After 50 Years of a ‘Special Relationship,’ Germany-Israel Ties Aren’t About Blind Love

A trawl through the State Archives highlights the ups and downs of the two countries’ alliance.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Tens of thousands of Israelis protest against reparations talks between Israel and Germany, in Tel Aviv, 1952.
Tens of thousands of Israelis protest against reparations talks between Israel and Germany, in Tel Aviv, 1952.Credit: Hans Fin/GPO
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

In a picture that has become a symbol of the “special relationship” between Israel and Germany, Dr. Rolf Pauls – the first West German ambassador to Israel – is seen kissing the hand of then-Foreign Minister Golda Meir. It happened in the summer of 1965, after he presented his credentials to President Zalman Shazar. You don’t need 20/20 vision to spot the rather sour look on Meir’s face. Anyone who attended the event could also have heard the shouts of the protesters who stood outside the President’s Residence.

In the State Archives, where the 50 years of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany are extremely well documented, there are also protest letters that flooded the president’s office in those days.

Organizations and private citizens, including Holocaust survivors, wanted to protest the reception Israel held for someone who, only 20 years earlier, had worn the uniform of Nazi Germany’s Wehrmacht.

One of those who sent in a protest letter was artist Moshe Bernstein, whose family had been murdered in the Holocaust. He asked Shazar how he could “face this ambassador, look in his eyes, hear the sound of the German anthem ... to the music of which children, men and women were led to the gas chambers.”

Shazar’s response expressed the complexity that has accompanied the relations between the two countries ever since.

“I have never thought we must serve the country and the people only in things in which there is pleasure,” he wrote Bernstein. “We must also serve with acts that crush the heart like a vise.”

Echoes of the sensitivity of Pauls’ posting reached Germany, too. A resident of Cologne sent a letter to the editor of Haaretz in 1965, wanting to share the suffering of Germans during World War II with Israelis: “The number of German families that lost their breadwinner in the recent war is much greater than that of Jewish families whose children died in the concentration camps,” she wrote.

The amount of money these German war survivors got was nowhere near the amount the Jews received from the Federal Republic, and they are continuing to make demands, she wrote. “The personal suffering on our part was great, exactly as it was on your part, and it is to the same extent today.” She was speaking of the Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany that was signed in 1952, 13 years before official diplomatic relations were established.

Germany transferred goods worth $845 million to Israel as part of the Reparations Agreement, and recognized its responsibility for the genocide of the Jewish People, and its need to personally compensate those persecuted by the Nazis. Israel, which suffered from an out-of-date infrastructure and shortage of raw materials during a period in which the population doubled every few years, needed the German money to build roads, trains, ships and industry. The agreement paved the way for the diplomatic relations: Israel sent a delegation, headed by Felix Shinar, to Cologne to oversee the implementation of the agreement. It quickly became Israel’s unofficial embassy in Germany.

At the same time, the growing diplomatic relations were accompanied by the two peoples being drawn closer. In the 1950s, Israel was torn between the supporters of reparations and the opponents, who saw it as a step on the way to normalization and as a German attempt to buy forgiveness for the horrors of the Holocaust with “blood money.”

“For two hours, the plaza in front of the Knesset and the nearby streets turned in a ‘battlefield,’ when a crowd of thousands of protesters tried to break into the Knesset,” Haaretz reported, in January 1952, on the debate in which the Knesset passed the Reparations Agreement.

Menachem Begin, the leader of the opposition, warned, “This will be a war for life or death ... This government, which started negotiations with the murderers who destroyed our people, will be an evil government that will base its rule on the bayonet and grenade.”

Two major crises had major impacts on relations between the two countries – even before they officially started. In 1962, it was revealed that German scientists were involved in developing missiles in Egypt; soon after, Germany decided to stop supplying arms to Israel, which had started in 1957. Even though some of the details of the affairs are still secret, ultimately the two countries established official relations in May 1965, and Germany renewed supplying weapons – even if it occasionally stopped doing so.

One particularly sensitive weapons deal came in 1964 – on German soil and with German training. Israel bought Patton tanks from U.S. surplus stocks in Germany, and some 40 Israeli soldiers and officers were sent there to learn how to operate the new equipment.

In addition to diplomatic, economic and defense relations, the story of 50 years of relations between Israel and Germany is also the story of the average citizens on both sides.

In the 1960s, many Israelis boycotted German goods. But this unofficial boycott has died out over the years. Fifty years later, the barrier to most Israelis owning a Mercedes, BMW or Audi is no longer moral or historic, but economic. If once brands tried to hide their German origin, now it is usually considered a sign of quality and advanced technology.

This is also reflected in the droves of Israelis flocking to Berlin. In the past, very few Israelis saw Germany as a legitimate destination for a vacation – and certainly not as a place of residence. The signs of the change started appearing in the early 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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