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.