Shifting points of reference?

Two days ago, Brad DeLong published an unfortunate post with an even more unfortunate title – “G?nter Grass minimizes the Holocaust” – in which he harshly criticised the German Nobel laureate G?nter Grass and even called him “Nazi scum”, an accusation he retracted later following intense criticism on his own blog as well as on others, including Crooked Timber – for statements he made in a radio address on German NDR radio a couple of days ago (“Freiheit nach B?rsenma?” – mp3 in German, read by himself, text in German (via DIE ZEIT), English translation) which was later translated and reprinted by the New York Times on May 7, the day before the 60th anniversary of VE-day.

While I don’t like most of G?nter Grass’ recent public “grumpy-old-nobel-laureate” statements including the one at hand (and, I’ve said so already), it is almost self-evidently bizarre to accuse him of sympathy for authoritarianism of any kind, just as the immediate partly angry reaction to Brad’s post indicates.

Yet what seems to have been overlooked so far is that the timing of the NYT op-ed is probably the original sin in this matter. While Brad’s post clearly illustrates a strange lack of verbal inhibition for someone of his standing given his apparent lack of important contextual knowledge, his reading of the article was most certainly influenced by the date on which it appeared. Of course it is almost natural to believe that a German author, writing in the NYT on May 7, would be mainly concerned with the era that ended on VE-day, not the one that began. Even taking into account that allusions and cultural contexts used in Grass’ speech must be lost in translation, had Grass been predominantly concerned with the Nazi dictatorship, not explicitly referring to the Holocaust would have mattered a lot more than it does with respect to the time thereafter. But Grass was mainly concerned with the latter.

In a sense, Brad probably made the same mistake the NYT editors made: They haven’t realized to which extent the current economic problems, and political narratives, are influencing the way Germany is remembering its past. For the first time that I can remember, Germany is not only looking back to the before 1945, not only comparing its presence to the Nazi-era, but also comparing it to misty-eyed memories times of the economic miracle, “les trentes glorieuses”, the “Modell Deutschland”.

There is a beginning new sense of a presence that is different from the post-war era, more so than at any point after 1989. It is enlightening in this respect to compare the remembrance speech of Richard v. Weizs?cker in 1985 with the one given by President K?hler last Sunday. There are only marginal differences, reflecting different generational approaches to the before May 8. But I don’t think I have ever heard a commemoration speech on May 8 reminding Germans how fast the achievements of the past can be lost – as opposed to the reminder to “never let it happen again”.

May 8 is a complicated and important watershed for Germany in so many ways that it can easily be applied in a number of discourses. What G?nter Grass did – and what Brad Delong probably could not see – was using the date to reflect about the time thereafter.

Of course, there will always be occasions and dates that will remain less ambiguous – as yesterday’s official opening of Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust memorial in Berlin. And I bet Grass was there, too.

14 thoughts on “Shifting points of reference?

  1. Nicely argued…

    But doesn’t Grass get his electrical juice from the era that ended in May 1945? To call the “power of capital, which sees mankind as nothing more than something which consumes and produces” a “new totalitarianism” and described it as “backed… by the world’s last remaining ideology”–the equivalences are implicit but very clear and very disturbing.

    And then there are the claims that “Parliament is no longer sovereign in its decisions. It is steered by the banks and multinational corporations…. Lately, perhaps too late, we have come to recognize that… Public Enemy No. 1, comes not from right-wing radicalism but rather, from the impotence of politics, which leaves citizens exposed and unprotected.” The claim is not that the Social Democratic Party has made a mistake in pushing Harz IV. The claim is that the duly-elected representatives of the people do not represent the people, and are in fact “Public Enemy No. 1.”

    These are, all of them, very ugly indeed.

  2. But doesn’t Grass get his electrical juice from the era that ended in May 1945?

    In this case? No, he doesn’t. This line of reasoning predates Bismarck.

  3. The piece was in The Guardian on May 7:,,1477276,00.html

    It’s called “The High Price of Freedom” (but a sub-editor will have chosen that). I haven’t compared the two English versions closely.

    Professor De Long, Grass is a known socialist and anti-fascist. Though Lea Rosh began the campaign for a Holocaust Memorial in Germany, in 1988, by 1989 it had “won support from a broad spectrum of public figures, including the likes of Willy Brandt, Gunter Grass and east Berlin novelist Christa Wolf” (Stan Persky). I don’t know whether Grass was present at the ceremony, but like Professor Schwarz, would expect so.

    The words you read as disturbingly right-wing I read as left-wing. I can see why Grass’s apparent demotion of the threat of the radical right disturbs you, and why you view it with distaste, but I suggest to you that, as Professor Schwartz says, the timing is the problem (a timing, I add, for which Grass must bear a responsibility too).

    A supporter of your first post admires your “moral intuition”. I think he has a point. But I think your moral instincts (I prefer that to “intuition”) have led you astray on this occasion, and I ask you to reconsider your characterization of Grass.

