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How Postwar West Germany Used Support for Israel to Whitewash Its Image

Daniel Marwecki

In 1952, West Germany paid reparations to Israel — not as compensation to Holocaust survivors, but in the form of supplies to the Israeli state. Coming at the same time as denazification reached its end, the move had little to do with moral atonement, and everything to do with whitewashing West Germany's international image.

Israeli and German flags outside the Knesset, 2005. (Marcus Frieze / Flickr)

Interview by
David Broder

Founded in the aftermath of World War II, West Germany was from its formation a state on the front line of the Cold War. The Federal Republic founded in the UK-, US-, and French-occupied zones in 1949 had initially lacked full sovereignty, but the NATO powers increasingly sought to make it a formal — and rearmed — part of the Western alliance. After abortive moves to bring it into a European Defense Alliance, in 1955 West Germany itself became a NATO member.

West Germany’s rehabilitation sparked opposition from many quarters — not least given the weak purge of Nazi-era officials in the police and judiciary, or even the dubious anti-fascist credentials of many of its political leaders. Yet, even as denazification reached its end, West Germany’s leaders found a means of giving a formal sign of remorse, by way of reparations to Israel. If the Germans’ transactional approach sparked widespread resistance in Israel — and not least among Holocaust survivors — Bonn became an important source of financial and military aid for the new Israeli state.

Daniel Marwecki is author of Germany and Israel: Whitewashing and Statebuilding, a study of the relations between the states created in the aftermath of World War II, up until present day. David Broder spoke to him about Israel’s place in West Germany’s rehabilitation, the importance of Cold War politics in the Middle East, and the difference between support for Israel and consequential action against antisemitism.


DB

You tell us that reparations paid to Israel in 1952 provided a way for West Germany to “whitewash” its international image — and your sources cast doubt that these payments were moral atonement or a bid to educate the population. But how did such apparently small amounts of retribution concretely improve West Germany’s international standing?

DM

You are right: for Germany, the reparations paid to Israel were not a strain on the budget. Quite the contrary. As I explain in the book, reparation payments turned out to be a profitable investment in economic terms alone. This was because reparations were paid out in goods and commodities, not cash. They were a stimulus to the German economy.

For Israel, reparations were, however, crucial. They helped modernize a previously largely agrarian economy. The difference in costs and importance reflects the power differential between the two countries at the time: West Germany was quickly reconstructed to a powerful position in Europe. Israel was mostly poor, its population consisting to a large extent of destitute refugees. There is bitter historical irony in this.

As for improving international standing: West Germany’s integration into the Western Cold War structures had been decided on in principle by 1952. Showing some kind of remorse was still necessary for symbolic reasons, but it did not top the list of Washington’s and Bonn’s priorities.

What’s also interesting in this context is a certain residual antisemitism in the German political class. As late as 1966, Konrad Adenauer said on German television that Germany paid reparations in order to “regain Germany’s standing” and also because of “the power of the Jews, still today, especially in America.” There is a lot of this bizarre kind of stuff in the book.

DB

Before Israel established formal diplomatic relations with West Germany, Bonn was already a major arms supplier to it. What specific role did West Germany play in building up Israeli military capacity, and why was Israel so dependent upon it?

DM

Contrary to popular thinking, the American-Israeli alliance only really took off after 1967. Before that, France and Germany were Israel’s most important suppliers of weapons. Whereas Israel had to pay for French weapons, German weapons came free of charge.

In geopolitical terms, the military relationship between Germany and Israel was formed after the Suez War of 1956, when Britain, France, and Israel attacked Egypt, albeit for different reasons. The United States opposed the intervention, and Britain and France ended up exiting the Middle East in a far from glorious fashion.

With American arms now a distant prospect, Israel needed to turn all the more to Germany. Counterfactuals are always difficult: I don’t know how the 1967 War would have played out without German support for Israel. But I would argue that if you add together reparations, secret financial aid, and military aid, West Germany was the key supporter of Israel prior to the all-decisive 1967 War. That’s the story I tell. What you think about that story ultimately depends on your political position, however.

DB

If in 1960, West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer called Israel a “fortress of the West,” did governments in Bonn have a different appreciation of Israel’s role in Cold War politics to Washington’s own? Was support for Israel important for Bonn as a means of binding itself to the West — or of asserting itself on the international stage?

DM

It’s a complex question. We need to go back a little. Zionism, of course, emerged against the experience of European antisemitism. The Holocaust was the previously unimaginable barbarism that proved Zionism right: Jewish life in Europe was, indeed, impossible.

This means that Israel is a creation against Europe, but it is of course also of Europe. It’s a Western state, society, and economy in the Middle East. Adenauer was echoing Theodor Herzl, here, who wrote that Israel would be an “outpost” of Western civilization in the East. The Left and the Right actually agree on this point.

