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The Federal Republic has long been one of the Jewish state’s most loyal allies — but why exactly?



Daniel Marwecki,

President of Israel Isaac Herzog and German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier shake hands during a state visit in Berlin, 16 February 2024.
President of Israel Isaac Herzog and German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier shake hands during a state visit in Berlin, 16 February 2024. Photo: IMAGO / Fotostand

“At a moment like this, there is only one place for Germany: by Israel’s side,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared after Hamas’s terror attack on 7 October 2023. His words were followed by deeds. Since then, the number of German weapons exported to Israel has increased tenfold.

Daniel Marwecki is a lecturer in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong and the author of Germany and Israel: Whitewashing and Statebuilding (Hurst, 2020).

Although Germany abstained rather than voted against a ceasefire at the UN General Assembly, its diplomatic support for Israel is unmistakable. For instance, the German government has suspended further payments to UNRWA, the relief agency for Palestinian refugees, while also declaring its willingness to defend Israel against the South African lawsuit alleging genocide at the International Court of Justice. Top German politicians travel to the region on what seems like a weekly basis — Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock alone has already been there five times to emphasize Israel’s right to self-defence and pledge German support.

Anyone who has taken the time to compare the predominant media narratives in English- and German-language news in recent months will find that criticism of Israel’s actions is more subdued in Germany, and Palestinian voices are less present in the public sphere. However, the rift between how the conflict is viewed in the West and how it is viewed by large parts of the post-colonial world, in which the Israel-Palestine conflict is conventionally perceived through a completely different historical framework, is much greater than the differences within the West. For example, it is almost impossible to compare Arabic- and German-language media — instead, they constitute parallel worlds telling two different stories about one and the same war.

After the United States, Germany is Israel’s most significant supporter in terms of military and diplomatic affairs. Yet it would be mistaken to consider Germany as completely isolated due to its comparatively staunch pro-Israeli position, or to believe that the “Global South” with its 6 billion people is united behind Gaza. The diplomatic position of India under Narendra Modi, for example, the most populous country in the world, is much closer to that of Germany than that of Brazil or South Africa. Moreover, even if the populations of Arab states, from the Gulf to North Africa, show solidarity with Gaza, their governments do not. There are no reports, at least, of boycott measures such as those implemented during the 1973 Arab–Israeli war.

The complexity and historical significance of German policy towards Israel is far greater than is often assumed.

Nevertheless, German support for Israel is not only based on geopolitics and cynicism, the bread and butter of international relations, but is also expressly understood as a moral imperative emerging from German history. As such, this support is more susceptible to criticism — and the longer the deaths in Gaza continue, the more this criticism will increase. In the London Review of Books, Pankaj Mishra writes that the German culture of remembrance has failed. Writing in TIME Magazine, Bruno Maçães, a geopolitical commentator who became famous for his coverage of the war in Ukraine, claims that the German government has been living in a segregated and racist fantasy world in which there is evidently no space for Palestinian victims.

This article is less about the horror of 7 October, the gruesome war in Gaza, or the toxic German debates about Israel and antisemitism. I instead attempt to provide historical contextualization to Germany’s stance. After all, the history of German policy towards Israel is relatively unknown in Germany, which is mainly due to the narcissistic nature of German discourse on the Middle East: when Germans talk about Israel, they are usually talking about themselves. That means that the more discourse there is, the more ignorance is produced.

The complexity and historical significance of German policy towards Israel is far greater than is often assumed. Because it is not possible to deal with this policy in a short text — I have already done so in my book — in what follows, I will instead put forward three theses in order to shed light on its most important historical aspects.

Germany Gives Much More Support to Israel than Is Commonly Assumed

In 2008, Angela Merkel gave a speech in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in which she described Israel’s security as “part of the German raison d’état”. This begs the question as to how far this promise of aid would go in the event of an existential crisis. The war in Gaza, which Germany supports both militarily and diplomatically, provides an answer to this question: quite far indeed.

Since Merkel’s speech, the discussion about German solidarity with Israel has taken place with explicit reference to Germany’s raison d’état. As has often been pointed out (and ironically, as stated even in the Federal Agency for Civic Education’s “Political Lexicon for Young People”), the term dates back to the Age of Absolutism. German support for Israel’s security is thus raised to a cornerstone of German statehood, by and large precluding any democratic discourse.

