The Reparations Agreement of 1952 and the response in Israel

Not only did many German citizens have reservations about the agreement-in-process. Considerable portions of the Israeli public were also unprepared to accept neither the very concept of negotiations with Germany nor the funds from the “land of the murderers,” which was defined by opponents as “blood money.”

In the autumn of 1949, with the foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany in the area occupied by the western Allied Powers, the nascent German state still lacked complete sovereignty in every realm. The laws of occupation were still valid and canceling them depended on a variety of political and financial arrangements. One of the conditions for complete German sovereignty pertained to the reparations to be paid to Holocaust victims. In principle, the political leadership of the State of Israel was interested in receiving reparations from Germany, but initially, was unprepared to enter into direct negotiations with German representatives. The Western Allied Powers for their part refused to demand reparations from Germany on Israel’s behalf, forcing both sides to sit around the negotiating table. Eventually, negotiations began in early 1952, in the city of The Hague, Holland.

A booklet containing the full text of the reparations agreement, 1952
The first page of the printed agreement

The discussions between the two delegations were not easy. This was not surprising in light of the difficult topic and the fact that only seven years had passed since the liberation of the concentration camps and the end of WWII. Most of the population in West Germany opposed the reparations. The German public mainly was against the large sum that Chancellor Adenauer was prepared to accept as a starting point of the negotiations, some four billion German marks. However, Adenauer understood well that there was no alternative to reaching a compromise with the Israeli side, in order to restore West Germany to its proper standing among the nations of the world. In contrast, every claim against the East German government remained unanswered since the Communist regime, which obeyed instructions from Moscow, never recognized the responsibility of the entire German people for the Holocaust and the atrocities committed in its name until 1945.

A German guide: rules and directives in order to make a claim before the Luxembourg Agreement, 1949

Even before the negotiation between representatives of both countries (Felix Shinnar from the Israeli side and Franz Böhm from the German side) claims were submitted against formal entities in Germany. The claims were submitted at the level of various states within Germany that later comprised the Federal Republic – but there was no overarching German arrangement with clear objectives and sums.

The negotiations between the countries were long and difficult. Many discussions were held, some of which conducted under a veil of secrecy out of fear that the representatives would be physically harmed. In May 1952, a serious crisis occurred, and the sides left the discussions following a heated debate regarding the amount to be paid as reparation. Ultimately, towards the end of 1952, the representatives – among them, the President of the World Jewish Congress, Nahum Goldmann – reached an agreement. According to the agreement, West Germany committed to supply the State of Israel with goods and services valuing 3.5 billion marks over a period of 12 years. Part of the agreement was the German assurance to enable personal reparations too, as well as the return of property to its legal owners. In order to follow through on this agenda, an additional sum of 450 million marks was promised.

Not only did many German citizens have reservations about the agreement-in-process. Considerable portions of the Israeli public were also unprepared to accept neither the very concept of negotiations with Germany nor the funds from the “land of the murderers,” which was defined by opponents as “blood money.” Menachem Begin led the struggle against the agreement and against David Ben Gurion’s basic policy, which for years promoted rapprochement between Israel and West Germany. In the spring of 1952, when the negotiations between the two parties was already underway, Begin gave speeches at mass demonstrations organized against the reparations. Demonstrators included many Holocaust victims who had not come to terms with the contact between the Jewish State and the Germans, who only seven years earlier had been part of the Third Reich, the embodiment of evil in modern Jewish history.

The short period of time since the Holocaust, the profound shock experienced by the Jewish public on discovering its extent and results, and the signs of Germany’s quick rebound to the community of legitimate nations, aroused strong feelings and caused an uproar among the Jews in Israel and around the world. The thought that those who just yesterday had been the worst murderers of the Jews would today pay monetary compensation for an unforgivable crime was for many an intolerable prospect. A certain opposition arose also to the idea that the young State of Israel was taking on itself to represent the Jews as a whole and was agreeing in their name to accept monetary compensation from the Germans. The matter was so sensitive that the state authorities preferred to speak of “reparations,” relying on a little used Hebrew term, shilumim, which stresses payment and avoids describing the nature of the payment. The term replaced the problematic concept of “compensation,” in order to avoid creating the impression that the state believed that it was possible to compensate survivors and offspring of the victims for what the Nazis had done to them.

