Peace Prize of the German Book Trade Awarded to Martin Buber, 1953

​Buber’s winning the prize made many waves in the German media, and it can be assumed that the event was a paving stone in the path to the establishment of official relations between West Germany and Israel

From 1950, the German Booksellers Association began awarding a peace prize to well-known individuals in the disciplines of science, literature and art, who exhibited outstanding activity on behalf of peace. For many years, the prestigious prize was granted at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest international fair of its kind – held in mid-October. The awards ceremony takes place in the building of St. Paul’s Church in Frankfurt, where the first democratic German parliament convened in the mid-19th century. The ceremony receives much attention from the public and the media. While it is a Germany prize, the recipients hail from around the world. The list of winners already includes 65 names, including Albert Schweitzer, Hermann Hesse, Karl Jaspers, Max Frisch, Astrid Lindgren, Yehudi Menuhin, Teddy Kollek, Amos Oz, David Grossman and others. And yet the first Jew – and Israeli – to receive it was Martin Buber (1878-1965), who received the prize already in October 1953, just eight years after the end of World War II and the Holocaust. What led the Israeli philosopher to accept the prize, even though he was forced to leave Germany in 1938 following the racist Nazi persecutions?

Buber’s Peace Prize Certificate

Relatively soon after the Second World War ended, Buber began his extensive travels to European countries, but also to the United States, in order to participate in conferences and give lectures in varied forums. However, until 1951, the philosopher took care not to set foot on German soil, even though he had also been invited to speak in the Western part of this country. Only the repeated and insistent requests of Protestant theologian Karl Heinrich Rengstorf succeeded in convincing Buber to give a private lecture to a small and select audience in the apartment of the German scholar in the city of Münster. Buber met people there who listened to him respectfully, “people who have a face,” as Buber called them, since Buber was unable to identify a human face among most of the German people, who followed Hitler’s path. It seems that this encounter illustrated for Buber that a “new Germany” may, indeed, have come into existence. In that same year, 1951, Buber was informed that he had received the Goethe Prize awarded by the city of Hamburg. However, among the Israeli public, many opposed Buber’s agreement to accept the prize. Among the opponents were those who claimed that it was too early to accept a humanistic prize from an official German organization. Ultimately, Buber went to Germany to accept the prize only in 1953. During this year, he won additional prizes and honorary degrees, including the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.

Invitation to Buber to the prize awards ceremony

The prize – which today is considered quite prestigious – was at the time just starting out: Buber was the fourth recipient. Those present at the ceremony in Frankfurt proved to what extent granting the prize to a Jewish philosopher was significant for the prize committee and for those involved in the matter: among the guests of honor was Theodor Huess, the first president of the Federal Republic of Germany. During the ceremony, four people spoke: Arthur Georgi, at the time Chairman of the German Booksellers Association, Frankfurt Mayor Walter Kolb, Albrecht Goes, Protestant theologian and author, who spoke in praise of the work of Martin Buber and its importance, and finally, the winner of the prize himself spoke. Buber’s speech was entitled “Genuine Dialogue and the Possibilities of Peace” (“Das echte Gespräch und die Möglichkeit des Friedens”). In his speech, he of course made reference to the dark memories of the days of the Holocaust, declaring: “And who am I to ‘forgive’!” At the same time, Buber called upon the nations to find ways to embark on a humanistic discourse, for the sake of peace and mutual understanding. In his speech at this auspicious occasion, Buber remained faithful to the philosophy of dialogue that he developed and promoted through many decades of academic and public activity.

The first page of Buber’s speech: “Genuine Dialogue and the Possibilities for Peace,” in his handwriting

​Buber’s winning the prize made many waves in the German media, and it can be assumed that the event was a paving stone in the path to the establishment of official relations between West Germany and Israel. In contrast, the media buzz in Israel was very restrained. Generally speaking, Buber was at the time much better known and accepted in the various European nations than in Israel, and it is reasonable to assume that there were still many who did not agree with his readiness as early as 1953 to accept the prize granted by an official German body. In contrast, acceptance of the honorable doctoral degree from the Hebrew University that same year was the first honor that Buber received in Israel, and his winning the Israel Prize in 1958 marked the acceptance of his views among an even broader population in his country.

The Nuremberg Trails, 1945-1946

Beginning November 20, 1945, 24 Nazis sat on the Nuremberg Court House's seating area for the accused. These were the men defined as the main criminals

Even before the end of WWII, the three strongest nations among the Allied Powers (United States, Soviet Union, Great Britain) decided upon a series of arrangements in anticipation of the war’s end. At the summit meetings that took place in Tehran and Yalta, and after the end of the war at the Potsdam Conference, it was decided that now that Germany had been defeated, an international court would be established.

