Many of us have been following events in the Middle East, where yet another round of violence is causing the deaths of civilians in Gaza and Israel. Given this background, we decided to take a closer look at German policy towards Israel.
Jörg & Axel
No ifs, no buts
Passports issued by Israel in its early years stated that the document was “valid for all countries except Germany”; the German language was banned in cultural venues and on the radio; books auf Deutsch were prohibited from entering the country.
In the young Jewish state formed in the aftermath of the Holocaust there seemed to be little chance that German could ever be anything other than the language of a murderous dictatorship.
But fast forward 50 years and German was being spoken in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
In 2008, on the 50th anniversary of Israel’s founding, Angela Merkel gave a historic speech to Israeli MPs in which she proclaimed, in German, that Israel’s security was a German raison d'état.
“Historic responsibility is part of my country's Staaträson,” she said. “That means that Israel’s security is never negotiable as long as I am Chancellor.”
The unequivocal wording of her pledge appeased the anger among some Israeli politicians that the language of the Nazis was being spoken in their parliament. From the German point of view, the speech was a diplomatic coup - definitive proof of Wiedergutmachung.
In reality, Merkel’s proclamation was highly problematic. At the time she made it, Israel was in possession of land it had illegally annexed in the 1980s, and had built huge towns on more land it had taken in war. In the years since, Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians under prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu have only become more oppressive.
Nonetheless, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference these days between statements made by the Israeli government and those of the mainstream German political parties.
Green Chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock dedicated the first five minutes of her Monday press conference to the conflict between Israel and Hamas, but her assessment made it seem as if the Islamist movement was solely responsible for the deaths of civilians.
“I’m deeply troubled by the continuing attacks on Israel,” she before confirmed that “Israel’s security is a German raison d'état.” Ms Baerbock didn’t even mention Israeli land grabs - a remarkable omission for the leader of a human rights party.
Only the left wing Linke party saw it necessary to mention the fact that Israel has been evicting Arab families from a neighbourhood of Jerusalem that was illegally annexed in 1980.
German politicians must know though that a friendship that is non-negotiable in Berlin is highly contingent in Jerusalem. The terms of Israeli friendship were made plain to former foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel in 2017. When he planned meetings with two anti-occupation NGOs, Netanyahu promptly cancelled his own meeting with the foreign minister.
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German-Israeli relations: a brief history
Although it took close to two decades for Israel and the modern German republic to swap ambassadors, the two countries have been in contact since almost the beginning.
Immediately after becoming West Germany’s first Chancellor in 1949, Konrad Adenauer announced that he saw it as a central mission of his government to atone for the genocide against the Jews.
“We Germans did the Jews so much injustice, we committed so many crimes against them that we needed to make up for them if we ever wanted respect in the global community,” Adenauer told an interviewer in 1965 when looking back on the policy.*
While it was not initially clear that this would be done via reparations paid to Israel - a state that did not exist at the time of the Holocaust - Adenauer signed a treaty with the Jewish state in 1952 in which Germany agreed to pay €3.5 billion Deutschmarks over 12 years.
The agreement was unpopular in Israel, where opponents saw it as a form of blood money. But the poor and isolated new Middle Eastern state also needed allies.
When the Israeli government became more keen on formalizing relations in the late 1950s, the Bonn Republic hesitated. Adenauer feared that the Arab states would respond by sending ambassadors to East Germany, something that would have caused a diplomatic crisis.
Instead, West Germany began to secretly sell arms to Israel, a policy that both appeased Israel and led to invaluable intelligence on Soviet arms technology in return. But the deal leaked into the media in 1964, causing outrage in Cairo and other Arab capitals.
Caught between angered Arab states and an Israeli government that insisted that Bonn met its commitments, the German government decided to stop selling arms and instead formalize relations with Israel - something that happened on May 12th, 1965.
Schmidt’s failed arms deal
The low point in German-Israeli relations came in 1981 when Chancellor Helmut Schmidt (SPD) considered selling Leopard tanks to Saudi Arabia.
