Meet the Ambassador: Germany's Clemens von Goetze

“We have to stand for the existence and security of this country,” says Clemens von Goetze.

German Ambassador Clemens von Goetze (photo credit: GERMAN EMBASSY)
German Ambassador Clemens von Goetze
(photo credit: GERMAN EMBASSY)
Envoy Clemens von Goetze says it’s easy to be a diplomat in Israel, where people say what they think Last year, Israel and Germany celebrated 50 years of diplomatic relations, or what each calls their special relationship.
Special in this case refers to what 71 years ago, after World War II, would have defied imagination. Israel had not yet gained sovereignty; a third of the world’s Jews had been murdered by the Nazis or had died from illness or malnutrition resulting from Nazi oppression.
Germany was a reviled country whose merciless army had not only murdered millions of Jews but also tens of millions of homosexuals, gypsies, cripples, mentally challenged and others who did not conform to the Aryan ideal.
Who would have imagined in May 1945 that the phoenix would rise from the ashes of the Holocaust and that three years later there would be a State of Israel and the revival of the homeland of the Jewish people, and that relatively soon after statehood, Israel’s founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion would meet with West Germany’s first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, and negotiate a reparations agreement that continues in force to this day.
It is against the backdrop of the Holocaust that Israel and Germany developed their special relationship.
Will it ever be a normal relationship? The question is put to German Ambassador Clemens von Goetze in the course of an interview with The Jerusalem Post.
Von Goetze emphatically and unhesitatingly declares that it will not, because the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jews will always be part of German history no less than they will be part of Jewish history.
“It will never be normal as it is with other countries, because not only will Jews remember, but Germans will ask themselves how this became a country that perpetrated such horrible crimes. How did the country derail itself?” With an apology preceding the question, von Goetze is asked about what his father and grandfather did during WWII.
As it happens, his father was born in January 1933, the month in which the Nazis came to power, and was therefore still a child during the war; and his grandfather who was a judge was dismissed from his post because his (the judge’s) grandmother was Jewish.
There are signs of resentment among German youth who balk at having to indefinitely bear the responsibility for this dark chapter in their country’s history.
While aware of this von Goetze says that Germany has a moral obligation and responsibility for the Jewish people that was born out of the Shoah, and has a special responsibility for the personal well-being of Holocaust survivors, and for solidarity with Israel. “We have to stand for the existence and security of this country,” he asserts.
Nonetheless, surely the day will come when Germany decides that it’s enough.
“It will never be enough. There will always be a special relationship,” he declares.
Law was a traditional profession in von Goetze’s family, and as a student, he presumed that he would carve a career in some branch of it.
When he was at university, the law students had to do three years of internship in different places including abroad at German embassies.
He did an internship at the embassy in Washington, and liked it so much that he decided to break away from family tradition. “Very few people study law out of complete enthusiasm,” he remarks, but acknowledges that “law offers many opportunities.” Apparently diplomacy was one such opportunity. His legal background was useful in addressing diplomatic issues. History was always one of his favorite subjects, and he studied it in tandem with law, knowing fully well that the former could not be relied on for an income.
Prior to arriving in Israel as ambassador, von Goetze had been here many times accompanying presidents Horst Koehler, Christian Wulff and Joachim Gauck, and also in his capacity as head of the Africa, Asia, Latin America and Middle East desk at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin.
Those visits as part of a delegation were short – only two or three days, which was not really enough time in which to gain a broad perspective of Israel.
Actually living in the country has been a somewhat different experience. The ambassador had braced himself for antagonism, especially on the part of Holocaust survivors, and happily encountered none whatsoever, “not a single time.” It has been quite the opposite. People have been very friendly and he has been warmly welcomed into their homes, including the homes of German Holocaust survivors. Every encounter with a survivor is an emotional experience for von Goetze, “as the representative of a country that treated them so badly.” As far as he’s concerned, they have ample justification to treat him with hostility, but he surmises that cultural roots are stronger than emotions, and for German expatriates, he also represents a positive element of their past, the culture in which they were raised and which is imprinted on their psyches.
Even though the relationship between Israel and Germany is not normal, he says this does not exclude closeness and friendship.
A good indication of this he points out is the high level of exchange visits. When Chancellor Angela Merkel brought her cabinet to Israel in 2008, for a government to government meeting, it was the first time that Germany had held such a meeting outside Europe, says von Goetze, noting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been to Germany including several times over the past year, and that President Reuven Rivlin, who in 1965 demonstrated against the arrival in Israel of Germany’s first ambassador Rolf Pauls, last year visited Germany and proclaimed it to be among Israel’s best friends.
Germany is certainly Israel’s best trading partner in Europe.
Rivlin was the fifth Israeli president to visit Germany, so it was a little easier for him than it had been in 1987 for Chaim Herzog, who in April 1945, as an officer in the British Army, had been among the liberators of Bergen Belsen.
German dignitaries did not wait quite as long to come to Israel. The first was Willy Brandt who came as chancellor of West Germany in 1973, less than a year after the Munich massacre. It was an extremely difficult visit.
In the interim relations between Israeli and German leaders have become much smoother, and Israelis of German background are flocking to claim German citizenship.
Many have opted to live in Berlin, but von Goetze doubts that most will stay there for more than a couple of years.
For his part, he is enjoying his time in Israel. He loves classical music and the constant variety of it that is offered in Israel.
However the concert that moved him most was “Violins of Hope” with German and Israeli musicians playing works by German-Jewish composers on violins saved from the Holocaust and lovingly restored by Israeli violin maker Amnon Weinstein in memory of the instrumentalists who played them, and in memory of 400 of his relatives who were murdered.
As a history buff, von Goetze is surrounded by history on all sides and has to travel only a short distance to explore the country’s ancient sites. He’s also partial to Israeli cuisine which he finds to be an interesting mix of the best culinary traditions of Europe and the Middle East, yet to his palate distinctly Israeli.
He likes being invited to people’s homes on Jewish holy days so that he can experience them together with his hosts instead of merely acquiring theoretical knowledge about them.
Israel is a country in which it’s very easy to be a diplomat, he says, because people are very clear and open in their statements, so you know what they think. “It makes diplomatic life really easy when you don’t have to guess what your counterpart is thinking – and I like that.”
The Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference will take place on November 23 in Jerusalem.