German solidarity with Israel is not simply a foreign policy interest, subject to the ever-changing international situation; rather, it is integral to the very essence of German democracy. When the Bundestag celebrated the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the Israeli state in 2018, Green party politician Katrin Göring-Eckhardt summed up this self-image by saying, “Israel’s right to exist is our own.”[1] What this perspective ignores is the fact that the founding of the Israeli state de facto resulted in the statelessness of the Palestinian people.

However, the recent shift in Germany’s policy towards Israel, which is rooted in identity politics, obscures the historical roots of the relationship between the two states. In fact, the Federal Republic of Germany was important for Israel’s security at a time when the past was concealed rather than remembered.

German Aid to Israel

As mentioned above, Germany is regaded as Israel’s “second-best friend” after the US. Yet the current American–Israeli alliance began not with the founding of the state of Israel, but only after the 1967 Arab–Israeli War. One important reason for this was that the US did not want to drive the nationalist regimes in the Arab world, above all Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser, into the Soviet sphere of influence during the Cold War. Only after Israel inflicted its greatest defeat on Arab nationalism with its 1967 victory did the US become a fundamental military supporter of Israel.

The almost 20 years that passed between the founding of the state and the Six-Day War were absolutely critical for Israel. During this period, the Jewish state was an experiment with an uncertain outcome: immigrants who had fled from Europe or the Arab states had to be integrated, the country had to be industrialized and made fit for war. These were huge tasks, and the Federal Republic of Germany, founded in 1949 as the successor state to the Nazi regime, provided indispensable assistance along the way.

Thanks in no small part to German aid, Israel was not only able to stabilize itself in the Middle East after winning the Six-Day War, it was also able to radically expand its territory.

Between 1953, the year the reparations stipulated by the 1952 Israeli–West-German Reparations Agreement came into effect, and 1965, when Germany and Israel formally established diplomatic relations, West Germany was the only country to provide Israel with all three common forms of intergovernmental support: economic aid via the Reparations Agreement, secret military aid for war efforts, and a generous financial grant agreed upon in 1960.

If one adds up the German aid to Israel and compare it with that provided by the US, England, and France, it becomes clear that Germany, of all countries, was Israel’s most important supporter during its precarious early days.

Israel’s main negotiator, Nahum Goldmann, called the agreement “a downright salvation” for Israel. David Horowitz, director general of the Israeli Ministry of Finance, argued against individual indemnification and in favour of state reparations because “only reparations to Israel would make the difference between economic survival or collapse” — the reason being that the aid issued as part of the reparations included steel, equipment for industrial plants and factories, ships, machinery, and much more.

For West Germany, which had been reconstructed and became wealthy immediately after World War II, the cost of all of this was negligible. For Israel, on the other hand, still a poor country made up of survivors and refugees, the reparations provided an extremely helpful boost to industrialization. More aid for economic reconstruction was soon to follow.

Military Relations

In December 1957, Shimon Peres, then Deputy Minister of Defence, visited the West German Minister of Defence, Franz Josef Strauss, in his snow-covered residence in Rott am Inn, Bavaria. Peres wrote about this meeting, which marked the starting point of military relations between Germany and Israel:

Within only a few months of our first meeting, very valuable equipment began to reach the Israeli army. It consisted of German army surplus and equipment manufactured in Germany … We obtained ammunition, training devices, helicopters, spare parts and many other items. The quality was excellent and the quantities were considerable — compared with what we had been used to, though they were still far short of what the Egyptians were receiving. For the first time the impoverished Israeli army, which had had to skimp and scrape and stretch its thin resources to the utmost, felt almost pampered.

What began in Bavaria would expand in the following years into an extensive, covert military cooperation, the exact content of which cannot be fully researched to this day. What is certain is that in 1962, another large aid package was put together, which provided all kinds of equipment essential to Israel’s ongoing war effort, from howitzers to helicopters and airplanes. Later, tanks manufactured in the US were added via a three-way trade.

After taking office in 1965, Israel’s first ambassador to Germany, Asher Ben-Natan, told German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard in a confidential conversation that a war in the Middle East would “only last a few days”. Israel, said the ambassador, “must therefore always be ready. German aid had made a major contribution to the country’s development, and German military aid had also played a very important role in Israel’s security.”