From the point of view of Realpolitik, there were several good reasons to do so. The Saudis were West Germany’s main oil suppliers and had offered the country large loans during the economic crises of the 1970s. Additionally, the Iranian revolution had toppled one key western ally in the region in 1979.
The only problem was that the Saudis were officially at war with Israel.
Schmidt was aware that the tank sale wasn’t exactly popular in Jerusalem. But, asked by a journalist whether the relationship with Israel would weigh on his decision, he replied: “No, we're not going to let another state or another state's government tell us what to do and what not to do.”
In other words: Schmidt wanted to decouple war guilt from foreign policy.
When he returned from a visit to the Gulf kingdom in April 1981, Israeli premier Menachem Begin couldn’t hold back his anger. In an attack that shocked contemporary observers, he accused Schmidt of complicity in Nazi war crimes, claiming (without proof) that he had watched as resistance fighters were “strung up with piano wire.”
The entire Bonn politically community rallied around the Chancellor, who served as a Wehrmacht officer on the western front.
Der Spiegel commented drily at the time that: “Begin concludes that the Germans have a duty to unconditionally support Israeli policy based on the crimes of the Nazis, with no ifs and no buts.” The observation certainly wasn’t meant as an endorsement of Begin’s stance.
In the end though, Schmidt gave up on the tank sale. Moreover, his government subsequently inserted a secret “Israel clause” into all future arms deals. From then on Israeli security concerns would have to be considered before arms sales were signed off.
Ultimately, open conflict with the Jewish state on such an emotional issue came with too high a risk on the international stage.
“A conflict with American Jewry about tank sales to Saudi Arabia could, in Bonn’s view, eventually lead to harming Germany’s reputation among the broad US public and thus burden German-American relations in general,” according to Hubert Leber, a historian a Marburg University.
‘Israel gets what it needs’
After Schmidt, the idea that Germany would supply weapons to Israel - often free of charge - went unquestioned. Helmut Kohl (CDU) gifted Jerusalem three submarines to ensure its second strike nuclear capability (for weapons Israel has never confirmed it possesses).
In the words of Gerhard Schroder (SPD): “I want to be very clear: Israel gets what it needs to maintain its security, and it gets it when it needs it.”
In this light, Merkel’s 2008 Staatsräson pledge was nothing new. Nonetheless, during the Netanyahu years - a decade in which no progress has been made on the creation of a Palestinian state - bilateral relations have become, in the words of one German correspondent, “deeply damaged.”
“They meet, but only exchange empty phrases. They’ve even stopped arguing - it no longer seems worth the effort,” observed Die Zeit’s Lea Frehse in 2018.
Even as relations have cooled though, Germany has never seriously contemplated rocking the boat. When Netanyahu threatened to annex large parts of the West Bank last year, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas refused to mention the word sanctions.
Meanwhile, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to force Israel’s hand through sanctions, has been officially labelled as anti-Semitic by a Bundestag bill brought by the Greens, the SPD, the CDU and the FDP.
Away from the halls of power, public opinion is drifting in the opposite direction. Polling shows that over half of young Germans now have a negative opinion of Israel, while 60 percent dislike the Israeli government.
Such negative opinions are almost inevitable when one considers how Israeli defence policy works - it is based on escalating conflict until their opponent is out of weaponry. The rules of ethnic relations in the Middle East, which Israel and Hamas both play by, are diametrically opposed to the consensus-based security structures of modern Europe.
Each new bombardment of Gaza will make Staatsräson an ever less popular policy.
N.B. The author lived in Israel for two years between 2006 and 2008, and studied Middle Eastern politics for his Masters.
* A noble intention, although his second point in the interview that “the power of the Jews even today and particularly in America, shouldn’t be underestimated,” suggests that a latent anti-Semitism still influenced German policy making in the early years of the republic.
Who we are:
Jörg Luyken: Journalist based in Berlin since 2014. His work has been published by German and English outlets including der Spiegel, die Welt, the Daily Telegraph. Formerly in the Middle East. Classicist; Masters in International Politics & Arabic from St Andrews.
Axel Bard Bringéus: Started his career as a journalist for the leading Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and has spent the last decade in senior roles at Spotify and as a venture capital investor. In Berlin since 2011