  4. What Grass refers to -if only in coded language- and what DeLong ignores is that Capital is the totalitarianism of desire. Grass cuts corners in his argument because he understands (or assumes) that everyone knows what he means, but also because like most liberals he doesn’t know how to argue against pleasure (and neither do ). But DeLong defends the blank stupidity of wealth as the ‘good’. His is the optimism of the American and the literary criticism of the accountant. Grass’ argument for human rather than economic values, written as a German in the language of a German, sends the vulgarian DeLong through the fucking roof. I trust Grass even when I disagree with him. When I hear the word DeLong I reach for my checkbook. (a joke the asshole wouldn’t even get.)

  5. Tobias is right in that a lot of the commentaries in various publications about the end of WWII have centered around post-war developments. This is indeed new.

    I have been reading a lot of the comments on various blogs about these discussions. I agree with most commentators that Brad is wrong on most of the issues he raises about Grass.

    However, I think deep down he is right on a central issue but he expressed this very poorly.

    If you look over the arguments why democracy is a good form of government, there are two basic lines of reasoning:

    – Democracy is good because it expresses the “will of the people” ( Rousseau is, AFAIK, an early example )
    – Democracy is good because it stops government from becoming a tiranny and generally limits government wrongdoing ( mostly Anglo-Saxon philosophers from the 17th century on)

    The first line of reasoning makes for fine Sunday speeches, but it sees Democracy in an idealistic fashion and basically identifies Democracy with free elections.
    The second line is less attractive and accepts a l?t of the messy compromises that happen in any practical democracy. It also provides the underpinning for division of powers etc. I think actually, it is the more robust underpinning for a democratic constitution. This applies, BTW, to teh German Grundgesetz which was based on this thinking, in light of the then-recent experience of Nazi rule.

    The first line does not rule out a “Tyranny of the majority” and “The will of the people” actually has been used to justify tyrannies from the French revolution onwards. But it is certainly not exclusive to the Nazis and somebody who uses the argument should be called that simply because of this argument.

    Grass’ way of arguing is based more on the first line of reasoning than on the second, and I think that this is a major reason why Brad takes issue with him.

    Still, I repeat, I thought Brad was over the top.

  6. Grass is clearly issuing a rallying call to the anti-globalisation / anti-capitalism crowd. He is one among many intellectuals that have done so in recent years, and like most of them he is in denial. Globalisation is a fact of life in the C21st – it is globalisation, in concert with the communications technology revolution, that brings people together, and that, to paraphrase the words of Professor Stephen Hawking, keeps us talking.

    Sozialmarktwirtschaft is under pressure today, and rightly so. It was perhaps a good model for Germany in the second half of the last century; in the C21st this model is clearly holding Germany back. Unfortunately politicians with an eye on the popular vote, backed up by rants from people like Grass with an eye on increased book sales, are trying to hold on to it as if it were some sacred object.

    The defeat of the British opt-out on the working time directive yesterday in the European Parliament is typical of this kind of mentality; one could go further and say it is indictative of an increasingly prescriptive and authoritarian tendency on the part of the Brussels clique ….. Whatever happened to unity through diversity? Clearly that is only OK so long as it is on their terms.

    Grass is old and in the way along with his nostalgia for the “generation of 68”, in much the same way as Chirac and Schroeder are in trying to hold on to a vision of the European Union that is no longer relevant in a larger EU that must compete in the global market of the C21st. I wouldn’t call Grass “crypto nazi scum” rather I would call him misguided and out of touch with the reality of modern economic life. Sadly there are today more than a few self appointed lobbyists like Grass about, not to mention politicians of a like mind in positions of power. The result may very well be a divided European Union, not only would that be a pity it would also be a step backwards.

  7. I rather agree with Peter’s contextualisation of this in terms of globalisation ‘and its discontents’, and a historic reference to the German debates of the 1960’s, where I think you can find the antecedents of what Grass is saying in terms of the then ‘extra parliamentary’ opposition.

    The ambivalence about parliamentary democracy which Brad detects is nothing new in postwar German politics, nor is it especially surprising that Grass should be airing this ambivalence.

    I think though that it is not the SPD which is public enemy no1 in Grass’s book, but rather what he would probably call the ‘Finanz Capital’ which, on his view, renders the politicians impotent and leaves ‘the people’ defenceless. Viz:

    “Parliament is no longer sovereign in its decisions. It is steered by the banks and multinational corporations – which are not subject to any democratic control”.

    None of this is especially new. What is new, and Tobias is certainly right to be drawing our attention to this, the resonance that these kind of arguments are now finding across Germany. Something important is happening.

    Finally, I still find this incredible:

    “We all are witnesses to the fact that production is being demolished worldwide, that so-called hostile and friendly takeovers are destroying thousands of jobs, that the mere announcement of measures like the dismissal of workers and employees makes share prices rise, and this is regarded unthinkingly as the price to be paid for “living in freedom””.

