Strained relations?

Prof. Carole Fink, a Jewish New Yorker and researcher on German history shines some light on a long and sometimes tense relationship between Germany and Israel.

Carole Fink (photo credit: Courtesy)
Carole Fink
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Prof. Carole Fink is a researcher from Ohio State University, and is the Senior Fulbright Scholar at the Haifa Center for German and European Studies at the University of Haifa. ‘The Jerusalem Post’ spoke to her to gain an understanding of the way in which Germany has related to Israel during the various incarnations of the countries’ bi-lateral relationship since the end of the Second World War.
Germany is currently considered one of Israel’s strongest allies in the European Union and, while it currently pursues a policy of even-handedness that has been an irritant to many Jews descended from Holocaust survivors, it has contributed to Israel’s defense, including building and subsidizing the IDF’s submarine fleet, which many observers believe will prove crucial in any conflict with a nuclear Iran.
Can you tell us about Germany’s orientation toward Israel prior to the Ostpolitik? What’s interesting is that right after the war there was silence.
Both sides were licking their wounds, were tending to the catastrophes that they had just undergone. The end of this came in 1952 when, for all kinds of complicated reasons, West Germany and Israel signed the Reparations Agreement in Luxembourg.
What was the reaction in Israel to this? The biggest riots. Neither side was keen on this agreement.
Israel was staggering under the costs of integrating all of these people who were coming in from the camps and also from the Arab world, and they had gone to the allies for help and they had been turned down. Instead, the US said, “turn to the Germans.”
And there was pressure on the Germans to make good in terms of restitution.
There were very difficult negotiations between the two countries, which had no relationship and no interest in a relationship.
It was a very complicated agreement that went on through 1965 that involved not only payments to Holocaust survivors but also payments to the State of Israel. It barely got through both parliaments.
[Herut Party leader Menachem] Begin started riots outside the Knesset and [Konrad] Adnauer, the chancellor of Germany, also had a very rough time. He had to get the German socialists to vote for it because his own party was against it.
But this agreement somewhat laid the basis for the initial relationship between the two countries. Some people talk about a “golden period” when Adnauer and Ben-Gurion were in office, but in fact those years were far more gray than gold.
There were a lot of unpleasant incidents. There were German rocket scientists who went to Egypt in the late ’50s, there were desecrations of Jewish graves in West Germany and there was the Eichmann trial. But by the beginning of the ’60s, things got a bit warmer.
Young Germans came to Israel and worked on kibbutzim.
There were very close relations between labor unions and even between German protestant churches and Israel, but it was still a kind of top-down relationship and it was fairly formal.
The people in the German foreign ministry, for instance, were old Middle Eastern hands from the Third Reich and they had their own views about what should and should not be happening in the Middle East.
Israeli passports allowed one to go almost anywhere in the world but not to Germany. When Volkswagen was introduced here, there was apparently a controversial ad and a radio announcer refused to read it.
In the late’50s, and early ’60s for a short period – and the US was very involved in this – Germany began to supply Israel with arms. That’s a somewhat complicated story.
When this was discovered it caused a huge uproar. The Germans backed off because they were terrified of angering the Arabs. They were becoming a major consumer of oil and in 1965 a decision was made by Adenauer’s successor, Ludwig Earhart, to drop the arms delivery but to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel. Before then, there were no ambassadors, there were no formal relations.
The Germans sacrificed relations with 10 Arab countries as they broke relations with the Bonn government.
This was serious.
From the German perspective, what they really needed to do at this point, was to have normal relations with Israel.
The relationship was asymmetrical. West Germany by the 1960s was the largest industrial exporter in the world, it was in NATO, it was under the American nuclear shield, it had half a million American troops there protecting them against the Soviets. Israel was still a tiny country and, in the mid ’60s, a relatively poor country.
And then there was the burden of the past – which hung heavy on both sides.
Many descendants of Holocaust survivors were raised to see the Germans as nothing but “deutsche Schweinehund,” as worthless barbarians.
Exactly. There is the memoir by Amos Oz where he talked about the first time in his life when he went on a train that turned out to be German-made. He panicked because somehow, in the consciousness of many Jews, Germans, trains, boxcars – it’s part of our nightmare world.
In the panic leading up to the June 1967 war – and this is the period I’m working on – there was a great deal of fear, here, in the US, in Europe, over the potential annihilation of Israel.
And there was a tremendous outpouring of support.
The entire German society mobilized.
But, and this is of course one of those moments in history, five days before the war a German student was killed during a demonstration against the visit of the Shah of Iran. Young Germans, particularly of the German Left, had become increasingly mobilized against the American war in Vietnam, which really struck the Germans very hard. The US was a country that had been tutoring them for 20 years about democracy and peace and suddenly it was dropping napalm on a tiny thirdworld country.
The German peace movement and anti-war and anticolonial movements mobilized. Although Israel’s victory in 1967 was welcomed by certain elements, it was rejected by others.
The German Right hated Israel. The neo-Nazis denounced the Israelis, but there was also the German Left, the student movement and the radicals. This would be where Günter Grass came from.
Although he was pretty pro-Israel in 1967 – at least on the surface.
Can we say that he was pro-Israel? Isn’t he a veteran of the Waffen-SS? He was a pretty gung-ho nationalist, yes, and at 17 he joined the Waffen-SS.
In ’59, Günter Grass became famous because he wrote a book that became the idol of the ’60s generation. It seemed like it was a book that exposed to the Germans the horrors of the war and the after-war. It was a book for the young generation whose parents weren’t talking to them about what had happened.