Thanks in no small part to German aid, Israel was not only able to stabilize itself in the Middle East after winning the Six-Day War, it was also able to radically expand its territory.

Support for Israel Sought to Facilitate West Germany’s Rehabilitation on the Cheap

Why do contemporary German politicians make so little mention of this early history of Germany’s Israel policy — especially in light of the fact that the Federal Republic was so much more important for Israel’s existence back then than it is today?

The reason for this is not simply ignorance of Germany’s own history, but rather the fact that the early support for the Jewish state was obviously part of a larger rehabilitation effort that was intended to facilitate Germany’s integration into the Western bloc. For this reason, the early West German policy towards Israel does not lend itself to the self-congratulatory moral tales that Germans like to tell about their relationship with Israel today.

At the beginning of 1966, West German public broadcaster ZDF aired an interview by Günter Gaus with Konrad Adenauer, who shaped the West German government more than almost any other person during his 14-year chancellorship. Asked about his reparations policy, Adenauer said:

We had done the Jews so much wrong — the atrocities we committed against them had to be atoned for somehow or rectified if we were to regain any respectability at all among the peoples of the world … Even today, the power of the Jews, especially in America, should not be underestimated.

This connection between the idea of rehabilitating Germany and the anti-Semitic prejudice of Jewish influence, tellingly appended with the phrase “even today”, was certainly not the only reason why the early Federal Republic turned to Israel, but it was the dominant one.

Anyone today who finds themselves in disbelief about the histrionic and toxic nature of the debate on Israel in Germany would do well to recall the origins of Germany’s policy towards Israel.

There is plenty of evidence to support this. Another example is that the German journalist Rolf Vogel, a confidant of Konrad Adenauer, was involved in a scandalous deal at the end of the 1950s in which the Federal Republic bought a large number of Uzi submachine guns from Israel. Vogel is credited with a sentence that sums up German policy towards Israel at the time: “The Uzi in the hands of German soldiers is certainly worth more than all the brochures against anti-Semitism.”

Yigal Allon, a member of parliament from the left-wing Ahdut HaAvodah party who would later become defence minister, opposed the arms sales. He considered such sales to be degrading and had no illusions about the Federal Republic: “The Germans have purchased these weapons not because the weapons are good, but because they are Jewish. The Germans desperately need rehabilitation.”

It was obvious why the Germans needed rehabilitation, seeing as the Nazi dictatorship was only a few years past. The German population was heavily implicated in this process, while the perpetrators and silent profiteers lived largely undisturbed in the Federal Republic.

The rehabilitation thesis is logically derived from the historical situation of the post-war period: as has now been extensively documented in research, the denazification of West Germany was discontinued with the founding of the Federal Republic. A close relationship with the newly founded Jewish state was the cheapest possible way of signalling a reformed democracy when no such thing yet existed.

It is crucial to bear in mind that at the time, hardly anything was further from the minds of Israel’s population than establishing relations with Germany. In fact, the prospect of negotiating reparations with West Germany plunged the nascent state into its most severe crisis. This also demonstrates just how precarious Israel’s predicament was at the time. In other words: the price Israel had to pay to secure its existence was the absolution of (West) Germany.

After Germany and Israel exchanged ambassadors in 1965, West Germany was determined to “normalize” relations with Israel, with the latter insisting that Germany’s immediate past meant that it had special obligations towards Israel. Just how “normal” Germany had become, however, was ironically demonstrated by the figure of Rolf Pauls, the first West German ambassador to Israel, who was emblematic of German rehabilitation policy. Pauls, a former Wehrmacht officer on the Eastern Front, spoke of “world Jewry” and accused the Israelis of expecting benefits without giving anything in return, but also felt that Israel had to be accommodated to some extent, because otherwise, “from Jerusalem to London to New York, the Jews would let the dogs loose”.

Anyone today who finds themselves in disbelief about the histrionic and toxic nature of the debate on Israel in Germany would do well to recall the origins of Germany’s policy towards Israel. Relations have always been shaped by Germany’s past, albeit in a different way than some people imagine today.

