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The Limits of German Guilt

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.