Germany and the Question of Palestine Since 1949

Germany and the Question of Palestine Since 1949
Breaking with the Nazi Past, Adapting to Changing Interests

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Yasir Arafat and Helmut Kohl

24 October 1997
dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

The Nakba occurred almost simultaneously to the creation of the current German state, the Federal Republic of Germany , and its Cold War nemesis, the German Democratic Republic (1949–1990). The division of Germany along ideological lines stemmed from the results of World War II and the ensuing Cold War between the United States the Soviet Union . The four victorious Allied Powers —the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain , and France —had divided defeated Germany into four occupation zones. The three Western zones united in 1949 to form the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). As a response, the Soviet-occupied zone became the German Democratic Republic (GDR). As the Cold War neared its end, and as a result of sweeping changes in the Soviet Union, a political revolution in East Germany led to the incorporation of the GDR into the Federal Republic in 1990. This article focuses primarily on the Federal Republic, which is also the legal successor to the Nazi regime.

The early Federal Republic’s stance on the question of Palestine was structured by two imperatives: Cold War requirements that necessitated friendly relations with the postcolonial Arab states and the need to prove to the international community that the Federal Republic represented a major rupture with the Third Reich . The Federal Republic’s quest for international legitimacy following World War II, and Israel’s need for aid, have determined relations between both states.

West Germany and Israel during the Early Cold War (1952–1965)

The first step in establishing German–Israeli relations occurred with the signing of the Luxembourg Agreements of 1952 between the first West German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer , and the first Israeli prime minister, David Ben-Gurion . The agreement provided Israel with significant economic aid as reparations for the Holocaust . The German term for the agreements—Wiedergutmachungsabkommen (literally “the agreement to make something right again”)—pointed to the West German government’s motivation in pursuing an understanding with Israel. The intensifying Cold War had quickly led to the end of Allied “denazification” in the Western occupation zones. Thus, numerous personal and structural continuities between the Third Reich and the emerging Federal Republic persisted on the elite level. This made identifying the Israeli state as the legitimate successor to the Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust all the more important for elites in Bonn . In the early 1950s, US-led attempts to reintegrate West Germany as an economically powerful and armed state of the Western alliance were met with apprehension by other allies, notably France, which feared a resurgence of German expansionism. Reaching an understanding with Israel was also a way for both West Germany and the US to ameliorate such fears and accelerate the transformation of the Federal Republic into a frontline Cold War state.

Israel’s economic development during the first decade of its existence would have been impossible without the Luxembourg Agreement. The Israeli government received a sum of three billion marks over the next fourteen years, which was spent to a great extent on purchasing German goods. German assistance was crucial in fields such as electricity, railway construction, shipping, and mining, because France—Israel’s major ally at the time—was unable to provide any significant economic aid.

Despite the quid pro quo of the Luxembourg Agreement, no diplomatic relations were established between Bonn and Tel Aviv . West Germany saw itself as the sole legitimate German state and sought to prevent recognition of the GDR by any possible means. This was exemplified by the Hallstein Doctrine , which threatened any state establishing ties with the GDR with a breakoff of relations and a corresponding cessation of development aid. Fear of a wave of recognition of the GDR by Arab countries prevented the establishment of German–Israeli diplomatic relations. This stance, which found its most vocal supporters among the foreign policy establishment, converged with US overtures to early Nasserist Egypt . However, as Egypt and other Arab states began tilting toward the Soviet Union, key figures within the West German elite began taking a keener interest in Israel.

The events of 1956 exemplified the emerging alignment between Bonn and Tel Aviv. The US refused to back the Anglo–French–Israeli invasion of Egypt (the Tripartite Aggression ), hereby sealing its failure. At the same time, Washington ’s merely rhetorical condemnation of the Soviet invasion of Hungary taking place simultaneously to the tripartite attack on the Suez Canal indicated US acquiescence to the post–1945 order in Europe. For Bonn, with its revanchist claims over the entirety of Germany and parts of Poland , this meant that Washington’s support was far from unconditional. Leading figures (notably Konrad Adenauer and defense minister Franz Josef Strauss ) thus began looking to France, hoping to gain access to French nuclear capability, in a policy that became known as “German Gaullism.” This brought West Germany and Israel indirectly together, as Israel was backing the suppression of the Algerian liberation struggle while France provided Israel with the blueprints to its nascent nuclear weapons program. A secret meeting between Shimon Peres and Franz Josef Strauss in 1957 guaranteed that West Germany would (covertly) deliver US-made weaponry to Israel, even as official relations between the two countries did not exist.

