Israel and Germany’s Reason of State: Voluntas, Necessitas, Utilitas?

29 November 2016 /

While most European governments have changed their position towards Israel several times, German diplomats have reconfirmed their support of Israel repeatedly. The stumbling block for this mental state was laid down 64 years ago when Konrad Adenauer assumed responsibility for the crimes committed against Jewish people. Ever since, this ackowledgement of guilt has shaped the German-Israeli relationship.

Balancing Guilt and Realpolitik

Diplomatic relations between the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and Israel were officially established under Ludwig Erhard’s chancellorship, the second German chancellor in 1965. However, it was Konrad Adenauer who, the first, set the framework of the future relations by signing a Reparation agreement in 1952. In the latter, West Germany committed itself to pay compensation for the suffering of millions of Jewish people as well as stolen assets. Adenauer’s signature was by no means self-evident and he thus had to justify his action to the German parliament: “in the name of the German people untold crimes have been committed, which demand moral and material reparation (…) The federal government stands ready to contribute and realize (…) a material reparation, to ease the path towards psychological and spiritual adjustment of the endless suffering” (Adenauer 1951). It is widely debated whether Adenauer’s action was due to American pressure or decided on its own initiative. In any case, this recognition of guilt and the moral and the financial debt ensuing therefrom framed the standard relationships between the two States for decades (Dinner 2015).

Between silent acceptance and active support

Later on, the third chancellor Kiesinger revealed himself a particularly reliable partner. When the third Arab-Israeli war, also known as the six-day war, was at the point of eruption in 1967 Kiesinger unlike other countries’ representatives did not condemn the Jewish state (Pardo & Peters 2012). He maintained his position and didn’t criticize the result of the war although the Israeli victory entailed taking control of the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, West Bank, Old City of Jerusalem.

Kiesinger’s silence was followed by chancellor Brandt’s humble gesture towards the Jewish survivors and descendants of the Shoah in 1970. He sent out a very strong message of humility and penance, kneeling down before the Ghetto of Warsaw. The Warsaw Genuflection reflected, as he later explained, “the guilt and historical responsibility of the German people” and the burden of “the ineradicably of the murder of millions of Jews in Europe will determine the German relation to Israel and gives it its distinctive feature” (Brandt 1971).

Meanwhile, the reality pointed into a different direction. Germany as a Member States of the European Communities signed the Schuhman document. This document instigate the first common position towards the Middle East Conflict and was essentially a continuation of UN resolution 242, which responded to the situation resulting from the Six-day war. It demanded the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict”. Israel’s anger especially about Germany’s signature of this paper led to a diplomatic éclat. Brandt tried to play down the significance of the paper. Nethertheless, in the aftermath of the oil crisis (73’) an official declaration recognizing the Palestinian rights to exist was adopted. An undertaking that was not welcomed by Israel, considering that neither the Palestinians nor the Arabic countries recognized Israel’s right to exist.

Thus, it was no surprise that chancellor Schmidt had to straighten this situation. Yet, he was probably not the best candidate and Israeli Prime Minister Begin not the best partner for it. Begin was a very controversial prime minister. The primary founder Israel’s Ben-Gurion even compared him to Nazi leaders such as Hitler and Heydrich. Begin was not only the architect of the Zionist terror organization Irgun Tzwai Le’umi(involved in several massacres in Israel and Palestine), but also he planned a bomb attack against former chancellor Adenauer. Thus, not surprisingly Begin was hostile towards German-Israeli relations. Begin associated Schmidt primarily with the Wehrmacht, in which Schmidt had served. He called him a perfect loyal Nazi officer. He further accused the German people of being collectively responsible and guilty for the Shoah. Schmidt in turn was much less sympathetic to the Jewish State’s cause than his predecessors. He showed very little hesitation to visit Israel’s declared enemies and even considered weapon proliferation to Saudi Arabia. This was an absolute no-go for Israel. Quandaries increased. Under Schmidt and Begin the complexity of Israeli-German relations became obvious. While Germany remained committed to reparation, time passing by, elites started to feel less responsible for the past.

