Monday, August 31, 2015

Philip Oltermann - Günter Grass criticises refugee treatment from beyond the grave

For much of his lifetime, he was the personification of Germany’s moral conscience, with literary interventions on anything from postwar guilt to the Israel-Palestine debate. And it appears that even his death in April this year hasn’t dimmed Günter Grass’s determination to provoke debate.

In his last ever book, published in Germany at the end of last week, the Nobel prize-winning novelist and poet issues a beyond-the-grave warning about rising vitriol towards refugees. One of the poems in Vonne Endlichkait (On Finiteness) laments that Germans who were once refugees themselves now displayed the same level of intolerance towards refugees that they themselves once encountered.

Millions of Germans displaced from east-central Europe after the end of the second world war, Grass writes in the poem entitled Xenophobic, were met with cries of: “Go back to where you came from!” when they tried to settle in other parts of Germany. “But they stayed,” the author continues, and applied the same rejection to foreigners who came from far further afield.

The poem concludes on a hopeful note, suggesting that there will be a point where those “who have always been natives” will come to recognise their own strangeness in others. With uncanny timing, Grass’s posthumous work was published in the same week as Germany has seen a fraught debate on whether refugees from north Africa and the Balkans shouldn’t be seen in the same category as “native German” refugees.

In a talkshow last Thursday, prominent columnist and blogger Sascha Lobo had suggested referring to refugees (Flüchtlinge) as “displaced people” (Vertriebene) instead. One of the other members of the panel, Bavarian interior minister Joachim Herrmann, described Lobo’s proposal as “an affront”. 
Germany has seen a spate of arson attacks on refugee shelters this year. In the 12-month period to June this year, the country has received 296,710 applications for asylum, more than any other EU member state.

But the refugee crisis is not the only political subject Grass tackles in his final collection of poems and prose sketches, most of them illustrated with the author’s own drawings. Mutti is an angry attack on Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, who “says nothing with a lot of words” and is trapped by profit-seeking lobbyists who “blackmail her, mafia-like”.

Grass, an active supporter of the Social Democrats in his lifetime, bemoans his party entering a coalition with Merkel’s Christian Democrats. He writes: “She can do it with everyone, until they are milked dry/ and hang creased and limply over a clothes hanger.”

In On Monetary Transactions, he casts a critical eye on “financial jugglers suffering from addiction to profit”, but also on public intellectuals rushing to pronounce a post-monetary era, in which “conkers” and “seashells” take the place of hard cash.

While Pope Francis moralises about the end of money, Grass wryly notes, the debt mountain is growing by the hour, “some day in November it burst through the cloud ceiling”.
In another short text Grass laments that the internet has alienated people from problems in the real world. He writes: “The bombs that go off daily in Iraq and the corpses lined up underneath sheets are only pretend dead and copies of real computer games; the crime scene that is Gaza merely a newspaper hoax that raises a laugh among billions of users, another shitstorm.”

In the eyes of many Germans, Grass’s status as the moral conscience of the nation was undermined by his 2006 admission that he had as a teenager been a member of the Waffen SS, the armed wing of the Nazi party’s paramilitary force. If Vonne Endlichkait has largely gained positive reviews so far, it is also because the political moralising is offset by more personal reflections on mortality.

There is a poem about his struggles with a hearing aid, reflections on the sound of his own cough and a prose piece on how Grass scares his grandchildren with his last remaining real tooth, illustrated with a scarecrow self-portrait. In one frank passage, the writer turns his trademark pipe into a symbol for impotence in old age, writing: “I go about my business with a stuffed pipe but without matches. In other words: my virility, the old busybody, has given up the ghost. Only lust is still sticking around, or pretends to be.”