German-Israeli Relations: The Normality of Abnormality | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 05.05.2008
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German-Israeli Relations: The Normality of Abnormality

Normal relations between Germany and Israel are unimaginable in light of the Holocaust. But the two countries have managed to develop a friendly parthership based on solidarity, even if its start was difficult.

2005: German President Köhler at the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem

German President Koehler at the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem

German President Horst Koehler said during a speech to Israel's parliament, the Knesset, that normality could not exist between Germany and Israel. That was in 2005, when the two countries had already been fostering diplomatic relations for 40 years. The feeling that nothing could be normal between the two countries was even stronger in the first decade after the Holocaust.

From its outset, the young West German democracy was to bear the moral responsibility of the murder of millions of Jews.

1960: Adenauer and Ben- Gurion in New York

1960: Adenauer and Ben- Gurion in New York

The first opportunity for Chancellor Konrad Adenauer to establish relations with Israel was in the form of financial compensation, or Wiedergutmachung. In 1952, it was decided that some 3.45 billion deutsche marks (1.76 billion euros, or $2.8 billion) would be paid to the Israeli state to help "cleanse souls of infinite suffering," as Adenauer said.

Is shaking hands acceptable?

The reparations were controversial in Israel because many believed that money was no compensation. Many Israelis could not even imagine shaking hands with a German.

That was not the case with David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, who held a friendly meeting with Adenauer in New York in 1960. Ben-Gurion was convinced that Germany had changed and was no longer Nazi-Deutschland.

"We should not forget what happened, but we should also not base our actions on what happened," he said.

On the domestic front, Ben-Gurion reaped a great deal of criticism for his attitude, while Adenauer was put under pressure by Arab states for seeking relations with Israel.

"Relatively early"

1965: Rolf Pauls (l), Germany's first ambassador to Israel, with Israeli President Zalman Shazar

1965: Rolf Pauls (l) with Israeli President Zalman Shazar

In 1965, two decades after the war, the Federal Republic of Germany and Israel established diplomatic relations. Rolf Pauls, the first ambassador to Israel, found -- as he was greeted with protests in the country -- that it was "relatively early."

Israel and West Germany then took baby steps toward one another. A network of contacts on the civilian level was also established and helped relations during times of crises. For Israel, it was important that Germany demonstrated its solidarity during difficult times, such as the wars with neighboring Arab nations.

Germany continues to try to fulfill this wish for solidarity -- even 60 years after the founding of Israel. "Germany bears a particular responsibility for Israel -- for protecting and defending its right to exist," said Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in describing one of the foundations of Germany's foreign policy toward the Jewish state.

2008: Israel's President Shimon Peres (l) welcomes German Chancellor Angela Merkel with a kiss

2008: Israel's President Shimon Peres (l) welcomes German Chancellor Merkel

This stance, however, also explains why the Federal Republic is inhibited in taking a stand on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Speechlessness is normal

A certain speechlessness is also manifest in the calm that has meanwhile developed in the relationship between Israel and Germany. President Koehler was expressing it in his comment about normality not being possible between the two countries.

Likewise, not everyone in the Knesset wanted to hear a speech given in German -- not even in 2008 -- when Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke before Israeli members of parliament. Most parliamentarians, however, responded to her words with long and friendly applause as she congratulated them on the 60th anniversary of the founding of their state and assured them that Germany would never leave Israel out in the cold.

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