The civilizing mission of the white man

The recent controversy around Günter Grass’s criticisms of Germany's arms trade with Israel is an interesting post-script to the Namibian genocide controversy.

Hamid Dabashi, the Iranian writer and academic.

The Nobel prize-winning author has written a poem – called ‘What needs to be said’ – which argues that historical guilt is the reason for the sale of arms to Israel, a monstrous form of reparation for the Nazi genocide. As with the government’s response to Namibian claims for an official acknowledgment of the genocide, this controversy suggests Germany’s post-war guilt is being channeled in the wrong direction. The poem has elicited a spectrum of furious responses, from a ban on travel to Israel (which you can’t imagine will dismay the elderly poet), to condemnations within his own country, and seems to have opened up new debates around the responsibilities of post-imperial countries.

The fact that Grass only recently revealed that he had been conscripted into a youth section of the Waffen-SS during World War II makes the Israeli response to this gesture especially acute. The Economist calls the poem a ‘gaffe’, and runs with a quote from Marcel Reich-Ranicki, an eminent Polish-German critic, describing the poem as ‘disgusting’. Reich-Ranicki is ‘not even sure whether a text without rhyme or rhythm can be considered a poem.’

For others, however, the idea that this poem might want to make the reader disgusted by Germany’s complicity with Israeli war crimes is more appealing. In an impassioned opinion piece for Al Jazeera, Hamid Dabashi, Iranian professor of comparative literature at Columbia, describes the ‘daring imagination of Günter Grass’ poem – a heroically tragic act precisely because the poet is implicated in the moral outrage of his own poem’.

Dabashi reads the German arms trade with Israel as the misguided expression of national guilt, and places the controversy within a post-colonial politics:

It was Aimé Césaire who in his Discourse sur le colonialisme/Discourse on Colonialism (1955) argued that the Jewish Holocaust was not an aberration in European history. Rather, Europeans actually perpetrated similar crimes against humanity on the colonized world at large.

With German atrocities during the Holocaust, Europeans tasted a concentrated dose of the structural violence they had perpetrated upon the world at large. Colonialism and the Holocaust were thus the two sides of the same coin: the aggressive transmutation of defenceless human beings into instruments of power – into disposable “things”. Long before the Jewish Holocaust, the world Europeans had conquered and colonized was the testing ground of that barbaric violence they had termed the “civilizing mission of the white man”.

This argument depends on an essentialist understanding of who Europeans are, an generalisation not even justified by its polemical intent. That phrase describing the Nazi genocide, “Europeans tasted a concentrated dose,” suggests a strange relish at the thought. And it is hardly accurate to suggest that those Europeans who ‘tasted’ genocide were the same that had perpetrated it in the colonies.

Dabashi argues that ‘Israel is a European colonial settlement, the last astonishingly barefaced remnant of European colonialism in a world that calls itself “post-colonial”.’ But this statement merely repeats the Jewish exceptionalism he has enlisted Césaire to critique, suggesting that Israel is the last remnant of colonialism forgets the rest. The Namibian genocide controversy underlines the dangers of this position.

Surely the most important part of Grass’s poem is not its criticisms of Israel – something all non-Zionists in the world can merrily participate in – but the attack on his own government.

Grass’s criticisms aren’t an excuse to savor the bitter taste in someone else’s mouth, but a challenge to the countries who supply Israel with the military technologies that fuel and fortify its abuses. The poem ends:

Only this way are all, the Israelis and Palestinians
Even more, all people, that in this
Region occupied by mania
Live cheek by jowl among enemies
In the end also to help us.

The English translation of the poem quoted in Dabashi’s article makes these lines especially awkward, so that the last two words stand out like a plea: ‘help us’.

Guilt is not, as Dabashi suggests, ‘ennobling’ but the way we learn to know the world as infants; a means by which modern Germany has tried to distinguish itself from its past, and a provocation to better knowledge of the world which is of continuing importance to post-colonial politics.

Further Reading

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The strange non-death of Bantustans

That South African political parties across the spectrum were quick to venerate the politician and Zulu prince Mangosutho Buthelezi, who died last week, demonstrates that the country is still attached to Bantustan ideology.

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Sudan’s lying witches

Since 2019, two separate political processes developed simultaneously in Sudan: one at the state level and the other at the grassroots. Today’s war originates in the predominance of the former over the latter.