On September 10, 1952, the representatives signed the agreement. The signing took place at a neutral location: at the town hall of Luxembourg. Moshe Sharett, as the Israeli Foreign Minister, Nahum Goldmann, representing the Jewish Agency, and Konrad Adenauer, as presiding Foreign Minister (together with his role as Chancellor of the Federal Republic). Today, most historians agree that it is thanks to Adenauer that the agreement received political support in Germany, support which had not existed during the various stages of contacts made to pave the way to the agreement. His sincere understanding that there was no doubt regarding the responsibility of modern Germany for Nazi crimes shaped one of the basic guidelines of German policy to this day. Indeed, Germany’s recognition of its responsibility for Nazi crimes and the special relationship with the State of Israel rooted in it are foundation stones in the relations between two countries, regardless of the makeup of the governments of Germany and Israel.

Official information from the German government regarding reparations, 1960

As part of the reparations, many goods reached Israel which helped the state economy to stabilize over the years. For example, Israel received new-fangled German-manufactured trains, which were operated for a number of years by the Israel Railways. However, it quickly became apparent that the delicate motors could not withstand the climatic conditions of the Middle East, so that the trains were removed from service. Some of the cars enjoyed a surprising second career: one was donated to the medical non-profit “Yad Sarah,” and served as the organization’s office in Jerusalem. Another car serves today as a home for the “HaKaron” [“the train-car”] puppet theater, located in the Liberty Bell Garden in Jerusalem.

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.

Beyond the Iron Curtain: East Germany and the Collapse of the Wall

After the wall was constructed, the East German population was trapped inside its country. Trips abroad were possible only to Communist Bloc countries

Following the Allied victory over Germany in the Second World War, the country was divided, and on October 7, 1949, an independent state, known as “The German Democratic Republic” was established in the area of the Soviet occupation. A few weeks earlier, the Federal Republic had been established in the western part of Germany.

East Germany’s distorted self-presentation, for dissemination in the world, 1986.

A book about the 1989 events, including texts in three languages. Published in Berlin, 1990.

At first, only a small number of countries in the world recognized the East German state, home to some 17 million people. Predictably, the countries that recognized it were mainly those who were under direct control of the Soviet regime in Moscow. Although, formally, the East German republic proclaimed its aspiration to democracy (reflected even in the country’s name), it was a very limited democracy: the control of the Socialist-Communist Party was not up for discussion. The Soviet Army forces stationed on East German soil, numbering 350,0000-500,000 soldiers, was not only the westernmost force of the Soviet Union in Europe, but also a means of pressure for maintaining the status quo: the Soviet military force there was intended to ensure loyalty, which it did until the dissolution of the Communist Bloc in 1989. The Soviet military force acted with all of its strength during the days of the civil uprising of East Germany against the communist regime in June 1953, an uprising after which a tense calm prevailed, maintained with an iron fist.​

The lack of satisfaction of many citizens with the East German dictatorship was also reflected in the mass flight to the West, which continued through mid-August of 1961. In an abrupt – but not entirely surprising action – the police and army forces established a wall around West Berlin, and also along a portion of the border between the two parts of Germany, with the goal of preventing the continued flight of citizens from East to West. This border was also the boundary between the two large political blocs, which led to a large concentration of military forces along both sides of the Iron Curtain, including Russian and American nuclear weapons.

After the wall was constructed, the East German population was trapped inside its country. Trips abroad were possible only to Communist Bloc countries. Despite this, many did not remain complacent, and tried to flee to the other side of the wall. Some succeeded, but over 200 people paid with their lives for the attempt to break free. The political leadership operated according to the instructions of the Communist leaders of the Soviet Union, and tried in every manner possible to induce citizens to sympathize with the Russian-Soviet school of ideology. The media functioned under censorship, literature and all types of publications were required to adhere to the ruling party line. Opponents of the regime were at the focus of the activity of the secret police, the Stasi, which maintained enormous archives that included (and still include) information on millions of citizens.