The Allies agreed among themselves to establish an international military court vested with the responsibility of investigating and conducting trials for the deeds committed in Germany’s name prior to and during the war. The idea was mainly to address war crimes, crimes committed against civilians and crimes committed in the concentration camps. Prior to the establishment of the court, France joined the three major Allied nations and was also admitted to the bench (two judges were appointed from each country).

The city of Nuremberg was selected as the site of the military court, for a number of reasons. First, despite the great destruction that visited this city, the local court building was almost unscathed, such that discussions could be held with a large number of participants and a sizeable audience. Next to it was the prison, where the accused could be held during the discussions and easily transported as required. Secondly, precisely due to the prominent role of Nuremberg in Nazi ideology ­– as the city where the Nazi Party conventions were held and the racist anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws were legislated – conducting the trials in this city, of all places, had a clear symbolic dimension.

A contemporary response to the Nuremberg Trails, London 1945

In order for the court to perform its task vis-à-vis the accused, it was necessary to apprehend them. Immediately after the last days of the war, it emerged that several of the senior Nazis were no longer alive: Hitler and Goebbels committed suicide on April 30 and May 1 respectively. Hitler’s secretary, Martin Bormann, disappeared (his remains were discovered only in the 70s, in Berlin). Other prominent Nazis initially tried to hide, but during the weeks following Germany’s surrender, an increasing number were captured in remote locations and in prisoner of war camps, where they had disguised themselves among the masses of German soldiers taken prisoner by the Allies. Such was the case of the Reich Leader of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, who tried to survive under an assumed identity. Despite his efforts, British soldiers identified him, but before the British authorities managed to interrogate him thoroughly, he managed to commit suicide. Rudolf Hess, the second-highest ranking member of the Nazi Party, was arrested already in 1941, when he flew to England of his own accord to conduct peace negotiations on behalf of Germany. The highest-ranking Nazi to be captured alive was Hermann Göring. Göring surrendered to American forces, together with his family and property, loaded on to no fewer than 17 trucks.

Beginning November 20, 1945, 24 Nazis sat on the Nuremberg Court House’s seating area for the accused. These were the men defined as the main criminals. Eight judges presided over the trials. Heading the international military court was British Justice Sir Geoffrey Lawrence. Each of the participating Allied nations appointed a prosecutor.

During the preliminary discussions on the question of accusations, it became clear that the issue was inconceivably more complex than could have been anticipated. While there was no doubt regarding German responsibility for the war, some of the same crimes carried out by the Nazis were also committed de facto by certain Allied armies. For example, in September 1939, the Soviet Union attacked Poland, together with Germany, and summarily executed thousands of Polish officers in the city of Katyn and in other locations. And just as the Germans bombed many cities across Europe with the goal of destroying them, so, too, did the British and Americans – bombed German cities with the same intention. Therefore, in order to hold the Nuremberg Trials while not undermining the authority of the court, the international jurists were required to refrain from comparisons, and to focus on the German acts. Additionally, already in the early days of the discussions, tensions began mounting between the Soviet Union and the Allied Powers regarding the ideological differences between the blocs, which eventually, indeed, led to the Cold War.

The discussions took place in various languages: English, French, Russian and German. For the duration of almost a year, the Court heard 240 witnesses and was presented with many written documents and much film footage. The international Nuremberg Trials were groundbreaking in many senses: They took place simultaneously in a number of languages and were accompanied by simultaneous translation; the prosecution relied on the idea that the international court would try responsible individuals from a particular country that committed a crime according to international law and against humanity as a whole. The work of the court at Nuremberg as well as that of a similar body that operated after the end of the war in the Far East served as an example for the functioning of the International Court of Justice at the Hague, established following the experience and resulting insights garnered from the trials after WWII.

At the end of the trials, on September 30 and on October 1 1945, 12 of the accused were sentenced to death, three were exonerated and the rest were imprisoned in Allied prisons in the old Spandau Citadel in Berlin, after being handed prison sentences ranging from ten years to life imprisonment. None of them pleaded guilty. On October 16, those sentenced to death were executed. Göring convinced an American soldier to obtain poison for him, managing to kill himself just a few hours before he was scheduled to be hanged. The last prisoner in the Berlin jail was Rudolf Hess. Ultimately, Hess also killed himself, in 1987, at the age of 93.

The opening page of the protocols series’ first volume, London 1946

Many journalists reported on the Nuremberg Trials. Among them were well known personalities and writers, including Willy Brandt, Alfred Dublin, Ilya Ehrenberg, Ernest Hemingway, Erich Kästner, John Steinbeck and many others. Haaretz’s reporter covering the trials was Robert Weltsch, later the director of the Leo Baeck Institute in London. Surprisingly, Weltsch did not believe that the trial conducted at Nuremberg had great significance or would be very effective. In a letter to Martin Buber from Nuremberg of December 1945, he even stated that the entire trial “is actually not interesting at all.” The trial was documented in films, and when it ended, the protocols were published in English, French and German. The trials themselves and the publications about them spurred the beginning of the comprehensive study of the Third Reich and Nazi crimes.

