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Germany

Diner: 'Israel had to jump over its own shadow'

50 years ago West Germany and Israel established diplomatic ties. But the initial years of the new relationship showed very little harmony, historian Dan Diner told DW.

DW: Dr. Diner, in your latest book "Ritual Distance" you explored the first bilateral treaty signed between West Germany and Israel, the 1952 Luxembourg Reparations Agreement, under which the West German government pledged to make a compensation payment to Israel, and the Jewish Claims Conference in the wake of the Holocaust. To what extent was that agreement significant?

Dan Diner: The Luxemburg Agreement was of utmost importance to the Federal Republic (West Germany - ed.) because it wanted to regain access to the community of nations. It was something like a founding act. Diplomatic ties to Israel as such were not that important. We could say that both events, 1952 and 1965, are linked insofar as 1952 laid the foundations for everything which was, as it were, ritualized and ostentatiously implemented in 1965: ties between the two nations, which had existed anyway, were finally made official. But the year 1952 is crucial, because Israel jumped over its own shadow to establish ties with West Germany based on the Luxemburg agreement.

So the Luxemburg Reparations Agreement was signed in 1952, but diplomatic ties between Israel and West Germany were set up only 13 years later. Why did so much time elapse?

In 1952, the Israeli side rejected the resumption of diplomatic ties. It was anxious to avoid a clean break with respect to the past, which could have been interpreted as reconciliation. At the time, the German side was ready to recognize Israel as a nation. Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Federal Republic became a very important factor in Western politics, namely NATO, and suddenly it was Israel's turn to request repeatedly whether diplomatic ties could be set up.

Bonn (the West German capital - ed.), however, had anxieties of its own: if the Federal Republic established ties with Israel, could that inspire Arab states to recognize East Germany?

After all, those were the days of the Hallstein Doctrine, according to which the Federal Republic of Germany would sever diplomatic relations with all states that recognized the communist East. The Arab world was an important factor in West German politics, including West German economic policy. Consequently, the Federal Republic sidestepped Israel's advances, which did not keep it from clandestine arms deliveries to Israel. When this was made public in the mid-1960s, then-Chancellor Ludwig Erhard announced: 'We will establish diplomatic ties with the state of Israel. In return, we will terminate our arms exports.'

What was the nature of the relationship between West Germany and Israel after the exchange of ambassadors?

As far as Israel's society was concerned, it remained distant. Everything relating to Germany, German culture and German language continued to be frowned upon. Universities did not have German departments, the German language was boycotted. That means all those elements developed only later. During those years, 1965 to 1967, the relationship was indeed, if we want to use a clichéd word, an icy one.

Fifty years after the resumption of diplomatic ties Germany and Israel are very close: Israelis love Berlin, German cars and German soccer. There is multifaceted, busy interaction at practically every level, for instance in science and culture. Can today's German-Israeli relations be described as "normal"?

You are definitely correct when you mention how well disposed towards Germany Israelis are at the moment. But you must not forget that the past and the present complement each other. I'm very fond of the following metaphor: The German-Israeli relations are like a documentary made in black and white. We see the same scenes all over again, which are etched into the memory as icons. Simultaneously, we are looking at a film made in color: That's the Germany of today, Berlin, the German auto industry, the Bundesliga and all that represents Germany on an international level. Both, the documentary and the color film, are shown at the same time. Sometimes it's the first which is foremost in people's minds, sometimes it's the second. So you could say that Israeli awareness of Germany is divided.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that Israel's security and its right to exist are German elemental matter of state, a 'raison d'etat.' How do you interpret that remark?

Ms Merkel's statement is interesting, because the chancellor is an easterner: She had to catch up with the various stages of the German-Israeli, the German-Jewish, relationship. That means she adopted traditions from the Konrad Adenauer and early Helmut Kohl eras, without having had actual first-hand experience of them at the time. I don't know Ms Merkel, I've never met her. But I get the impression that she, in a manner of speaking, absorbed all the positive aspects of the German-Israeli relationship. She became aware that the past is of huge importance for the German constitution both before and after German reunification.

This is why she made that statement, as if it were part of the preamble to the Basic Law (German constitution, ed.). If that sort of awareness of the past had existed in May 1949, when the German Basic Law was adopted, a statement along those lines would probably have been included. But this wasn't the case, so you could say that Ms Merkel has now made a late addition. However, we could indeed ask to what extent this is politically relevant or realistic.

Dan Diner is a professor of history. He taught at universities in Israel, Denmark and Germany. Until 2014, he was the director of the Simon Dubnow Institute for Jewish History and Culture at the University of Leipzig. He is the author of various books. His latest, "Ritual Distance - Israel's German Question" was published by Deutsche Verlagsanstalt (DVA) in March, 2015.

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