Toward a (Relatively) More Balanced Policy (1965-1991)

In 1965, West Germany established official diplomatic relations with Israel. This was preceded by press leaks regarding German arms deliveries, as well as a visit by GDR leader Walter Ulbricht to Cairo . All Arab states, with the exceptions of Morocco , Tunisia , and the monarchy of Libya , subsequently broke off relations with the Federal Republic. The conservative West German establishment could now openly cheer Israel’s 1967 War . However, the election of a Social Democratic Party (SPD)–Liberal coalition under Willy Brandt in 1969 led to another reconfiguration of West Germany’s role in the Middle East .

The Brandt government took a more assertive stance toward Israel than its Christian Democrat predecessors. SPD members had been persecuted by the Nazis—Brandt himself had been forced into exile during the Third Reich and lived in Norway and Sweden —and so the party was less susceptible to accusations of continuity with National Socialism. Furthermore, the social-liberal coalition pursued a policy of détente toward the GDR and the Soviet Union. Brandt’s independent posture was the source of friction with Washington, which had become Israel’s most important ally after its victory in the 1967 war. Israel’s increasingly vocal anti-Soviet stance in relation to the question of Soviet Jewish emigration stood in contrast to Bonn’s willingness to advance relations with the Eastern Bloc.

However, the most important factor of West German new foreign policy in the Middle East was the question of energy supplies. Israel’s near-total reliance on the US and its intransigence regarding the Arab world led to a softening of Western European states’ attitude toward Arab countries, which at least rhetorically regarded the question of Palestine as the key obstacle for peace and stability in the Middle East. The Brandt government undertook serious efforts to repair damaged ties with the Arab world and by 1974, all diplomatic relations severed in 1965 were reestablished. Furthermore, West Germany denied overflight rights for US resupply flights to Israel during the 1973 war . Contacts with the PLO increased following its 1974 Ten-Point Plan implicitly espousing a two-state solution, as well as its recognition by the Arab League as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. In 1980, West Germany co-signed the EU ’s Venice Declaration calling for Palestinian self-determination and direct contacts with the PLO, something the US had categorically rejected at that time.

West Germany’s recognition of Palestinian concerns did not affect its extensive economic, military, and intelligence ties to Israel. For example, the massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian militants during the 1972 Munich Olympics was followed by intensified cooperation in the field of “anti-terrorism.” Bonn’s willingness to engage with the PLO was driven less by normative principles and more by the need to expand ties with resource-rich Arab states, as well as by the objective of preserving the stability of pro-Western regimes in the face of potential subversion by radical forces. Similar to France, West Germany used the question of Palestinian self-determination to advance economic deals and arms sales in the region and to keep Soviet influence at bay. West German–Israeli relations reached their lowest point in 1981, when Likud prime minister Menachem Begin accused SPD chancellor Helmut Schmidt of Nazi affinities, in the context of German arms sales to Saudi Arabia .

Bonn’s attempts at evenhandedness led to strains during the Second Gulf War in 1991. West German firms sold components for Iraq ’s chemical weapons program during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988). When Iraq attacked Israel with Scud missiles in an attempt to strain the Western–Arab coalition against it following the invasion of Kuwait , Germany scrambled to reassure Israel of its commitment to Israel’s “security.” The German government subsidized the construction of three German-made Dolphin class submarines for Israel, while subsidizing the construction of another three (the last one believed to be commissioned in 2023) by a third. In addition, a memorandum of understanding signed in 2017 envisages the delivery of three more submarines by the late 2020s, paid by a third by Germany in the form of subsidies to German shipyards. The submarines are widely suspected to be fitted in Israel, a non-signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty , with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, making Germany complicit in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. Finally, and much like the case of US military aid to Israel, Germany’s arming of Israel is beneficial to the former’s struggling shipbuilding industry.  

The German Democratic Republic and Palestine (1949–1990)

Unlike the Federal Republic, East Germany did not have any diplomatic relations with Israel. Adopting the Soviet line, the ruling Socialist Unity Party expressed sympathies for the Zionist militias during the 1947–1949 period and blamed British imperialism and the Arab monarchies for the bloodshed. Despite low-level contacts, relations were not established, owing to the GDR’s contested sovereignty status and Israel’s tilt toward the West in general and the Federal Republic in particular. In the following years, the GDR focused its efforts in gaining recognition from the Arab world, playing on mistrust of West German ambiguity toward Israel. Following the PLO’s emergence as an independent actor in the late 1960s, contacts were established between the Palestinian liberation movement and the GDR leadership. Owing to its competition with the Federal Republic, the GDR’s support for the Palestinian struggle in the 1970s and 1980s was particularly vocal, in contrast to other Warsaw Pact states like Romania , the only Eastern Bloc state that did not sever relations with Israel after 1967. The GDR gave Palestinian factions generous military aid and trained numerous Palestinian militants. Solidarity with the Palestinian struggle featured prominently in East German public discourse, and Palestinian students received scholarships to study in the GDR. With the changes in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, the East German leadership made efforts to establish relations with Israel, but the state itself ceased to exist before these could fully materialize. 