Remember, 10 million Germans were Nazis, so that’s a lot of people who were in the party. Probably every second German in the 1960s had a Nazi parent.
So ’67 is a sort of lightening rod in a way because in the case of Germans looking at Israel, David had suddenly become Goliath.
Was there an element of anti-Semitism inherent in the changing perception of Israel in Germany in 1967? A little bit. Few know this, but in 1967 the Arabs, defeated, initiated an oil embargo that lasted about a month and the Germans really got scared since they felt it would threaten their economy, especially at a time when the first economic slowdown of the whole postwar period occurred.
The world had been expanding from ’45 to ’65 because there was so much to rebuild, but by 1965 there was a slowdown. Some of it because the Americans and Russians were spending too much money on militarism and weapons, so Germans in 1966 to ’67 had their first little bout of unemployment. And then came the oil thing and suddenly they realize that the Middle East is a very dangerous place. The Soviet Union was messing around there.
It was dangerous because of oil and it was dangerous because they thought a third world war might start there.
Germans became divided in their view toward Israel.
There were some Germans who said: look, it is our eternal responsibility to protect Israel, that’s it. Then there were Germans who said: yes, it is our duty to protect Israel, but there are other victims as well.
The Palestinian Arabs? In 1967, the Palestinians, were a big loser in the war.
And people like [German chancellor] Willy Brandt, who himself had been an exile, had a certain amount of sympathy.
There were some Germans who thought that the Palestinians’ plight was partially their fault. Some Germans were afraid of the Palestinians. In the late 1960s and 70s there was Palestinian terrorism. There was the horror at the Munich Olympics, which for the Germans was a complete nightmare. They were totally unprepared for this. And humiliated.
And then of course there were Germans who just didn’t like Jews. For them, Israel was a very big problem.
The relationship got even pricklier in 1973 because this was a war that again threatened to escalate into something very serious. The United States and the Soviet Union had a kind of a face-off and the Arabs did use the oil weapon and practically crippled the Western economy.
Europe was growing and Germany was now a member of the European Union. The Germans really jumped into Europe and took a more European, what they would call even-handed, view that Israel had to leave the occupied territories.
Israel saw this as a betrayal? Absolutely. On the one hand America was indispensable in terms of helping Israel, but on the other hand [US secretary of state Henry] Kissinger was pretty bullying in his behavior. The Germans showed themselves in ’73 to ’74 as deeply intent on being even-handed, or what they would say, having a normal relationship of a special character.
And in the 1970s, Germany, which had good relations with the Soviet Union, and which totally annoyed Israel, joined the UN and became one of the first countries through which the Palestinians had representation.
Germany sort of lost its innocence. It was now out there in the world voting and showing some muscle.
The big crisis, of course, came in 1982 with the Lebanon War where the Europeans were outspoken in their opposition to the war and there was a very cool relationship between the German chancellor and prime minister Menachem Begin.
Through all of this, there were constant reminders to the Germans in each generation, which apparently had a great impact. But then this was matched by the fact that the Germans occupied a growing place in the world and their desiderata were different from Israel’s. The Germans wanted reunification. The Germans wanted economic power and security and in the 1980s there were again some prickly moments.
There was the time when president Ronald Reagan went to Bitburg, and there was the whole to-do over German reunification in 1990 because it wasn’t just the Poles and the French who were worried over this but the Israelis too.
It was a complicated time for the Germans since 2001.
There have been new governments, [Gerhard] Schroeder and now [Angela] Merkel. The people who rule Germany now are so far away from the Holocaust. Germany is now the most powerful country in the European Union, they make all the economic calls.
Europe has very different interests in the Middle East than either the US or Israel. Now the problem is that Europe isn’t united.
Germany is obviously not scared to call Israel to task over something it doesn’t approve. Many Israelis wonder why Germany doesn’t do more to condemn human rights violations by the PA. Does this evenhandedness cause the Germans to sometimes veer into anti-Israel behavior? I cannot speak for the Germans. But my take on the German perspective is that there is a substantial asymmetry between Israeli power and what the Palestinians come to the table with.
From the German perspective, it’s a disparate kind of thing. I believe the Germans feel responsibility for the Palestinians. Many Germans have absorbed this idea that in the same way they are responsible via the Holocaust for the state of Israel, they are responsible for the Palestinian suffering.
For Germans it’s difficult for them to think of being even-handed when the power is this different.
The Germans don’t criticize human rights violations in China because a huge amount of their trade goes to China.
There is a lot of suffering in the world, some Germans say, but peace is more important to us. They don’t see themselves as so morally righteous that they are able to dictate what other governments should be doing.
In the case of the Germans and Israelis, since 1967 and certainly since 1973, the German position has been that Israel needs to leave the occupied territories and establish a Palestinian state. And its not just Germany’s policy, its Europe’s policy.
What is the future of the ongoing relationship? You have said that some Germans are somewhat upset at the continuing guilt over the Holocaust that is a feature of their culture and that contributes to the evolving bi-lateral relationship and perceptions of Israel.
Germany is considered one of Israel’s strongest allies in Europe, but will relations stay cordial in the future? I’m an optimist by nature. I think that there are so many areas still to develop. I think that on the cultural level there are simply all kinds of ways [to cooperate]. There are now so many Israelis living in Berlin who have much to contribute.
I think that there will be expanded ties on the political level and I would like to see more of that, more consultation and more efforts at understanding. I think both sides have a great need to talk to each other.