Sunday, February 27, 2011

Unlikely BFFs: West Germany and Israel

I've become utterly fascinated (as I often do with academic topics) with the "special" German-Israeli relationship that came about in the wake of World War II and the Shoah, as I mentioned in yesterday's post. I had no idea that there was such a relationship, and when I heard about it and started reading about it, the relationship seemed absurd. After all, Germany was responsible for the destruction of so much of world Jewry. How, so soon after the war ended, could Israel develop a mutually beneficial relationship with a country that had acted, well, evil?

German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer
Before World War II was even over, American Jewish organizations were calling for reparations from Germany to the Jewish people (Nahum Goldmann of the WJC was the first). There was no necessarily formal effort, and as the war came to a close, the U.S. wanted no part of an endorsement or push for Germany to pass funds to Israel as it became a state in 1948. The situation for West Germany (as the state was split into Communist East and Democratic West) was one that sought expiation of guilt, but also the rehabilitation of the state's reputation in the West following the tragedies of WW II. For Israel, by 1950, the state was in a dire situation: unemployment was high, there were bread lines, they were recovering still from the 1948 war, and they needed financial support and arms. And in the U.S.? Anti-German sentiments ran rampant among the Jewish and Jewish Zionist communities. How quickly that changed ...

For West Germany, there was one country and one people that could rebuild their reputation and for Israel, there was one country that owed them -- big time. Thus enters the "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" situation that defined Israel-West Germany relations.

(As an interesting aside ... David Ben-Gurion, in the autumn of 1950 actually wanted to retroactively declare war against West Germany for their inability to step up to the idea of reparations. Luckily, his foreign ministry said "no way, Jose.")

In 1951, the Israeli government sent a letter to the four occupying powers in Germany demanding restitution -- $1 billion from West Germany and $550 million from East Germany. The Western powers responded by recommending direct talks, which Ben-Gurion later endorsed, but the Soviets didn't answer until a year later, saying the only way Israel would get reparations was if there was a united Germany with a peace treaty. Of course, this wasn't going to happen, so East Germany stayed out of reparations situation.

In April 1951, there was a meeting in Paris where talks began between Israel and West Germany. The result over the next year were violent protests in Israel, with outcries about taking "blood money" and acknowledging the Nazi party from the right (Herut) and the left (Mapam). Officials in West Germany also spoke out privately and publicly about the deal, suggesting that the country should focus on rearming and repaying its wartime debts. However, the illustriously awesome Chancellor of West Germany, Konrad Adenauer, held firmly to his belief that both morally and politically, the deal was best for everyone involved -- for Adenauer, the influence of American Jews was huge, and to please American Jews, who were largely Zionistic, you had to give a little love to Israel.

(Another amusing aside ... In March 1952, West German Finance Minister Schaffer suggested an international loan from the U.S. Jewish community to finance West German restitution payments, believing it would limit Israel's direct claims on their generosity ... genius idea. No one would figure that one out, right.)
Signing of the Luxembourg agreement. Surprised there's not more press!

Finally, in September 1952, Adenauer and Foreign Minister Moshe Sharrett signed the Luxembourg Agreement for $3.45 million (marks) to start in 1953. By 1957, Shimon Peres (IDF) and West German Defense Minister Strauss met to discuss a "secret military cooperation" to exchange a large amount of arms, for free. There were no formal diplomatic or defense ties between West Germany and Israel, because West Germany feared (rightly so) that if they were open about their relationship with Israel that the Arab nations would endorse Communist East Germany, so things were on the down low until around 1964 when "someone" revealed to The New York Times and another paper that there were armaments being transferred. Talk about story of the year.

(An aside that isn't so amusing ... the German New Left and Arab critics argued that the agreement was the result of pressure from the U.S. and that the funds being paid to Germany via the Marshall Plan were being used to pay reparations. Unfortunately, there's no evidence for this, and the U.S. was extremely adamant about staying out of everything, which is why they told Israel and West Germany to talk on their own originally.)

The relationship between West Germany and Israel was so strong that  in November 1956, when Israel invaded Sinai, that Adenauer refused to suspend reparations shipments to Israel at the demand of the United States. Yes, folks, Adenauer was devoted to his relationship with Israel. Good man, right?

The meeting at the Waldorf. "I hear your back itches, need me to scratch it?"
In 1960, Adenauer and Ben-Gurion met at the Waldorf Hotel in New York to discuss a bevy of things about their relationship (as states, of course). It was a huge press moment for the both of them -- Germany looked good because they were doing their moral part to help Israeli infrastructure and Ben-Gurion assured American Jews that the new Germany was not the old Germany. You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours!

Between 1963-1965, a few things happened. There were German scientists working in Egypt, which had the world a'flutter

And we all lived happily ever after ... or not. After the 1960s, the relationship between Israel and Germany deteriorated, and even more so after the reunification of Germany. Once Adenauer was out of office, each of the new chancellors seemed more and more disengaged with support of Israel. My focus for my research/presentation is on the 1940s-1960s, so that's where I stop.

I have a few questions about it all, however.
  • I mean, Adenauer saw American Jews as having huge "economic" influence in the West, which was one of the many reasons he gave for choosing the Israel reparations plan over paying off debts and rearming. Was he working on the function of stereotypes? Or was he playing to the German people's understanding of the Jews as a financially savvy people? He also played the moral card a lot -- stating that it was Israel's moral obligation to receive reparations and that it was Germany's obligation to pay them out. 
  • I also wonder who got the better end of the deal -- Israel or West Germany? The latter got the benefit of the Jewish people's endorsement as being "changed," and after the horrors of the Shoah, that was huge. Beyond huge. Imagine if that hadn't of happened? Would Germany still be fighting for legitimacy today?  On the other hand, Israel wouldn't have been able to support itself financially without the reparations from Germany, and there might not have been an Israel today, at least not a habitable one. 

I honestly can't imagine how many people had to bite their tongues and go with it ... because, really, the war ended in 1945, Israel was established in 1948, and by 1952 Germany and Israel were BFFs. Today, when I think about this, it's absolutely unfathomable. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the issue. Would you have been able to handle this? If you were in Ben-Gurion's shoes, would you have seen the positives over the negatives? Would you have been able to make a decision that in the long term made sense and in the short term was completely mad?

Readings on this topic focused largely on whether the relationship between Germany and Israel was bilateral or trilateral (influence of U.S. Jews), the role of the Holocaust in the creation of Israel and its influence on the German-Israeli relationship, and whether what exists between the two countries was a special relationship, tied completely to a unique historical and psychological relationship that exists nowhere else -- ever. If you're interested in the readings, let me know, and I can send you PDFs. And if you got this far, mazal tov!