Sunday, September 9, 2012

"The murderers of our people should not become their heirs!": The 60th anniversary of the Reparations Agreement with West Germany

Our publication on the Munich massacre presented a dramatic and painful chapter in Israel's relations with West Germany. Another chapter in this story is marked this week: the 60th anniversary of the Reparations Agreement, signed on September 10, 1952.

In the early 1950s, the new state of Israel struggled to house and feed the mass immigration, which included many Holocaust survivors. Unemployment and shortage of foreign currency meant there was little money for imported food or fuel. One possible solution was reparations from Germany. There was an official policy of boycott of Germany, so the Israeli government wanted the wartime Allies to approach it to demand compensation for the property of Jewish Holocaust victims who had left no heirs. But the Allies refused, and it seemed that owing to Cold War considerations, Germany would soon be rehabilitated without paying a penny.

After secret negotiations with Israel, in September 1951 West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer made a declaration in the Bundestag, stating that Germany took upon itself responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi regime. In January 1952, a proposal to open negotiations with Germany was brought to the Knesset, resulting in bitter controversy and opposition from both left and right. The left-wing Mapam party mobilized ex-partisans and ghetto fighters who compared the government to those who collaborated with the Nazis, while Menachem Begin of Herut claimed that they had no right to act in the name of the Holocaust victims. He led a violent protest and march on the Knesset building during the debate.

The main spokesmen for the government were Prime Minister Ben-Gurion and Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett. Sharett exposed the hypocrisy of many opponents, who allowed individuals and organizations, including many kibbutzim, to reclaim their property in Germany, but not the government. He argued that a sovereign state could not rely on emotional arguments and boycotts but must act according to its essential interests. Ben-Gurion is best remembered for his appeal: "Do not allow the murderers of our people to become their heirs!" (an allusion to the Biblical quotation: "Hast thou murdered and also inherited?" (1 Kings: 21:19))

In the end, the Knesset empowered the government to open negotiations, and after six months of discussions, an agreement was reached. Chancellor Adenauer wanted to sign it himself; he agreed to hold the ceremony in Luxemburg, outside Germany, but demanded that a government minister should sign for Israel. Sharett was chosen, but on September 1, 1952 the legal adviser of the Foreign Ministry, Shabtai Rosenne wrote to him asking him to reconsider and to allow the heads of the negotiating teams to sign: "I view this as an act beneath the dignity of an Israeli Foreign Minister which may one day cast a stain on your personal reputation".

Sharett said in his reply that either the negotiations and the agreement were morally justified, in which case there was no reason not to sign, or they were not. If history judged him wrong, he was already deeply implicated in the affair and a signature would make little difference. Sharett emphasized the importance of signature by the Chancellor for Germany's commitment to the agreement. Adenauer's step in taking responsibility for Nazi crimes, he said, should be recognized and respected. "You may be surprised to hear me raise such considerations of respect and mutual relations – even chivalry – towards a German Prime Minister. Well, in my opinion this should be the approach of the independent state of Israel…fear of adopting this criterion in our relations with Germany returns us to the status we had in the past – of a people with no national status or considerations, isolated within its own four walls, mourning for its past, praying for the future and solving problems in its relations with other nations simply by cursing them in its heart. An independent people must face the future…"
Photograph: Moshe Sharett Heritage Society
Sharett and Adenauer signed the agreement, ratified by the Bundestag in March 1953. The reparations led to a great improvement in Israel's economic situation and contributed to the development of its industry and transport infrastructure. Most of the public realized that it had been a necessary step.

Sharett's letter was first published in Volume 7 of the "Documents on the Foreign Policy of Israel" series and in the commemorative volume for Moshe Sharett, the second prime minister, issued by the Archives (in Hebrew).

You can read more about the reparations controversy, including translations of many documents from the Israel State Archives, in the English version of the book on the agreement edited by Yaakov Sharett, Moshe Sharett's son.

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