A new generation?

The first chancellor who was probably too young to be held responsible for the Shoah, was Helmut Kohl. During his first visit to Israel in 1983 he spoke of the: “mercy of the late birth”  (Der Spiegel 1983). It described the spirit of a new generation towards the Jewish State. This statement however caused much outrage in Israel, fearing that later generations will be liberated from the historical responsibility. The so-called “intellectual-moral turn” became the keyword in describing Kohl’s new politics (Neumayer 2016). When Gerhard Schröder became chancellor, he defused this statement: “at our house there is no one who refers to the “mercy of the late birth””. When the Israeli government requested defensive missiles, Schröder responded that if the Israeli government needs more safety, Germany was going to help, it being a corollary of the German moral and historical duty (Schröder 2002).

Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu with German Chancellor Angela Merkel Berlin C Photo Moshe Milner GPO
Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu with German Chancellor Angela Merkel Berlin
C Photo Moshe Milner GPO

A similar path was taken by Angela Merkel. She might even be the greatest outspoken supporter of the moral and historical responsibility towards the Jewish state. Almost seven years ago in March 2008, in a speech before the Israeli Parliament, she stated that Israel’s security was Germany’s reason of State. Hereby she reiterated the subsisting principle governing the German’s politics towards Israel: Germany will not take any steps which would endanger Israel’s security or damage their interests (Kaim 2015).

An ethical imperative?

The study of behaviors and choices of eight German chancellors raises questions. How is it possible that the same nation which committed a genocide against a certain people, completely makes a U-turn declaring the survival of the very same group as its “reason of State”? And further how stable can such support be when based on guilt?

At first, due to external pressure a common feeling of guilt emerged in Germany. The US initiated a denazification program and started the Nuremberg trials. The allies tried to put opponents to the former system to leading positions in the country. Their informal behaviors vis-à-vis Germany and how its population should repent for war crimes impacted the future relations between the latter and Israel.

A further element to be taken into consideration is the dynamics of the Nazi totalitarian system itself. It didn’t allow for any opposition or alternative views. Obviously, not all Germans where fanatically convinced of race ideology or of the idea that Jews are the enemy of the people. Conversely, the great majority of the people weren’t opponents to governemental policy in this area either. Many could have been characterized as opportunists or merely “not-concerned”, having little regard for principles or potential adverse consequences on others’ life as long as they were safe. Therefore, one could argue that the ethical imperative decribed previously was mostly a consequence of the defeat and presence or occupation of Germany after the war. A normative expectation seems to have emerged, based on the feeling of shame and guilt. However, when hypothesizing about the future a different picture could be drawn. The upcoming generations will most probably feel less and less responsible for the crimes committed by their ancestors. The unconditional support already visibly started to water down during the Gaza war in 2008/09. When Merkel told Israeli Prime Minister Elmut Olmert that Israel’s reaction was justified, she gave rise to a strong wave of criticism in the Germa, Parliament (Weiland 2008). Ever since criticisms vis-à-vis Israel and its controversial policy intensified and all the more since Netanyahu became the Israeli Prime Minister.  Hence, the support based on a normative expectation is on the brink of shifting.

On the one hand thus, the German Wiedergutmachungspolitik notion (i.e. compensation policy) has been, for decades, the Leitmotiv for German politics vis-à-vis Isreal. It entails both the ethical and moral responsibility for WW2 and especially the debt towards the Jewish people and the Jewish State. The Italian political scientist Voltolini summarized it as a “sense of guilt”, describing something that has become a fundamental part of Germany’s position (Voltolini 2012). This sense of guilt, however, will probably not linger and prevail forever. Current and future generations are increasingly less inclined to withhold their critical opinion vis-à-vis some Isreali policies only on grounds that they bear an historical responsibility.

Camille Nessel is a second years MA student at the IEE

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