German Policy after Reunification

The Oslo Process between Israel and the PLO ameliorated the dilemmas of German policy toward the question of Palestine. Reunified Germany could maintain its special relationship to Israel while funding the establishment of Palestinian national institutions. Palestine is represented in Berlin by a special mission, previously located in Bonn as the Palestinian delegation to West Germany. The GDR had recognized the State of Palestine in 1988, but this act became null and void when the GDR was absorbed by the FRG and ceased to exist as a subject of international law. In 2012, Germany abstained in the UN General Assembly Resolution 67/19 on the admission of Palestine as an observer state. By declaring its intention not to recognize a Palestinian state before a final settlement involving Israeli consent, the German government under then-chancellor Angela Merkel effectively sabotaged a common European position on the issue.

Nonetheless, Germany plays a major role in the dispute, both as an ally to Israel and as a financial benefactor of the Palestinian Authority . Foundations affiliated with political parties in the German Bundestag established offices in the West Bank and still exercise a considerable amount of soft power within Palestinian civil society. However, the collapse of the so-called “peace process” and the Second Intifada have led Germany to prioritize its relationship once again to Israel. Emerging after reunification as Europe’s undisputed economic hegemon, while also participating in numerous military interventions abroad, such as in Afghanistan , the Balkans , and the Sahel , Germany’s foreign policy has become increasingly assertive. Partly because such an assertiveness requires a moral underpinning, given the negative experience of German power projection during the last century, “Israel’s security”—ideologically legitimized by the experience of the Holocaust—has advanced to part of Germany’s “raison d’état” (Staatsräson), as expressed by Chancellor Merkel during a speech in the Knesset in 2009. Despite public criticism of settlement construction, present-day Germany is effectively an enabler of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian people. Economic, political, and civil society relations between both states are extensive, whereas cooperation between the German and Israeli militaries is increasing. Since reunification, Germany mobilizes its clout within European institutions to block any effective condemnation of Israeli policies by the EU. The normalization processes between Israel and certain Arab states (“Abraham Accords ”) have weakened German foreign policy’s main incentive for verbally supporting Palestinian concerns, namely avoiding negative repercussions in relations with the Arab world.


The Federal Republic of Germany has historically been one of Israel’s most strategic and vital allies. For Germany, establishing a special relationship to Israel served to obscure the numerous continuities between the Third Reich and the Federal Republic. In their early phase, both the Federal Republic and Israel were bound by Cold War anti-communism and distrust of US accommodation to the bipolar world order and overtures to the Arab world. West German–Israeli relations became strained as the interests of the Federal Republic and the United States diverged in the era of détente. As the US moved closer to Israel, West Germany moved closer to the Arab world, driven primarily by the need for oil, trade, and arms deals. In the context of the Europeanization of West German foreign policy, Bonn recognized Palestinian concerns, while acting to counterbalance the more pro-Arab inclinations of France within the European Economic Community (EEC).

It can be argued that there never existed a specific German policy on the question of Palestine, since such a policy was always a derivative of the broader objective to balance the special relationship to Tel Aviv on the one hand and the need to preserve cordial economic relations with the Arab world on the other. The current normalization process between Israel and certain Arab states, aimed primarily against Iran , furthermore reduces the political costs of German inaction in the face of the ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip , ongoing settlement construction, creeping annexation in the West Bank, and the drastic curtailment of the rights of Israel’s Palestinian citizens. This has been made abundantly clear by Germany’s complete support for Israel’s genocidal attack on the Gaza Strip in late 2023 and its abstention on a UN General Assembly vote for a ceasefire on 26 October 2023.

Selected Bibliography: 

Fischer, Leandros. “Deciphering Germany’s Pro-Israel Consensus.” Journal of Palestine Studies 48, no.2 (2019): 26–42. DOI: 10.1525/jps.2019.48.2.26.

Lewan, Kenneth M. “How West Germany Helped Build Israel.” Journal of Palestine Studies 4, no.4 (1975): 41–64. https://doi.org/10.2307/2535601.

Lewan, Kenneth M. “Germany’s Mid-East Policy.” Journal of Palestine Studies 11, no.3 (1982): 135–39. https://doi.org/10.2307/2536078.

Marwecki, Daniel. Germany and Israel: Whitewashing and Statebuilding. London: C. Hurst, 2020.

Scheffler, Thomas (1988). “Die Normalisierung der Doppelmoral: Vierzig Jahre deutsch-israelische Beziehungen,” PROKLA 18, 73, pp.76–96. https://doi.org/10.32387/prokla.v18i73.1274.