A booklet with the speeches given during a ceremony in the East German parliament on November 9th, 1988

According to the official ideology, residents of the German Democratic Republic lived according to humanistic principles, and therefore, there was no need to deal with the dark past of the German nation prior to 1945. In the view of the communist leaders, all of the Nazis, old and new, were in West Germany, while the socialist-communist essence of East Germany absolved East German society of scrutinizing and taking responsibility for the Nazi crimes. While the official historical narrative mentioned the Jewish victims, relative to the Communist victims, they took only second place. This reconstruction of history was apparently accepted by a considerable portion of the population, since it spared them the torturous journey of taking responsibility for the Holocaust, and recognizing the deeds perpetrated by the Nazis, many of whom were living in East Germany. This was also the root of the political leadership’s refraining from any contact with Jewish organizations or with the State of Israel, almost until the end of the East German state in 1989-1990. ​ ​

The quieting of global politics in the 1970s and the new policy of the West German government at the time towards the East, led to a certain softening in East Germany. Many countries gave it formal recognition, and the communist regime relinquished strict Stalinism and tried to improve the standard of life of the country’s residents. This social policy exacted a high price, which the planned Communist economy was unable to withstand for long. The power of the East German economy – one of the strongest in the Communist Bloc, but weak in comparison with the western countries – declined greatly, and citizens were unable to buy much with the money they earned. For most residents of East Germany, access to unobtainable, often essential supplies and products, depended on the black market and personal connections. This situation stood out in stark relief to the ideological image of communist society, which was ostensibly superior to capitalist society. And yet, millions of residents of East Germany were exposed to West German television and radio broadcasts, and gained a growing impression of the actual situation, which was precisely the reverse of what they knew in their own country.

Given this state of affairs, the political leadership adopted some opportunistic measures. One was a sudden move towards closer acquaintance with Jewish issues. In November 1988, the East German Parliament (which was in effect a powerless body) held a memorial event for Kristallnacht, and even established a Jewish historical research center, the “Centrum Judaicum,” in the building of the New Synagogue in Berlin. Through the “Jewish channel,” leaders hoped to forge a better relationship with the American government, and in so doing, to obtain economic benefits.

The program for the ceremony in the East German parliament, in German and faulty Hebrew.

From the 1980s, dissident groups were formed by skeptical citizens, mainly among congregations from the Protestant Church. The secret police tried to permeate these circles and to slow their spread, but in the second half of this decade, the trend was irreversible. More and more citizens submitted official requests to leave the country, others tried to flee through the Soviet Bloc countries, and in the autumn of 1989, hundreds of thousands gathered for a non-violent demonstration against the regime. The political leadership, which comprised mainly elderly members of the establishment who lacked an understanding of the changes of the time, found no suitable answers for the demands of the demonstrators, and in October 1989, the Communist government fell to the pressure of the demonstrations. This time, in contrast to 1953, the leadership in Moscow, headed by Michael Gorbachev, who advanced the reform of Communism (perestroika), did not intervene.

In the stream of events, the opening of the borders on the evening of November 9, 1989, was almost unpreventable. During a press conference on various topics, one communist leader spontaneously declared the decision to enable citizens to travel throughout the world without limit. Following this, thousands of citizens at the border crossings in Berlin gathered, demanding they be opened. Ultimately, the soldiers of the border guard gave in and opened the gates to the west. The opening of the borders changed the dynamics of the “quiet revolution”: From November 9, growing numbers of demonstrators stopped calling for social changes in East Berlin: they now demanded unification with the Federal Republic. And indeed, unification was achieved after discussion with the former Allies (the United States, Soviet Union, England and France) on October 3, 1990.

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.