Behind the façade of "atonement"

People carry an Israeli and a German flag that have been joined together during a rally in solidarity with Israel and against antisemitism, in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, 20 May 2021
In his book, Daniel Marwecki points out that Germany's post-war commitment to Israel "not only reined in German antisemitism after 1945 but also drew attention to the Holocaust and Israel's destiny at an early stage," writes Florian Keisinger (image: Christian Mang/REUTERS)

Historian Daniel Marwecki's 2020 book on the early years of German–Israeli relations has now been published in German under the title "Absolution? Israel und die deutsche Staatsräson". In it, the author describes these relations as a history of mutual interest-led politics

By Florian Keisinger

It is not just since Russia's invasion of Ukraine that the Germans have been accused of pursuing a foreign policy that looks at the world with overly idealistic eyes. Catchwords used to describe the country's foreign policy include "values-based" or – since Annalena Baerbock of the Greens became foreign minister – "feminist". Indeed, it is sometimes said that Germany seldom represents – let alone enforces – hard national interests, and that the formulation of strategic positions is almost impossible as the country's own moral precepts do not allow for it.

German historian Daniel Marwecki, who lectures at the University of Hong Kong's Department of Politics and Public Administration, has written a book on German–Israeli relations since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 that raises doubts as to how valid this reading actually is. 

He explores whether the moralising façade does not actually conceal a specifically German brand of interest-led politics, which formulates the greatest possible ethical aspirations while at the same time acting quite pragmatically according to its own interests. The push for dependence on Russian energy since the early 2000s, for example, which was sharply criticised by practically all Germany's international partners but nevertheless brought massive benefits for German industry, could be seen as evidence of this pragmatic approach, as could the decades-long practice of outsourcing the guarantee of external security to the USA so that domestic desires could be fulfilled with the money thus saved.

Members of the Israeli (left) and German delegations at the signing of the Luxembourg Agreement, Luxembourg, 10 September 1952
According to Daniel Marwecki, the compensation payments set out in the 1952 Luxembourg Agreement signed by Israel and Germany (pictured here) amounted to just 0.2 per cent of Germany's GDP. Around about this time, the "German economic miracle" was taking shape (image: dpa/picture-alliance)

The book's English title aptly refers to "whitewashing"

In his book, which was published in English in 2020 with the telling title "Germany and Israel: Whitewashing and State-Building", Marwecki argues that early relations between Germany and Israel were based primarily on a barter deal that was in the interest of both sides. 

He says that Israel gave Germany the chance to "atone" for the inconceivable crimes committed during the Nazi era, even though there was no emotional basis for doing so. Germany in turn was the only country to support the Jewish state economically, financially and with weapons from the very beginning, thus enabling Israel to establish itself and ultimately to exist. The fact that these reparations also amounted to an economic stimulus programme for German industry was a welcome side effect. The compensation payments set out in the 1952 Luxembourg Agreement amounted to just 0.2 per cent of GDP as the West German economic miracle took shape.

Marwecki quotes the Israeli historian Tom Segev, who once pointedly stated that after 1945, the German road to Washington – i.e. to the West – passed through Jerusalem, while the Israeli path under the protective shield of the USA passed through Bonn. According to Marwecki, it was not until the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel proved its standing as a major regional military power, that the USA replaced Germany as protector of the Jewish state – much to the relief of the leaders in Bonn, who began worrying about their relations with the Arab world at the latest in the course of the oil crisis of the 1970s.

Cover of the book "Absolution? Israel und die deutsche Staatsräson" by Daniel Marwecki
Historian Daniel Marwecki's 2020 book on the early years of German–Israeli relations has been translated into German and published under the title "Absolution? Israel und die deutsche Staatsräson" (image: Wallstein)

Was there really a "miracle of reconciliation"?

In the 1950s and 60s, Germany's relations with Israel served German politicians – above all Konrad Adenauer and Franz Josef Strauss – as a means of creating two conditions they considered vital for the continued existence of the West German state: firstly, the permanent integration of the Federal Republic of Germany into the West, and secondly, the silent reintegration of old Nazi cadres into the now democratic state.

When political discourse today speaks of the "miracle of reconciliation" between Germany and Israel, or when Germany is hailed as a paragon in its success at coming to terms with its history, Marwecki sees this as a projection onto the past with hindsight from the present day. The early phase of German–Israeli relations in particular was a history of interest-based Realpolitik, in which each country's existence was perceived to be at risk without the support of the other.

And yet, it would be wrong to reduce the foundation of German–Israeli reconciliation solely to self-interest. Marwecki points out that the commitment to Israel not only reined in German antisemitism after 1945 but also drew attention to the Holocaust and Israel's destiny at an early stage, thus creating a "civilising element" in political culture that promoted the credibility of German policy with regard to Israel.

While Daniel Marwecki's book does not tell us all too much that is new, it does offer a clear and sober account of the early days of German–Israeli relations. It also provides evidence that a cleverly balanced interest-driven policy in international relations can sometimes achieve more positive results in the long run than fine-sounding but ultimately illusory moral objectives.

By Florian Keisinger

© Süddeutsche Zeitung 2024 

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor