The historic first meeting between West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion seemed almost coincidental. Both men were traveling in the US when they decided to meet one another in New York on March 14, 1960. Just 15 years after the Holocaust, they achieved the unthinkable when they, as representatives of the historical perpetrator and victim states of one of the worst atrocities in history, sat down together at the same table.
German-Israeli relations were strained from the very start, and the horror of six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust made a mutual exchange of ideas in the 1950s seemingly impossible. Israeli passports at the time bore the note: "Valid to any country except Germany," and trade with Germany was prohibited. Even today, the post of ambassador to Germany is the only position that Israeli diplomats can turn down. Yet, there was also little interest in the fledgling state of Israel from the German side. A poll by the Allensbach Institute (IfD) found that only 11% of West Germans supported financial compensation for Israel in the early 1950s.
The renowned Israeli author Amos Oz summed up the relationship between the two countries with an anecdote from his mother: "If the Germans don't forgive themselves, we might forgive them a little. But if they forgive themselves, we will never forgive them." In that regard, it is truly remarkable that today some 10,000 Israelis live in Berlin, and that the countries maintain close ties in science as well as hosting a number of exchange programs.
Yet, the course of that rocky road to friendship, with all its ups and downs, is perhaps best illustrated by the relationships of the countries' leaders. Just how those men and women got along with one another says much about overall relations between the nations.
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The foundation for those relations was quite literally laid by Konrad Adenauer and David Ben-Gurion. Both men, advanced in age, respectively led their young countries with pragmatism and a sense of realpolitik — and that is what finally brought them together in New York.
In 1952, and in the face of massive opposition, Adenauer and Ben-Gurion signed an agreement of reparations in which Germany committed itself to recompense the state of Israel with goods and services worth 3.45 billion deutsche marks (€1.75 billion, $1.95 billion). Adenauer personally saw to it that installments were paid exactly according to schedule, and in doing so, he fostered the trust that made his meeting with Ben-Gurion possible.
In his book An Unlikely Friendship: David Ben-Gurion and Konrad Adenauer, Michael Borchard, the former director of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Israel, described the German chancellor as a "Rhenish-Catholic Zionist." Borchard writes that Adenauer had already developed a deep interest in and affinity for Judaism in the 1920s, and for his part, Ben-Gurion knew full well that he needed German cash to create his fledgling state.
"Had it not been for the combination of these two forceful politicians it would certainly have taken far longer for Germany and Israel to come to terms with one another. It was anything but self-evident," as Borchard told DW.
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Ray of hope
Save for one year's difference, Adenauer and Ben-Gurion held office at exactly the same time. And that was also the case with another duo of leaders: Willy Brandt and Golda Meir, both of whom led their respective countries from 1969 to 1974. But that was not the only thing the two new leaders had in common. Meir, Israel's only female prime minister to date, also put great faith in Brandt, as she, too, had begun her political career in the socialist movement. Moreover, Brandt enjoyed great respect in Israel after famously kneeling before a monument for murdered Jews in Poland's Warsaw Ghetto.
Despite the bond between Adenauer and Ben-Gurion, the decision to initiate diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel was not taken up while either was in office. It was not until 1965 that Chancellor Ludwig Erhard and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol established official diplomatic ties. Since then, a stable foundation has been consistently expanded upon — though that foundation has also exhibited fragility at times. That was most clearly evident during Helmut Schmidt's chancellorship, especially when Menachem Begin became Israeli prime minister in 1977.
To put it mildly, Schmidt and Begin were not well-disposed toward one another. Begin, whose parents were murdered during the Holocaust, famously maligned German reparations as "blood money." He also accused Schmidt, who had served as an officer in the German Wehrmacht during the Second World War, of being personally involved in Nazi war crimes.
Schmidt vehemently rejected the accusation and refused to visit Israel in an official capacity. He would not travel to Israel until he and Begin were both out of office. Thus, under the leadership of the two the rifts between Germany and Israel were magnified, and a freeze in relations set in until a new chancellor, Helmut Kohl, came to power.
A friend of Israel
Four Israeli prime ministers came and went during Kohl's long stint as chancellor. Although the first phase of Kohl's chancellorship was rocky and plagued with misunderstandings, he is respected in Israel today. In 2017, former Israeli Ambassador Avi Primor told DW that the fact that Israel has closer ties to Germany than to the US in scientific and research cooperation was a direct result of Kohl's efforts.
But Kohl was also the chancellor of German reunification, something that Israel was extremely wary of. At the time, Yitzhak Shamir, then prime minister, publicly voiced concerns that the Holocaust could well be repeated in a reunified and strengthened Germany. Kohl wrote a personal letter to Shamir, denying the possibility by noting that Germany had learned from history, and calling such concerns unfounded. Nevertheless, German reunification came, and bilateral relations continued.
Angela Merkel and Benjamin Netanyahu have each led their respective countries for more than a decade. Yet, although Merkel won fans for her declaration that Israeli security is a national priority for Germany, she and Netanyahu have never enjoyed a friendship. And, says Michael Borchard, now head of the research department at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation's Archive for Christian Democratic Policy (ACDP), individual national leaders play less of a role than they did in the past.
"Relations between the two countries have become so well-established that they continue progressing independent of leaders. There are still friendly pairings in German-Israeli relations, but they tend to be among those outside the spotlight, like parliamentary presidents or cabinet members," says Borchard.
Despite many ups and downs, diplomatic relations between the two countries have settled into a balance. Still, the relationship is always influenced by events from the past. As Susanne Wasum-Rainer, Germany's current ambassador to Israel, says: "The Shoa is always on my mind. And it is something I am acutely aware of whenever I speak with our partners." She says her most important role is to make the case for German foreign policy decisions while in Israel, as well as sometimes explaining the Israeli point of view when addressing Germans. Thus, she stands in the long tradition that Adenauer and Ben-Gurion started away from the spotlight 60 years ago in New York City.