Germany’s Balancing Act Has Failed

After the dissolution of the pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian German Democratic Republic and its annexation to the Federal Republic, Germany regained its former dominant position in a no longer divided Europe. Not least in order to assuage Western allies’ fears that Germany was once again striving to become a superpower, the Federal Republic continued its transatlantic policy after the Cold War, collected the “peace dividend”, and remained an economic power that knew how to assert its economic interests while embellishing them in the vocabulary of human rights.

The discourse surrounding the politics of Germany’s history in Germany also shifted away from forgetting and prioritized “redemption through remembrance,” a phrase formulated by German President Richard von Weizsäcker in 1985. This was also linked to a shift in Germany’s Israel policy away from “normalization”, which always had Arab oil interests in mind, and towards what is now considered the German “raison d’état”.

Parallel to the changes in Germany’s policy towards its past and towards Israel (which are inherently intertwined), the Oslo Accords were established in the 1990s with the aim of finding a peaceful solution to the Israel–Palestine situation. The mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization — the first treaty signed in 1993 hardly went beyond this point — brought a sigh of relief to the German Bundestag. As Christian Democratic parliamentarian Karl Lamers put it at the time, Germany’s “special relations with Israel” had on occasion led to a “painful discrepancy” because “it seemed as if the wellbeing of Israel was connected to the continued homelessness of the Palestinians.”

Despite the fact that the Oslo Accords have been considered a failure for over two decades, Germany remains to this day a principal financial backer of the Palestinian Authority.

Germany invested not only hope but also money in the Oslo Accords. Yet the process broke down in 2000, when negotiations between Ehud Barak and Yassir Arafat came to an inconclusive end at Camp David.

That Israel’s security is the cornerstone of Germany’s raison d’état did not originate with Merkel, but rather with the Second Intifada, which began after the Oslo Accords’ failure. Three years before Merkel’s aforementioned speech in 2008, Rudolf Dressler, Germany’s ambassador to Israel at the time, wrote that from a German perspective, a solution to the conflict could only be achieved if Israel’s security against terror was guaranteed — Israel’s security, Dressler said, had to become central to Germany’s “raison d’état”.

Despite the fact that the Oslo Accords have been considered a failure for over two decades, Germany remains to this day a principal financial backer of the Palestinian Authority, which was established as a result of the process, and never tires of emphasizing the need for negotiations over a two-state solution, despite there being no viable path to such a solution, even prior 7 October. The dichotomy that Karl Lamers spoke of in 1993 remains in effect more than 30 years later.

The Impossibility of the German Position

At the Munich Security Conference in February of this year, a moderator asked German Chancellor Olaf Scholz whether he had any proof to support his claim that Israel was respecting international law in its actions in Gaza. The chancellor responded not with a yes or no, but with an incomprehensible word salad.

This illustrates the dilemma that has engulfed Germany since the terrorist attack on 7 October and Israel’s subsequent war against Hamas: on the one hand, Germany shows solidarity with Israel, both in the objectives it has formulated for the war and — as far as possible — in helping carry them out. On the other hand, it wants to remain poised as a guardian of international law and a “rules-based world order”. But these two ends are mutually exclusive. Olaf Scholz knows this as well.

Israel’s military objective of destroying Hamas cannot be achieved in compliance with international law. This is due to the sheer nature of urban counter-insurgency as well as the fact that Hamas, which has woven itself into the fabric of Gaza’s civilian population, has explicitly designed it that way. However, this does not mean, as some Germans claim, that Hamas bears sole responsibility for the destruction of Gaza. The statements made by some top Israeli politicians and the country’s conduct throughout the war do not in any way indicate that the response to the cruel terrorist attack on 7 October is in accordance with international law.

The current war is an existential war between Israel and Hamas in which the boundary between military and civilian targets seems to have been erased. Hamas made its intentions clear on 7 October 2023: the annihilation of Israel. It was a crime of a genocidal nature. For its part, Israel, led by a bipartisan war cabinet, will not rest until Hamas is destroyed or lays down its arms. This means mass civilian deaths the likes of which this conflict has never before seen.

German foreign policy not only lacks the means to do its part to end this war. Even the language is lacking: Israel and Gaza can hardly be discussed with undivided empathy in Germany at the moment.

Translated by Gegensatz Translation Collective.

[1] This and the following quotes can be found in my book, Germany and Israel: Whitewashing and Statebuilding (Hurst, 2020).