Interview with historian Michael Wolffsohn on German-Israeli relations

Berlin. Professor Michael Wolffsohn doesn’t mince his words when it comes to Germany and Israel. The historian and author (“Eternal Guilt?”; “Another Jewish World History”) is one of the leading experts on international politics.

Prof. Wolffsohn, was the founding of the State of Israel 75 years ago a stroke of luck for Germany after Auschwitz?

Not for Germany, but for the Jews. Israel is a difficult partner for Germany. Key word: past.

In Germany, Israel has long been considered one of the most unpopular countries in the world. The Israelis’ image of Germany, on the other hand, is continuously improving. What is that supposed to mean?

Germans, Israelis, and Jews everywhere have drawn different conclusions from the murder of six million Jews. Both the right ones for themselves, and that is also a reason for different perspectives on each other. Israelis and the Jews have learned from their history and above all from the Holocaust never to want to be a victim again. That is why preventive or reactive violence is legitimate for Israel. The majority of Germans have learned from history that they never want to be a perpetrator again. Consequently, they reject violence as a legitimate political tool.

The Israel expert Professor Michael Wolffsohn is a historian and author.

Germans seem confused about the importance of nation, religion and territory in Israel – or is that misleading?

As a result of history, the importance of the state, of the nation, is much more central than it is in Germany. For Israelis and for Jews in general, the existence of a Jewish state is life insurance. In this respect, the fixation of the Israelis on their territory is hardly surprising. Because in 2000 years the Jews had no land of their own and no security. And yes, while the German state and its citizens are becoming increasingly distant from religion, the proportion of religiosity in Israeli society is steadily increasing. Those are significant differences.

How would you characterize Germany’s political relations with Israel over the decades?

They are perhaps well described with gnashing support or front politics.

In the meantime, however, there has been a growing realization that Germany needs Israel more in certain areas than the other way around. In terms of security technology, military technology, counter-terrorism, IT and innovation, Germany is now extremely dependent on Israel. The German public believes that Israel depends on Germany’s financial drip. This is simply nonsense.

Which politicians from both countries got on particularly well with each other?

There was never a better pairing than the first – there was spiritual and mental harmony between Federal Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. It actually never happened again.

Against a lot of resistance in his own ranks, Adenauer negotiated the reparations agreement with Ben-Gurion, who also had to deal with domestic opponents in this matter. Are the Germans still indebted to Israel today?

Germany is not indebted to Israel. But it has an ethical responsibility. Christians and Muslims have discriminated against, liquidated and expelled the Jews for the last 2000 years. It is understandable from history that the Jews now set their own priorities, which did not please those who were guilty at the time.

More self-criticism would be appropriate when denouncing actions and ways of thinking in or from Israel that one does not like oneself. Anyone who has failed for 2000 years – viewed in terms of historical continuity – in relation to their own humanity is not necessarily qualified as a moral and political teacher.

How did the GDR deal with Israel and reparations?

Since the fall of 1948, the GDR has pursued anti-Israel policies at the behest of the Soviet Union. She supported various Arab-Islamic terrorist groups and denied any national guilt. Long-serving head of state Walter Ulbricht said that the GDR, as a socialist state, was opposed to capitalism. It would only have been stolen by those who had something, i.e. capitalists – whether Jewish or not.

Michael Wolffsohn

Michael Wolffsohn was born in Tel Aviv in 1947 and moved to West Germany with his parents in 1954. The historian, who studied in Berlin, Tel Aviv and New York, taught from 1981 to 2012 as a professor of modern history at the Bundeswehr University in Munich. Since then he has mainly worked as a publicist and lecturer. In 2017 he was honored as “University Teacher of the Year”. Wolffsohn has just presented an updated edition of his book “Ewige Schuld?” (LMV), first published in 1988, in which he self-critically reviews his forecasts from 35 years ago. In 2022 he published “Another Jewish World History” (Herder Verlag).

What was the political impact of the assassination and killing of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists during the 1972 Munich Olympics?

It wasn’t just the terrible massacre of September 5, 1972, but a few weeks later the three surviving Palestinian terrorists were released after the Federal Republic of Germany had been blackmailed by hijacking a Lufthansa plane. There are indications that there was an agreement between the Palestinian authorities and the federal government.

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In this respect, the assassination attempt in 1972 and subsequent dealings with it showed the distance that the social-liberal coalition under Chancellor Willy Brandt and Foreign Minister Walter Scheel had now distanced itself from Israel. Politically much more serious, however, was Bonn’s behavior during the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, after Egypt and Syria had attacked Israel. The Brandt/Scheel government refused the USA permission to supply American weapons needed by Israel via the Federal Republic.

Here the federal government at the time was guilty of Israel’s near-destruction.

You write in your book “Peace Chancellor?” that Brandt achieved his successes in the détente and Ostpolitik at the expense of relations with Israel. Why?

The key to Willy Brandt and Walter Scheel’s new Ostpolitik lay in Moscow. The Soviet Union had been a supplier of arms and a political supporter of the Arab world since 1955. At the beginning of 1970, practically at the same time as the active start of the new Ostpolitik, the Soviet Union was actually at war with Israel in Egypt at the Suez Canal. That is why the Brandt government, if it wanted to be successful with its new Ostpolitik, had to keep a visible distance from Israel in order to maintain good relations with Moscow.

Willy Brandt called his coalition’s new Israel policy “politics without complexes”.

Angela Merkel said in 2008 that historical responsibility was part of Germany’s reason of state and that Israel’s security was non-negotiable. Has it lived up to those words in practice, and do governments after it?

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They were beautiful words, behind which there was actually nothing. Could Germany have defended Israel in the event of an attack? The answer is clear: not then and not now. If Israel were dependent on the Bundeswehr for survival, then good night! With her formulation in 2008, the Federal Chancellor effectively made Israel a NATO member – without consulting the other members. The politics of empty words continues today, so there is continuity.

Israel’s air force strikes targets in Syria

The Israeli military has attacked targets in Syria in response to shelling in the occupied Golan Heights.

In Germany, the dominant view is that Israel is more of an aggressor, for example towards the Palestinians, than an attacked state. Do you understand?

No, but I can explain the view. It has to do with the fact that very few understand the dynamics of the Middle East. There is a fundamental asymmetry between Israel and the Palestinians and the other Arab-Islamic states in the region. Israel cannot lose a single war without going under. The Arab states and the Palestinians have survived many military and political defeats.

However, the territorial offers that Israel has made verifiable to its enemies since 1967 are drowned out in the news images and videos of Israeli military superiority. If you want to recognize appearances and reality in the Middle East conflict, you have to look very closely.

Around 5.5 million Muslims now live in Germany. This corresponds to a population share of almost 7 percent. In what way will this development change the special relationship with Israel and the Jews in Germany?

Relations with Israel and the Jews have already changed in Germany – and they will change even more. In a democracy you need majorities, and majorities cannot be combined with a tiny minority, in this case the Jewish ones. About 200,000 Jews live in Germany. The number of Muslims is growing and with it their influence and the interest of political parties in their votes.

Many Muslims have a problematic relationship with Jews and Israel. I assume that the distance to Jews and Israel in Germany will also grow against this background. The increasing number of acts of violence against Jews in Germany is an alarming accompaniment to this.

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