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Germany's unique relationship with Israel

October 15, 2023

Since Hamas' surprise attacks on Israel on October 7, German officials have repeated that Israel's security is Germany's "reason of state." Now, they are under pressure to define what that really means.

Brandenburg Gate illuminated with Israeli flag on October 7, 2023
Germany has demonstrated a profound commitment towards IsraelImage: Fabian Sommer/dpa/picture alliance

For Germany, the past is always present. Its genocide of European Jews and other groups during the Nazi era have a profound impact on its existence today, influencing its policymaking and shaping its view of the world.

When it comes to Israel, which the Zionist movement founded as the Jewish state just three years after Germany's systematic murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust, the German state sees a "special responsibility." Its commitment to Israel is more than just a policy goal; it is a fundamental part of present-day Germany's very existence.

That makes Israel's security and existence Germany's "Staatsräson" (reason of state). Former Chancellor Angela Merkel used the term when addressing the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in 2008. Her successor, Olaf Scholz, has repeated it several times since Hamas' terrorist attacks on Saturday, October 7 killed some 1,300 Israelis, the overwhelming majority of whom are civilians.

"At this moment, there is only one place for Germany. That is the side of Israel," Scholz said in an address to the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, on Thursday. "That's what we mean when we say, 'Israel's security is German 'reason of state.'"


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In immediate and concrete terms, it means Germany joins the chorus of allies backing Israel's siege of the Gaza Strip, which the United Nations has called a violation of international law.

Israel has controlled access to Gaza since it unilaterally removed its settlers in 2005. Hamas, a militant Islamist group designated a terrorist organization by Germany, the European Union, the United States and other nations, has ruled the densely populated area since 2007.

Israel has regularly bombarded Gaza, home to 2.2 million people, about half of whom are children, in response to Hamas attacks. 

In this latest and most intense round of hostilities, more than 2,300 Palestinians have been killed since Israel commenced retaliatory airstrikes, saying it wouldn't cease bombardments until Hamas released some 130 hostages it is holding.

What is Hamas, the group behind the attacks on Israel?

During a NATO meeting in Brussels on Thursday, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius confirmed that Israel was requesting munitions for its navy.

"We will discuss with the Israelis how exactly that will now proceed," he told reporters.

More material and military support may be in the pipeline, and German officials have said they will meet Israel's requests as they are made.

Seeking a definition

Like any state, Israel has the right to defend itself, within the bounds of international law, from attack. Germany isn't the only country to support Israel's right to do this. Yet as "Staatsräson," that right gets a special designation — one that is wide open to interpretation.

"In Germany, it has not really been spelled out what this means," said Carlo Masala, a professor at the Bundeswehr University in Munich, one of two German armed forces universities.

"If you really mean seriously 'part of Germany's 'Staatsräson,' then there are moral, political and, in a way, constitutional implications," the international relations expert said in an interview with German national broadcaster, ZDF

If Israel's existence really were at stake, which Masala made clear is not currently the case, then Germany would be obligated to "actively defend" Israel — meaning direct military engagement. 

 "That is the logical conclusion," he said.

What is 'reason of state'?

"Reason of state" is a legal theory and concept in international relations that has developed over centuries of Western political thought as the role, rights and powers of the state have evolved. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as the "justification for a nation's foreign policy on the basis that the nation's own interests are primary."

In that regard, Germany's national interests are beholden to those of another. That makes sense when seen through the lens of the German political establishment.

Although the Zionist movement predates Nazi Germany, the Holocaust is the most devastating evidence to support its claim that only Jewish sovereignty, in the form of a state, can protect Jews.

A moral and historical justification, however, puts Germany's use of "reason of state" at odds with the legal meaning of the term.

Angela Merkel addressing the Knesset in 2008
In 2008, then-Chancellor Angela Merkel told Israeli parliamentarians that Israel's security and existence was Germany's 'reason of state' Image: AP

"State reason is always interest before values," Marietta Auer, the managing director of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory, told DW. "That's where a lot of the complexity starts. But all the complexity is gotten rid of because you're just conflating both concepts."

In other words, protecting the state of Israel could be a German value that risks undermining German interests, but Merkel's invocation of "Staatsräson" in Israel in 2008 put that tension to rest. It may have been wobbly legal theory, but in terms of policy and politics, Auer said it was a "smart move" that "simplified things." 

"I don't have to disclose [the reasons] as a leader of a state," the legal scholar explained. "If I say this is the state interest, that's it. Period." 

Real consequences of state theory

In elevating Germany's position on Israel to the level of "reason of state," the head of government succeeded in ending the debate, said Klaus Dieter Wolf, a former international relations professor at the Technical University of Darmstadt.

"I declare a certain concrete political intention to be a 'reason of state' in order to make it untouchable for contradiction," Wolf, who writes about the implications of "Staatsräson," said in an email reply to DW.

Doing so has "serious consequences" for Realpolitik, he added. If a state can simply wall off certain principles, it can erode its other commitments, such as to democracy, human rights and international law.  

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Freedom of speech is enshrined in Germany's Basic Law, which acts as the country's constitution. Pro-Palestinian protests have been banned and other forms of expression curtailed in accordance with Germany's criminal code that outlaws statements "approving criminal acts" or fomenting unrest. It is a delicate balance of competing interests, though how a state manages its obligations to those living within its borders is a domestic affair. 

How a state positions itself in the international community, however, is another matter. Applying "reason of state" elevates one state's interest to the first among equals, which can run afoul of international law. 

"There is no hierarchy in international law," said Joost Hiltermann, the program director of the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, an independent think tank. "What Germany may say about its intrinsic right to stand with Israel doesn't relieve it of its responsibility to adhere and comply with international humanitarian law, which regulates the means of warfare." 

British military analyst Mike Martin told DW News earlier this week that it wasn't clear to him that Israel was "making due distinction between civilian casualties and military targets," which, he said, Israel was bound by international law to do.

If Israel violates international law in pursuit of its security interests, which Germany says are its own "reason of state," Germany may find itself in increasingly precarious legal waters.

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Edited by: Rina Goldenberg and Kyra Levine

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