    Whatever happened to the ‘internationalism’ of the left here? Production is not being demolished worldwide. We are witnessing the historic rise out of poverty of hundreds of millions of people: in China, India, Brazil, Turkey etc. Production is not being demolished in Hungary, Poland and the Czech republic. Some West European societies are having to make uncomfortable adjustments in part due to changing demography, and in due to a long overdue transition from industrial to service economies. Where is Grass’s sense of proportion, sense of reality, and above all, where is his compassion for those who are less fortunate?

  8. (Parenthetically, the translation is also a bit shabby; precious little craft to it. Grass’ rhythms and sonorousness get chopped into short pieces. Plus they felt the need to do things like translate Dummkopf, which they rendered as “naive.” Who’s the dummkopf here? And if you had to translate the word, wouldn’t “idiot” or “fool” have been better? Ecchh.
    (Getting this right, since it’s in the second paragraph, might well have shaped the impression of people who don’t know much about Grass’ history. “Naive” is so much softer than Dummkopf that a reader who didn’t know much about Grass might well think he retained some of the belief in a German victory that he had as a seventeen-year-old. Translating the phrase as “I was a seventeen-year-old idiot” makes it much clearer where the author stands today.)

  9. “Where is Grass’s sense of proportion, sense of reality, and above all, where is his compassion for those who are less fortunate?”

    So, Grass does not agree with Hugh and Grass has no compassion for those less fortunate. Duh. I suggest there is more to be seen in India than just you see. I do not question your concern, so why do you sneer at Grass? When you have stood for compassion as long as Grass, I trust you will be dealt with more kindly.

  10. “so why do you sneer at Grass?”

    Just to make clear, I’m not sneering at anyone, and I’m not trying to offer a general appraisal of Gunter Grass either as a writer, or as often-time champion of those less fortunate than him.

    I am simply voicing my concern, and in a language that is somewhat more moderate than that which Brad has used, about where all this rhetoric is leading. Germany – which is relatively rich – is having a hard time. But parts of the world which has long been having a hard time (and I mention explicitly Eastern Europe since the inhabitants of EE were amongst the main losers of the war whose end we are commemorating these days) are doing better. Factories are being built, and work is arriving, and this is the part of the picture which Grass seems to miss.

    I think the kind of alarmism to be found in his article, and the disdain for the real qualities of parliamentary democracy which he demonstrates, are frankly dangerous, and whatsmore, offer no orientation for German society in confronting both the difficulties *and* the opportunities which the future offers.

  11. Re. Edward’s concerns.

    It is also worth remembering that some of the followers of the “generation of 68” that Grass holds so high spent much of the next decade terrorising Germany, Italy and France – Baader Meinhof, Red Brigade, Action Direct etc. That, at the extreme end is where it can all lead.

  12. @Brad: I very much appreciate it that you react in this comments. That in itself makes the points of reference shift in a difficult but most necessary direction.

    @Edward: I agree with you that in this era it would be most welcome if guys like Grass showed more sense of internationalism. But of course Grass himself is not the issue here. It is the extend of “resonance that these kind of arguments are now finding across Germany”.

    Here in the Netherlands we had several instances of managers almost doubling their income in the same timespan the workforce of the company was decreased with hundreds or thousands of workers.
    I don’t think the Netherlands is exceptional here.
    There is your resonance. It is national. Populists of every flavour can (and do) add a nasty kind of nationalism to it.

    Last remark before I start to write a more elaborate post on this subject on my own blog: the focus (imo) should be on the impotence of the political process not on “steering by the banks and multinationals”. A bank nor a multinational is a subject doing steering; certainly bankS and multinationalS are not.
    *Capitalism* or *Globalisation* not at all. These are just concepts; vague ones too.

  13. Peter J, the “generation of ’68” that Grass is referring to is Joschka Fischer, the Green Party leader, Foriegn Minister, and most popular politician in Germany.

    And Grass supports Hartz IV, he doesn’ think (as Brad says) that people who support it are totalitarians.

    So everything- literally every single solitary word- that Brad wrote is incorrect. Not wrong as a matter of opinion but factually, demonstrably, objectively incorrect. This professor gets a zero.

  14. I’m amazed how serious Grass is taken. There is no argument in his text, just old prejudices. Classical anti-capitalism, which might turn to extremist politics of the left or the right. G?nther Grass has no idea of market economy, how it works. He says what you can read in every pamphlet of Attac. Grass has never changed his ideas. On the other hand, he became very rich with the market economy.
    Germany needs more liberalism and less Grassism and M?nterferism. Those guys are just making the necessery change harder as he already is. Germany needs to adapt better to global economy. That is a simple fact, that is the challenge. All the other European countries adapt much better.

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