Jun 5th 2015

The Limits of German Guilt


"Simply put, historic guilt is no longer adequate to compel Germany to support Israel’s wrongheaded policies – especially when those policies are victimizing another group, the Palestinians. Israel’s current leaders should take note."

MUNICH – This month marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel. The bilateral relationship, born in the wake of the Nazis’ annihilation of European Jewry, has developed into a solid one. But fading memories of the Holocaust among younger Germans, together with Israel’s declining international standing, have lately challenged the official discourse about “special” ties between the two countries.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father and the architect of Israel’s reconciliation with Germany, was a pragmatist through and through. He knew that forging a partnership with Germany, which included reparations that would help boost Israel’s capabilities, could go a long way toward securing Israel’s survival.

Of course, the reparations – which began in 1952 – served Germany’s interests, too. The best way to regain international legitimacy after World War II was to atone publicly for the atrocities committed by the Nazis, and reconcile with the world’s Jewish population.

But the case for establishing full diplomatic relations was not so clear. Fearing that such a move would undermine its relationships with Arab countries, and thus its objective of maintaining an impartial Middle East policy, Chancellor Ludwig Erhard’s government resisted Israeli pressure to establish full ties until 1965. Even then, German policy in the Middle East continued to reflect a domestic consensus that Germany’s responsibility for Israel’s security must be balanced with an effort to remain neutral in the region’s affairs.

Still, over the last half-century, the bilateral relationship has become a formidable one. Germany is Israel’s largest trading partner in Europe, and its third-largest overall, after the United States and China. Moreover, Germany has been among Israel’s most reliable allies, exemplified by its role as a major arms supplier. Chancellor Angela Merkel has emerged as a staunch defender of the country, exemplified in a 2008 address to the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), in which she identified Israel’s security as an essential feature of Germany’s Staatsraison.

But Germany also appears to be increasingly uneasy about having to continue supporting Israel even when its policies are clearly reproachable. Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, can the bilateral relationship withstand the rising tide of anti-Israel sentiment in Europe?

History has its ironies. Post-war Germany could regain international legitimacy only through reconciliation with the Jewish people. Today, it is Israel’s legitimacy that is being challenged in international institutions and Western public opinion for its mistreatment of the Palestinians.

The role reversal has been remarkable. Both Jews and Germans emerged from WWII as defeated and crippled peoples, but the Jews had the moral high ground, while the Germans very much did not. Yet, in a global opinion poll conducted in 2013 by the BBC World Service, Israel ranked as one of the least popular countries – just above North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran – whereas Germany emerged as the most popular.

But the extent of this inversion is best exemplified in the increasing prevalence of obscene comparisons between Israel’s policies toward Palestine and the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews. A study conducted by the Bertelsmann Foundation in January showed that 35% of Germans have no problem making that connection. In what might presage a shift in the bilateral relationship, the poll also revealed that 58% of Germans believe that the past should be consigned to history, and 62% disapprove of Israel’s policies today.

Of course, Germany’s eagerness to discharge the burden of history is not new. Back in 1998, the renowned intellectual Martin Walser publicly attacked the pervasiveness of Auschwitz in Germany’s remembrance culture, declaring that the Holocaust had become a “moral cudgel” with which to intimidate all Germans and keep them “in a perpetual state of guilt.”

Walser’s stance amounted to a desperate call to allow his country to shape a new national identity – one that reflected its resolute repudiation of fascism and adoption of democracy, rather than its highly regrettable (and regretted) history. And it drew a standing ovation from all but one of the 1,200 illustrious members of the audience in Frankfurt’s Pauluskirche, where Walser was being awarded the German Booksellers Association Peace Prize. The lone exception was Ignatz Bubis, the head of Germany’s Jewish community.

As Israel’s policies have become increasingly indefensible, the Germans’ will to shape national policy independent of Holocaust guilt has grown even stronger. The poem “What Must Be Said,” written in 2012 by the late Nobel laureate Günter Grass, may be frivolous and cliché-laden, but it is no less revealing of the growing fatigue of German society with the paralyzing memory of the Holocaust. Not only did Grass define Israel as “a threat to world peace”; he also noted that he had remained silent for so long simply because he believed that his own origins, “tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,” denied him the right to speak the truth.

Like Grass, Germans – especially the younger generations, who feel further removed from the events of WWII – are increasingly abandoning the notion that they owe it to Israel to remain its silent, steadfast supporters. Indeed, as Israel’s right-wing government moves to bury the two-state solution for good, Germans are joining other Europeans in vocally opposing Israeli policy in Palestine.

Simply put, historic guilt is no longer adequate to compel Germany to support Israel’s wrongheaded policies – especially when those policies are victimizing another group, the Palestinians. Israel’s current leaders should take note.


Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
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