As war in Gaza rages, what’s behind Germany’s support of Israel?

Germany has tried to make amends for its Nazi past by backing Israel, in what some experts say is an attempt to whitewash its international image.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, left, shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a press conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. Maya Alleruzzo/Pool via REUTERS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, left, shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a news conference in Tel Aviv on October 17 [Maya Alleruzzo/Pool via Reuters]

On November 14, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz made another argument in defence of Israel.

“Israel is a democracy – this has to be said very clearly,” Scholz said in response to a comment by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said Israel’s legitimacy was “being questioned due to its own fascism”.

“There is no doubt about this,” said the German leader. “And we will emphasise in every conversation and at every opportunity that this is our view.”

At the time of Scholz’s remarks, more than 11,100 Palestinians had been killed by the Israeli military, which began its latest campaign in Gaza after Hamas attacked southern Israel on October 7.

About 1,200 people were killed and more than 200 taken captive in the Hamas attacks.

At the time of writing, the Palestinian death toll in Gaza had surpassed 17,000 people.

Scholz’s comments were no mere political observation.

The modern German republic, which, for generations, has tried to make amends for its Nazi past and its role in the Holocaust during the second world war, has long made Israel’s security its Staatsräson (“reason of state”) – a term first coined in an essay by Germany’s former ambassador to Israel, Rudolf Dreßler, in the early 2000s.

Israel’s war on Gaza, which has been raging for more than 60 days, has only hardened German political support for the Israeli state.

On Tuesday, officials from Saxony-Anhalt announced that applicants seeking naturalisation in the east German state would have to commit to Israel’s “right to exist” in writing, or face being refused German citizenship.

This followed weeks of reports that German authorities are cracking down on shows of support for Gaza in this current conflict.

‘Moral standpoint’

Academic Daniel Marwecki, author of, Germany and Israel: Whitewashing and State Building, told Al Jazeera that “when German politicians today talk about Israel they [do so] from a moral standpoint”.

“All the leading German politicians think [that defending Israel] is morally the right thing to do because of the German past,” he added.

The history of ties between Germany and Israel dates back to 1948 when the Israeli state was established, following the end of the British mandate in Palestine.

Marwecki, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Hong Kong, said that a German determination to “whitewash” its international image in the wake of the Holocaust informed its post-war approach to Israel.

This included West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s agreement to pay Israel post-Holocaust reparations in the form of goods and services in 1952, as the fledgling state attempted to grow its economy.

In 1965, West Germany and Israel established formal diplomatic ties.

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 – and the end of the Cold War – a reunified Germany pursued a twin-track approach to engaging with its past where its relationship with Israel, said Marwecki, proved pivotal.

This approach, he said, focused “German memory culture … more and more on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism”, while Berlin looked to buttress its role as a mainstream European power in lockstep with the United States.

Today, the German Federation is the largest economy in Europe and the fourth-largest economy in the world.

‘You’re constantly gaslit in this country’

But not everyone in Germany backs the commitment to Staatsräson.

Advocates of Palestine in Germany say that support of Israel has gone hand-in-hand with a relentless campaign to silence pro-Palestinian voices.

Examples of this, according to activists, have been numerous. In 2019, for instance, the German Bundestag passed a motion labelling the non-violent anti-Israeli Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement anti-Semitic.

And three years later, the state-funded Society for a Democratic Culture in Berlin (VDK) was forced by a German court to release a secret dossier that had framed German-Palestinian academic Anna Younes as an anti-Smite and terrorist sympathiser, using data gathered as far back as 2014.

Younes, having already endured much emotional turmoil during this and, she said, many other “misinformation episodes”, told Al Jazeera that Germany’s unwavering support for Israel’s relentless shelling of the Strip has left her “utterly speechless”.

“You’re constantly gaslit in this country,” said Younes, of what she calls a long-established attempt by the German state to delegitimise domestic support for Palestine. “My demoralised attitude springs from living through this for such a long time.”

Younes was born and brought up in east Berlin “right next to the wall”.

Anna in Germany
Anna Younes said she thinks Germany’s position shows ‘non-white’ lives are considered expendable [Courtesy: Anna Younes]

She said Germany’s support “for the genocide in Gaza” has only served to show that “Palestinian lives … Muslim lives, Arab lives and non-white lives in Europe and the Middle East” are expendable.

“This is the message that we are getting from the powerful,” added Younes, who said that nothing could dissuade her from “speaking up” for the rights of Palestinians.

Last month, a German opinion poll revealed that only 31 percent of respondents backed Scholz’s uncompromising support for the Israeli military bombardment of Gaza.

And even those who stand with Israel refuse to ignore Palestinian suffering.

One German national, Carsten, who attended a pro-Israel rally in Berlin following the events of October 7, said while “Israel’s right to exist and … defend itself [was] non-negotiable … almost everyone has significant concerns about a lot of Israel’s policies”.

The music business manager, who did not want his full name published, explained that “almost every German has ancestors or relatives who were in some shape or form involved in the slaughter of six million Jews”.

Killing innocent civilians on both sides is “clearly wrong”, he told Al Jazeera. “If people pick sides, no matter what actions ‘their side’ takes, we are doomed to gridlock, further sorrow and despair.”

Source: Al Jazeera