Under the Watchful Eye of “Big Brother”

Relations between the Communist Parties in Israel and East Germany

In contrast to the growing formal and informal ties that began to develop between Israel and the Federal German Republic already in the 1950s beginning with the reparations agreement, no ties developed between the eastern part of Germany and the Jewish state. Apparently, the disconnect did not stem from one side only: alongside East Germany’s obvious fear from contact with Israel, which in all likelihood would have led to demands for reparations (which, indeed, were submitted by the Israeli government, but remained unanswered), the Israeli leadership knew that any contact with the Communist German state would cause problems in the relationship with the Federal Republic. The West German government was at the time adhering to the Hallstein Doctrine, which prohibited official ties with East Germany and with any entities that recognized this country.

Copy of letter sent by MaKI to its sister party in East Germany, 1960

Despite the lack of connection between the two countries until 1990, ties were conducted between the ruling Socialist-Communist Party in East Germany, and the Communist Party in Israel (MaKI), and continued after MaKI split in June 1965 and one stream formed “The New Communist List” (RAKAH). In the party’s archives at the National Library, a number of letters were recently discovered that attest to ties between the parties, which viewed one another as comrades in the anti-imperialist struggle. The letters received from the leadership of the ruling East German government were written in German. Most of the letters from East Germany in the correspondence files bear the signature of party leader and East Germany head of state Walter Ulbricht.

The letters, from the 1960s and 70s, discuss the various topics: Most are greetings for party occasions marking independence celebrations for East Germany, and long abstracts about Soviet policy in the context of the Communist bloc in Central and Eastern Europe.

These letters were written formulaically in a manner characteristic of the Communist Party, lauding the Soviet ideological position and condemning the deeds of the imperialist West. The very fact that Walter Ulbricht’s signature appears on most of the letters shows the importance he attributed to these announcements to the communists in Israel. It should be noted that this was the most heated period of the Cold War, when the world was at the brink of a nuclear war between the super powers. At this time, the division of Germany was also completed, with the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. The Communist leadership in East Berlin understandably was using every means to close itself off from the capitalist enemy.

Reply letter of Walter Ulbricht to the MaKI Central Committee, in which he agreed to the Israeli party’s request that East Germany receive “progressive” students, and in which he asked what subjects the Israeli students were hoping to study in East Germany.

Other matters discussed in the correspondence between the two parties were the verification of personal data regarding communists who moved from Israel to East Germany or vice-versa, a request for a supply of ideological textbooks from East Germany to Israel, and even the request for a printing press for the publication of newspapers in the Arabic language.

In April 1960, members of the Israeli party contacted its German sister party regarding the possibility of sending five “progressive” students” to East Germany for study. As secretary of the Socialist Unity Party, Walter Ulbricht responded favorably to this request and agreed to accept five students to universities and colleges in his country, on condition that their mastery of the German language was satisfactory. He added that this move should not be publicized at the time, since it did not suit the current political situation. The correspondence files contain several additional letters that relate to this, but it is not entirely clear whether the project was ultimately implemented. Of course, hosting Israeli students in any case in East Germany, and particularly in 1960, was an unconventional move. The fact that Ulbricht gave his personal approval, regarding a matter that under normal circumstances would not have reached the desk of the head of state, shows the importance that functionaries attributed to this move. And yet, the correspondence files of the Israel Communist Party (MaKI) show that party clerks during the same period also contacted other countries in the Communist bloc. It is likely that in these cases, matters developed with greater ease, since the State of Israel conducted official diplomatic ties with all of the Eastern European countries until the Six-Day War, with the exception of the German Democratic Republic.

Governments and Crises: Memories of Israel’s and Germany’s Ambassadors

Due to the complexity of the relations between the countries, the role of the German ambassador in Israel and that of his Israeli counterpart in Germany were most certainly among the most challenging faced by members of the diplomatic corps in the two countries

Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany in 1965, many served as ambassadors for the two countries in Tel Aviv, Bonn and Berlin. Due to the complexity of the relations between the countries, the role of the German ambassador in Israel and that of his Israeli counterpart in Germany were most certainly among the most challenging faced by members of the diplomatic corps in the two countries. It is reasonable to assume that the ambassadors were aware of the demanding requirements and expectations of these representatives of their countries vis-a-vis a foreign government: skills in the art of diplomacy, preservation of national interests, understanding of the other side’s positions, realistic assessments regarding possible measures, and more.

