he wants in Germany, or even Iran, or any other place — just not in Israel. And really, do we need ‘a free exchange of ideas’ like these? Sometimes an accusation is so absurd that even refuting it gives it a status it doesn’t deserve. […] We don’t have to take abuse, to pretend that disputation with antisemites is simply an ‘exchange of ideas.’”

* * *

* As a clarification, I should add that I mean this in the sense that all three symbolize Germany’s (and Europe’s) failure to overcome the resentments and hatreds of Nazism, and all three helped to revive them again. Recent polls show that more than 50 percent of Germans feel that Grass’s “poem” expressed entirely reasonable views.


An observation by Jay Adler of The Sad Red Earth highlights the problematic dynamics that has played out during the controversy about Grass’s poem:

“I have heard it said – better, I have read it in a tweet – that Gunther Grass could hardly have been expected, at 17, to resist recruitment into the Waffen SS. That odd, indirect defense of the sham poetry Grass did not write but typed up to attack Israel delivers an unexpected enlightenment: how a defense of the now usual calumny against Israel draws in, by slinking, slithering nexus, the casual rationalization of Nazism and its monstrous Holocaust. Thus the world falls, dizzyingly, back into the chasm of its amoral purgatory, fingers forever slipping from the precipice of its imagined ascent. The motive is to affirm what Grass says of Israel. It is played out in two movements. The first ratifies Grass’s judgment. The second, accordingly, seeks to restore his moral authority, by excusing the sin of his Nazism and his sixty-year silent deception in hiding it.”

5 responses to “Günter Grass, Jörg Haider, Kurt Waldheim

    • Thanks for your link, Paul – before I respond to your point, let me say that I greatly admire your drawings .
      But as you can probably imagine, I don’t at all agree with you re. Grass: what does it mean to celebrate a “poem” that really isn’t much of a poem just because it caused enormous controversy? Moreover, the controversy ensued not because of the artistic quality of Grass’s lines, but because of who had written it, and what his message meant in the context of efforts to come to terms with Germany’s Nazi past – of which Grass is a part, not least because he spent his life preaching to others (particularly those whose politics he opposed) about how important it was to face up to Germany’s Nazi past, while he was failing to do himself what he demanded with such a pretense of superior morality from others.

      But what I’m trying to say is perhaps best expressed here:

  1. This post is very welcome because it contextualizes the persona non grata decision which, to be honest, I thought was overkill and handed Israel-haters another cause celebre. My mind is changed. Thank you!

  2. A very good post, Petra.

    I am not sure whether banning Grass keeps him and his message in the news. If it does, then maybe it was a bad idea to ban him. I suspect, though, that all too many Europeans are interested in supporting anyone – even altering the meaning of what is said – with a message against Israel which would suggest that there is no down side to the banning.

    Take this from The Independent. The meaning of Grass’s “poem” is altered, leaving out the annihilitate Iran part entirely.

    Here, in the US, the entire Grass affair is not even background noise. He speaks a language that does not, so far as I can discern, resonate here.

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