On a visit to Israel in 2008, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke before the Knesset. “The historical responsibility for Israel’s security is part of Germany’s raison d’être,” she said. During her most recent visit, in February, on which she was accompanied by nearly her entire cabinet, Merkel was awarded Israel’s highest civilian honor for “standing by Israel” and fighting against anti-Semitism and racism. It was an interesting ceremony that suggested a dismissal of Holocaust guilt. At least, for a few photo-ops.
Earlier that day, the Israeli and German governments held their 5th annual joint cabinet session, at which they launched preparations for the 50th anniversary celebrations of Germany-Israel relations, in 2015.
It was May 12, 1965 when Chancellor Ludwig Erhard and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol established relations between Israel and West Germany. Fourteen years prior to that, on September 27, 1951, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer confessed guilt and claimed responsibility on behalf of the German people for the crimes of National Socialism, as well as recognizing Germany’s fundamental responsibility to Israel and the Jewish people.
Today, Israel is one of the countries most closely connected to Germany on an economic, cultural and political level. Israel is one of Germany’s most important trading partners in the Middle East. Conversely, Germany is Israel’s second biggest trading partner after the United States.
In talks leading up to Merkel’s recent visit, the two cabinets discussed further expansion of contacts between their respective civil societies, and cooperation in research, education and development. Another agreement will provide German consular services to Israelis traveling to countries with no diplomatic ties with Israel.
At a joint press conference with Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Chancellor expressed her support of a two-state solution for the Palestine-Israel conflict; she also stated that a boycott of Israel would not advance peace prospects. Netanyahu stressed that the goal of these annual meetings is to bring an already close and strong relationship “to even higher levels of closeness and strength,” and also expressed appreciation for their personal friendship.
In 2000, then-President Johannes Rau was the first German politician who held a speech before the Knesset in German and begged the Jewish people for forgiveness for the crimes committed by the Nazis. The fact that Rau spoke in German was itself objected to by a number of members of parliament, who called it “the language of the Nazis.” Yet, the speaker of the Knesset, Avraham Burg, gave his authorization because “Rau has been known for years as a best friend of Israel.”
Although this image of a warm friendship between the two states, and Germany’s unconditional solidarity, is held up at every opportunity, when it comes to current political issues, the tone changes abruptly. German politicians do not omit criticism of Israeli policies when disagreeing with developments and decisions made in Jerusalem. Critics in Germany aren’t worried about this. After all, friends are allowed to criticize each other.
Following the exchange of pleasantries, Merkel returned to her list of criticisms; she openly rejected Israel’s demand that Iran entirely stops its uranium enrichment. Equally, she repeated her call for an end to the settlements issue. When President Joachim Gauck spoke at the Presidential Palace in Jerusalem in May 2012, he surprised the public by relativizing Merkel’s 2008 statement, saying that “advocacy for Israel’s security and right to exist is a defining part of German policy.” He said this before reiterating his low opinion of Israel’s settlement policies.
In February 2011, the German Minister of Transportation, Peter Ramsauer, got involved when a subsidiary of state enterprise Deutsche Bahn announced its involvement in a fast train project between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Ramsauer pointed out that “in terms of foreign policy, the Israeli state railroad project, crossing occupied territory, is a problematic venture and a potential violation of international law, touching on questions of status.” As a result, Deutsche Bahn ended its involvement in the project.
Broadly, attitudes towards Israel remain controversial in Germany. On the one hand, many Germans feel that they cannot criticize Israel at all, as it will be interpreted as anti-Semitic. Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt once reckoned that this “regrettably” prevents all forms of positive and “legitimate” criticism.
This reticence also happens to suffocates the criticism that does take place. European Parliament President Martin Schulz caused a scandal in the Knesset in February, when commenting on unequal access to water for Palestinians and Israelis in the occupied West Bank. In a post on his Facebook page, Israeli economics minister Naftali Bennet, leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party, requested that Prime Minister Netanyahu correct Schulz’s “lies,” and said that he “will not accept an untrue sermon on morality directed at Israel in Israel’s parliament. Definitely not in German.”
Here lies the German dilemma: often, contemporary foreign politics is confused with the politics of memory. The Third Reich, and German attempts to come to terms with it, as well as anti-Semitism, takes up a large part of many discussions related to Israel, even when it is unrelated. The Holocaust plays a role in virtually every interaction between Germany and Israel. On the German side, this fosters a guilt complex, which ironically rejects taking responsibility for realities in Israeli politics.