Asher Ben-Natan’s book

For the past 50 years, ambassadors who have served in these positions have met with great success, and became relatively popular among the public of the host country. The political goals of both sides were ostensibly identical – improving ties with the other country, while preserving self-interest. And yet, self-interest was defined differently in each of the countries, due to the difficult history of the Holocaust period, which stayed with – and still lingers in – the relations between them. The West German public expected rapid “normalization” between Germans and Jews, and it was often not clear whether this was a kind of obfuscation and repression of historical guilt. In contrast, considerable portions of the Israeli public opposed the establishment of diplomatic relations or even any form of ties between the two countries, out of a fear that it would cause the horrific crime and its victims to be forgotten. The official Israeli representatives needed to heed the demands of the Israeli public, anticipating clarifications regarding the topic of collective and individual guilt of Germany and the Germans, but were also interested in advancing ties with the Federal Republic, since these ties were essential to Israel’s diplomatic and economic development.

Meroz’s book in Hebrew, 1988

During the first years of the relations, the presence of Germany’s ambassadors in Israel sparked demonstrations and other forms of public opposition.

It is well known that during the first trip of Rolf Pauls, West Germany’s first ambassador to Israel, to visit representatives of the Israeli government in 1965, the ambassador met with catcalls and even violence on the part of angry demonstrators. Klaus Schütz, who served in this same position between 1977 and 1981, also encountered catcalls while the German national anthem played during his official reception at the president’s residence in Jerusalem.

Asher Ben-Natan, the first Israeli Ambassador to Bonn, was also received by a large crowd on landing at the Cologne Airport in 1965, but no catcalls were sounded; the throngs, including journalists, were curious to see the official attaché of the Jewish state in Germany and to hear his first remarks on assuming his post. The ambassadors and consulate employees of both countries were witness to an ongoing series of critical incidents that posed a threat to the character of the relations, and were involved in devising solutions during times of crisis: the supply of German arms to various countries in the Middle East that threatened Israel’s security, the Six-Day War in 1967, the massacre of the Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in 1972, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the hijacking of Israeli and German airplanes during the days of left-wing terror in the 1970s, the Lebanon War in 1982, and the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany in 1989-90.

The job of the ambassador, given the complex web of relations between Germany and Israel, including guilt, responsibility and the desire to develop “normal relations,” in addition to the complicated historical background, provided interesting angles for the composition of personal memoirs.

It therefore comes as no surprise that there is an impressive list of memoirs by ambassadors from both sides, and even a collection of articles that brings together texts by Israeli and German ambassadors over the decades.

The first to record their recollections of the activity between Israel and Germany was Felix Eliezer Shinnar, who was the director of the Israeli delegation in Germany, which opened immediately following the Reparations Agreement of 1952 in Luxembourg. Shinnar remained in this post until the establishment of diplomatic relations, and was involved in paving the way for improving them. Shinnar’s memoir was published – simultaneously in Hebrew and in German – already in 1967.

Asher Ben-Natan, the first Israeli Ambassador to Germany, beginning in 1965, published his book, “The Audacity to Live,” only in 2002, and a year later in Germay. This book is an autobiography, and also includes chapters about Ben-Natan’s work as an ambassador. These chapters were also published as a separate volume in 2005, but only in German.

The first ambassador from Germany to publish his recollections was Klaus Schütz. Already before his appointment in 1977, Schütz served as the Mayor of West Berlin, and in this role gained experience in managing sensitive situations. Schütz’s book was published in 1992, only in Germany. A description of his days as ambassador to Israel does not occupy a significant portion of the book, and perhaps this is why it was never translated into Hebrew.

Another Israeli ambassador, Yohanan Meroz, served at the embassy from 1974-1981, and published his report in 1986 in Germany, and two years later in Hebrew, under the title: “Was it All in Vain? – An Israeli Ambassador in Germany’s Summing Up.” Meroz lived in Bonn during difficult years for West-German society, under the shadow of terrorist attacks by left-wing extremists who collaborated with Palestinian activists – what makes his composition most interesting.

Niels Hansen, who was Germany’s ambassador to Israel from 1981-1985, wrote a non-fiction work that does not revolve around his memories as a diplomat, but rather the relations between the two countries during the tenure of Konrad Adenauer and David Ben-Gurion. In this aspect, this voluminous work greatly resembles that of Shinnar mentioned above. A compendium of articles from 2005 brings together additional texts on the topic, featuring writings by other ambassadors who did not publish books on their years of diplomatic service: Rolf Pauls, Eliashiv Ben-Horin, Jesko von Puttkamer, Benjamin Navon and others. The book, however, was published only in German, like many of the books mentioned here, while in Hebrew the only books available are those by Shinnar, Ben-Natan and Meroz.

Even the book by Avi Primor, who was ambassador to unified Germany, was never published in Hebrew. Books of this type, so it seems, found more readers among the German public – at least according to the estimates of the writers and the Israeli publishers.