An unavoidable German-Israeli clash
Not despite, but because of, the German past, the future German attitude toward Israel will be less friendly.
The killings of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the Munich Olympic Games 40 years ago next week made visible certain basic structures - not only the structures of German-Jewish-Israeli relations, but also of the very mental underpinnings of the "New Germany." To Israel and the Jewish world, the Reparations Agreement of September 1952 (this year's second Israeli-German anniversary ) had marked the beginning of the New Germany, a term first used by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. For good reasons, many Israelis, first and foremost Menachem Begin, and many Jews worldwide, had contested the very notion of a New Germany. The concept indeed proved to be real, but in the most nightmarish way possible.
Contrary to Old Germany, New Germany is a super-soft country. Softness is what had been prescribed for Germany by the Western powers and, so to speak, "the Jewish world," after World War II. At the time, most Germans internalized it quickly and happily. The Reparations Agreement, orchestrated by Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and signed in Luxembourg in 1952, had been the first German-Israeli-Jewish turning-point. Chancellor Willy Brandt's unforgettable self-prostration at the Warsaw Ghetto memorial, in December 1970, was the second beacon. But it was Munich 1972 that was the first internationally visible landmark of New Germany's unwillingness and inability to use force.
After the Holocaust, the world community agreed that "never again!" should the Germans be permitted to use force as a political instrument. Never again should they be aggressors. By 1972, they had internalized this worldview. And when, on September 5, 1972, they were called upon to perform "militarily" - they failed dismally, thanks to their new pacifist worldview. Their demonstrative unwillingness to use force led to their inability to do so. A German rescue operation failed, and 11 Israelis and one German policeman were killed.
Following this debacle, German leadership and society accepted the idea of a slightly tougher German softness, and acted accordingly: In October 1977, the anti-terror commando unit GSG 9 freed German hostages in Mogadishu, Somalia. Who taught them how to do it? History is full of irony: Germany's commandos had been trained by, among others, Israel's Sayeret Matkal commando unit, which had freed the Entebbe hostages in July 1976. In the years since, Germany has intervened militarily in other areas as well, including Kosovo and Afghanistan.
But basically, New Germany has remained pacifist. Softness is the prime component of the country's ethical, political, cultural and military DNA. This is why the majority of the German public has consistently objected to the successive governments' decision to intervene militarily in Afghanistan. Finally, the Merkel administration gave in to public opinion: The Bundeswehr will be back home by 2014.
German softness has borne fruits: the fruits of worldwide popularity, and the resultant economic - that is, export - success. Softness sells. The more popular a given people or nation is, the more successful its exports. But the price of international popularity is military inability or, at least, unwillingness to use force. Thus, Munich 1972 is a paradigm of New Germany. In the long run, Germany reaped the sweet fruits of reeducation.
"Never again!" is also the post-Holocaust worldview of Israel and the Jewish world. But they have something completely different in mind: "Never again!" to be victims. This is why, contrary to the Germans, Israel and the Jewish world consider the use of force, even preventive actions, as legitimate, necessary and maybe even wise. In 1972, Israelis could not understand and would not accept the soft new German approach, though it had once been what they aspired to for Old Germany. Israel reaped the bitter fruits of German reeducation.
Israel's preference for the use of power is highly unpopular with New Germany's soft mainstream. Therefore, Israel is highly unpopular in Germany. In fact, since the late 1970s, the German public has regularly ranked Israel as one of the states it most dislikes worldwide. Israelis and Germans are contemporaries who live in two different worlds at the same time. Each side has learned its "lessons of history" - of the same history. Each side has learned its correct lesson.
"No force," says the German majority. "There is no alternative (ein brera) to our force," says the majority of Israelis. Therefore, New Germany's society will veto its traditional government's vehement support of Israel in the long run. This is why a German-Israeli clash is ultimately unavoidable.
Up to now, German-Israeli cooperation has worked smoothly on the governmental level. But, given the pacifist mood of New Germany's society, it will insist on what it considers a necessary "correction" of German-Israeli relations. One not so distant day, even the most pro-Israel coalition will have to adapt its line to the German mainstream. No politician can swim against it.
Not despite, but because of, the German past, the future German attitude toward Israel will be less friendly. No longer will Berlin remain the staunch pro-Israel actor it has been. Munich 1972 was the beginning of this historical process.
Prof. Dr. Michael Wolffsohn teaches in the department of history of the University of the German Armed Forces, in Munich. He is the author of 30 books on German-Jewish-Israeli relations and other subjects. A longer version of this piece is to be published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.