Bonn and Washington both agreed on Israel’s role as a Western representative in the region, but Adenauer had in fact been more strongly in favor of supporting Israel than his counterparts across the pond. The explanation is again geopolitical: the United States did not want to appear as openly siding with Israel, because this would have angered those Arab states under the influence of the anti-colonial and nationalist ideology of Nasserism. Adenauer had fewer qualms in this regard. The Americans had a bigger-picture perspective at the time, which was logical given their hegemonic position.

DB

You tell us that from Bonn’s perspective, the abandonment of denazification and the forging of closer ties with Israel were two sides of the same coin. So, can you tell us a bit about what resistance there was in Israel to ties with West Germany — a state with many ex-Nazis among its leading personnel?

DM

Let me be very clear here: if there had been any other option, Israel would much rather have ignored Germany. The founding population of Israel consisted of a third of Holocaust survivors. Everybody had family or friends killed by the Germans. Israeli society revolted against David Ben-Gurion’s decision to enter reparation negotiations with Germany.

The biggest domestic crises in Israel’s early years were about Germany, as Tom Segev shows so well in his work The Seventh Million. There was little sympathy but a lot of material need. German politicians today like to talk about the “miracle” of German-Israeli relations. I don’t think there are miracles in international politics. After its founding, Israel was a fragile experiment in a hostile environment, in bad need of consolidation. Germany was able to play a crucial role in that consolidation.

DB

The formalization of diplomatic relations in 1965, then stronger US support for Israel after the Six-Day [1967] War, created a tension between maintaining “special” German-Israeli relations or making them more “normal.”

In the 1973 War, following the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics, West Germany faced vicious press attacks in Israel for its neutrality. Could “normalized” relations also mean less friendly ones?

DM

The problem with “normalization” is that for many in Germany, this meant leaving the past behind. Which I think should be opposed on moral and political grounds. After the Munich massacre, for which German authorities bore co-responsibility due to their horrendously botched response to the Palestinian hostage-taking, Israel actually remained surprisingly calm. That Israel initially held back its anger tells you how important relations with Germany were.

The historian Carol Fink has just written a book that goes much further into these issues than mine. The agenda of “normalization” proved harmful to the relationship — and after the Cold War and “unification,” Germany U-turned: relations were now to be “special” and rooted in memory of the Holocaust.

I actually agree that relations should be “special.” But what I find surprising is that there is little discussion in Germany about what this is actually supposed to mean. There is in fact very little knowledge about German-Israeli relations. Maybe my book can help change this, at least to some degree.

DB

Angela Merkel said in front of the Knesset in 2008 that Germany has a special responsibility to protect Israel. What function does this serve: does it imply any actual commitment to involvement in Middle Eastern politics? Or is it more about presenting a certain vision of reunited Germany, as a country able to project power internationally?

DM

On a personal level, I think Angela Merkel is genuine and sincere. On the level of state interest, this commitment serves to show that a unified, enlarged, and ever more powerful Germany is not to be feared on the world stage. The dedication to the Jewish state and the patriotic pride Germany has in its “mastering” of the past is to signal to the world that Germany has learned its lesson.

As it regards Israel specifically, the special responsibility is not simply idle talk. Submarines capable of carrying nuclear weapons — a deterrent against Iran — are one out of many material expressions of this commitment.

President Reuven Rivlin meets with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, 2017. (Amos Ben Gershom GPO / Wikimedia Commons)

However, Germany’s much-celebrated memory culture evidently does not help in combating the resurgence of the extreme right. The far right is strong in the German parliament, in the streets, as well as in the police and army. Germany is home to the highest number of right-wing crimes in Europe. There really should be less idle talk and more alarm bells ringing.

DB

If West Germany’s friendly overtures to Israel were driven less by atonement for the Holocaust than by its own statebuilding project — indeed, even by a bid to whitewash German history — then why is there so little critical consciousness of this on the German left? It seems especially striking given that defenses of Palestinian statehood are often countered by generic repudiation of “all nationalisms”…

DM

Michel Foucault thought that if you want to find out what a society regards as normal, you have to study its margins. So, he went to the mental asylums. I feel that way about the German left. You can learn a lot about German identity by studying the identity troubles of the Left. Moishe Postone was right when he said that the West German left has at times been the most anti-Israel and the most pro-Israel left in the West.

These internecine battles have less to do with what is happening in the Middle East than with German identity and dealing with a past that is almost impossible to deal with. In the book, I don’t talk about the German left because it has no relevance for policy making. I think that in order to defend the legitimacy of Palestinian statehood in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, there is no need to get sucked into German leftist battles. After all, this is simply the government position, which I share.