In an editorial in Die Welt, Clemens Wergin describes the situation as the following: “Because of a guilt complex that still has not been tackled, it seems that there is still an urgent need in the German society to reject historic guilt by making the Israelis out to be the criminals.” Wolf Biermann, a German singer-songwriter, whose father was killed in Auschwitz as both a Jew and follower of the communist resistance, evaluated the delicate relationship between Germany and Israel in similar terms in 2012:
“The two countries are completely different but “chained together by the Shoah”; this is for me a rule of thumb: Since the Second World War the Germans never want to be the perpetrators again. […] The Jews want to be anything but the victims again.”
Regarding German media, former editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel, Stefan Aust, has observed that the subject of Israel has been treated very differently in comparison to other subjects. It is impossible to think that it could be treated “neutrally.” In the light of Germany’s past, Israeli politics “hits the center of the German soul and German guilt.”
The public confession of German guilt by Chancellor Adenauer in 1951 did not meet general acceptance in the West German public. According to a survey by the Allensbacher institute for opinion research in 1952, 44% of West Germans considered reparation payments to be unnecessary. Only 11% were in favor. Even parts of the government coalition argued that Israel was not entitled to reparations, simply because it had not existed during the Nazi regime.
Twenty years after the end of the war, diplomatic relations were established. In the following decades, West Germany’s heads of state were desperately trying to demonstrate “normality” between the two states.
By the end of the 1960s, the atmosphere in West Germany became more relaxed. The Adolf Eichmann trial did not only make the whole world aware of the extent of the German guilt, it also made the systematic murder of millions of Jews subject of public discussion in Germany. This contributed to a new sort of understanding between Germany and Israel. It reached its peak during the Six Day War, when large parts of West German society sympathized with the Jewish state, which they saw as having its very existence threatened by neighboring Arab countries.
In the 1970s, West Germany openly strove for friendly relations, and for the first time, a West German foreign minister Walter Scheel (1971) and Chancellor Willy Brandt (1973) visited Israel. Brandt reduced German-Israeli relations to the diplomatically simple formula of “our normal relations are of a very special character.” With this tactic, Brandt did not exactly preach to the converted. On the contrary, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir read her visitors the so-called riot act.
The Yom Kippur War later that year put such attempts at normalization to the test, because of West Germany’s negative attitude towards US arms supplies for Israel. As a direct result, Germany’s relationship with Israel became less sycophantic.
The next affront came when in 1974, under the newly elected Chancellor Schmidt, when West Germany became the first Western European country to demand the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, followed by the sale of Leopard II tanks to Saudi Arabia in 1980. Against the backdrop of international and domestic protests, though, the Federal Government ultimately backed off from the tank deal in spring 1982.
German-Israeli relations reached their lowest point in early 1981 when Schmidt, on a visit in Saudi Arabia, listed the various victims of the Nazi regime but did not mention Jews. He further enraged Prime Minister Menahem Begin by speaking of the “moral claims to self-determination of the Palestinian people,” but not of the Jewish people.
West German Chancellors went on to spark one uproar after the other. Schmidt’s successor Helmut Kohl, elected in 1982, stated the now infamous “mercy of late birth” quote when visiting Israel in 1984. The line, by which he meant that he was born too late to have responsibility for the Nazis, gave the impression that German politics were trying to shed their responsibility for the burden of Germany’s past. This new mentality of “drawing a line” when it comes to historical memory has since found a consensus among both left and right-wing parties.
What became apparent in the 1980s, was that West Germany found itself in a dilemma caused by the triangle of itself, Israel, and Palestine. This political arrangement meant that every strategic decision seemed to cause offense. After initial difficulties, Kohl revised his stance on Israeli policies, and promoted the revival of half and non-governmental contacts that had ebbed away during Schmidt’s rule. Reliable bilateral cooperation emerged from this.
By the time of the First Intifada, though, Germany’s ties with Arab countries became a bit looser due to the explosive nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which was further isolating Israel. This has remained the case, despite the Gulf War, which was the last big test of bilateral relations due to German weapons sales to Saddam Hussein.
It remains to be seen how these matters will evolve in the future. It is certainly the case that since 1990, Germany has become a major arms exporter to Israel, supplying it with more than a billion euros worth of weapons between 1995 and 2005. However, it is also the case that Kohl’s “mercy of late birth” line is more relevant than ever, especially to a new generation of Germans who were born after reunification.
For better or worse, new generations of German politicians are rising to the forefront with increasingly less first-hand memory and interaction with the Holocaust. The overall relationship is bound to change as a result of this, perhaps for the better, considering how crucial German support is for an end to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories.