No, Germany Shouldn’t Pay Holocaust Reparations in Military Hardware for Israel

The Jerusalem Post has proposed that Germany pay off its remaining Holocaust reparations in military hardware for Israel. No financial compensation can make up for history's greatest crimes — but it shouldn’t be used against Palestinians in the present.

German chancellor Angela Merkel and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu address a press conference after a meeting in Berlin, 2018. (Tobias Schwarz / AFP via Getty Images)

In 1952, the West German government in Bonn began payments to the State of Israel. Eventually totaling 3 billion Deutschmarks, the reparations were conceived as material compensation for Nazi Germany’s crimes against European Jews during the Holocaust.

Even at the time, the payments met with fierce opposition. Many early Israelis understandably loathed the idea that German reparations might be thought to equate to moral atonement, while others — including the new state’s founder David Ben-Gurion — saw this as an essential prop in building an industrialized Israel. A little-known detail of the arrangement, however, is that payment is yet to be completed, and an outstanding amount — $19 billion in today’s money — is still owed.

Because Germany was divided at that time, West Germany only paid two-thirds of its compensation — asserting, reasonably enough, that it saw no reason why it should make payment on behalf of East Germany; an entirely different country separated by walls, fences, watchtowers, and hostile relations.

Though Germany is now reunified, the debt repayment remains incomplete. And while knowledge of the missing payments is hardly widespread, it has not been forgotten.

The Israeli state, at an institutional level, remains conscious of the debt, as does Israeli media. In keeping with the spirit of military aid that made up much of the initial reparations, the right-wing Jerusalem Post proposed recently that this remaining Holocaust compensation could be used to help Israel finance a corruption-marred deal for German submarines.

Despite the interest, however, broader awareness of the debt seems to be needed to create momentum toward its eventual payment. The remaining reparations can also serve to prompt a more honest discussion about the Holocaust, Germany’s relation to Israel, and the effects of the Holocaust’s vast crater upon an innocent people blamelessly caught up in its fallout: the Palestinians.

Without this debate, there is a danger that the debt becomes the property — at least so far as ownership of debate is concerned — of populist and Zionist forces who have regularly shown more commitment to defending the actions of the Israeli state than any serious reckoning on antisemitism, the Shoah, Jewish diaspora, and certainly to Palestinians. In 2019, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government signed off a much sought-after Israeli endorsement for a Budapest Holocaust museum, despite widespread Jewish condemnation of the government led by his EU ally, Viktor Orbán, for using historical revisionism to downplay Hungarian complicity in the Nazi extermination of the country’s Jewish population. Unperturbed, Netanyahu’s son, Yair, went on to speak at an event at the museum.

Unpacking Claims

Though the transactional nature of these relationships can seem unsettling, this is oddly in keeping with the original West German payment. Reparation funds went not to Israel but to Cologne, in the German industrial heartland; from there an Israeli office placed orders with German companies for locomotives, train tracks, electronics, and even dock cranes for the port in the newly occupied Palestinian city of Haifa. Companies ranging from Siemens to Volkswagen, themselves implicated throughout the Nazi era, were integral to a package that also contributed to West Germany’s own postwar industrial stimulus.

But if there is to be a more meaningful settling of the debt, a broader conversation is now needed. Fortuitously, this also provides a path which offers greater opportunity for healing than the initial West German compensation to Israel, dominated as it was by the military and industrial hardware then used by Zionists to violently settle Palestine, and repel Arab invasions in support of the 1 million Palestinians violently displaced by the Nakba.

It is impossible to overstate the rage that the initial West German deal evoked among Israeli Holocaust survivors, leftists, and conservatives alike, all disgusted by their leadership’s connivance with a West German state already showing a shaky commitment to de-Nazification in its own ranks, public discourse, and industrial powerhouses.

The bilateral arrangement between Germany and Israel also poses further questions. Although in a world of nation-states there is an inevitability to Holocaust compensation being settled between Germany and Israel, this marginalizes the global Jewish diaspora who take increasing issue with Israel positioning itself as the custodian to Jewishness — particularly problematic given Zionist efforts to conflate Judaism with the ritualized abuse of Palestinians.

Not all those Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust supported Zionism. The poet Paul Celan, a Romanian-German Jew, remarked to relatives in Israel his sad resolve that he “must live out to the end the destiny of the Jewish spirit in Europe.” It is the duty of European anti-racism to disprove Celan’s words. West Germany did make a 1952 payment to the World Jewish Congress, intended to cover the diaspora. But why should Holocaust survivors and victims who remain in Europe, or who went to North America, continue to see compensation instead being sent to Israel? This concern becomes particularly acute as these survivors and their relatives increasingly reject Israeli policy in Palestine.

Where, moreover, is the money to be spent in Israel, and is the spending in-turn in violation of international law and human rights? Does it go to a military that commits war crimes or fuels corruption in Israel, as with the renowned Netanyahu submarine deal? Is it spent on roads where Palestinians are forbidden from driving, walls they cannot cross, or to religious education that intensifies Jewish extremism that endangers both Palestinians and more secular Jews?

Questions concerning nonpayment of compensation sprawl quickly to the Roma and Sinti communities, and many other European minorities who lost their lives to the Nazis. The fund for Romani Holocaust survivors — with a weaker public voice than pro-Israel groups — has repeatedly run empty, with an ensuing hardship for Holocaust survivors and descendants among Europe’s already low-income Romani population.

To their credit, Jewish groups and media have often highlighted the injury being done to the Romani. But the potential for outstanding grievances were exemplified when, during its 2015 bailout negotiations with the European Central Bank, Greece demanded proper reparations totaling nearly €300 billion for its brutalization under Nazi occupation. The request went ignored.

Third Parties

None of this even begins to address one of the most integral populations to any compensation paid to the Israeli government: Palestinians.

While it remains fashionable to argue that issues in Palestine are — particularly for Germany and Israel — “complicated,” reality brings to mind the rather more accurate word “awkward.” Nazi Germany orchestrated a near-total extermination of European Jews, but to atone for that mortal sin, Germany, Europe, and the West more broadly have been largely content to see Israel accommodated with Palestinian lives and land in return for the abuses of the Nazis’ “blood and soil” campaign within Europe.

Under this policy, the Nazis set in motion three exterminations; much of European Jewry and other minorities, the Yiddish culture that found little home in the new, Hebrew land of Israel, and the Palestinians who still suffer ethnic cleansing, blockade, and sanctions to accommodate the Zionist project. The tragic, self-recriminating claim by the twentieth-century Polish-Jewish socialist Isaac Deutscher, that more Jews would have been alive had people like him not believed in Europe, asserts — as Deutscher eventually felt compelled to — that in the end Jewish safety in (or rather from) Europe, even for onetime anti-Zionist Jews, apparently necessitated Palestinian dispossession and its associated abuses.

If Palestinian land was the geographical offering to correct this sin, its ideological equivalent has for Germany been found in the Antideutsch; an extreme position that has gone on, in softer forms, to permeate German left-liberalism in general. The Antideutsch school of thought purports to be a repudiation of German nationalism and so Nazism. But in its full-blooded and incontrovertible support of Israel (and so, by dubious and arguably anti-Semitic extension, all Jews) is actually anything but, instead representing a contrived effort to (belatedly) welcome Jews (in Israel) into the fold of white power. That Arab or African Jews in Israel might also get caught up along with Palestinians in this application of Zionism is unsurprising (but for the Antideutsch, excusable) collateral damage.

While seldom articulated so candidly, the implication of these ideas is hardly a fringe element in German political thinking. Outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel once outlined Germany’s “special obligation to support Israel” in response to another Israeli purchase of German naval vessels. A recent training exercise involving the Israeli and German air forces saw for the first time Israeli and Luftwaffe fighter jets flying together over Palestine, further enmeshing the military powers of Holocaust perpetrator and victim in skies above the razor wire, border wall, and military presence that now vivisect occupied Palestine.

If it is a unique German duty to protect Israel, it should at least protect it properly, or better, protect all those — Palestinians included — whose lives are dictated by Israeli authority.

Ways Forward

Despite the colossal weight of history, in fair handling of the compensation matter, Germany does, however, hold a unique and indeed positive opportunity to do both some internal soul-searching about Palestine, while advancing constructive policy in Palestine itself. Full payment of its Holocaust debt was not made by Germany because it was at the time a divided country, just as Palestine/Israel is now divided.

There is poetic symmetry to the notion that a now-unified Germany could use the remainder of its debt to help Palestine and Israel also find a form of unity together. Israeli appeals to international law regarding the debt tend to ring hollow when this same state is so content to flout most elements of such law. The settling of a German division in Europe, moreover, should and can help heal a divide which Germany propagated elsewhere. In this sense, a principled withholding would be more dignified than the current policy of mere delay.

Quite apart from its internal logic, the solution is optimistic in signposting toward a future of coexistence, which indeed most people want for Palestine and Israel. The missing $19 billion, or “the missing one-third” as it is sometimes known, can become a leverage for real peace and justice for Israelis from Germany, and peace and justice for Palestinians from Israelis (and by extension, Germany).

This sort of moral conditionality would also help acknowledge that Palestinians deserve compensation from Germany and its European allies in lieu of the outflux of trauma and brutality they set in motion with their Holocaust and then, along with the rest of Europe and the West, are since guilty of overlooking between the River and the Sea.

Nor are the benefits only external. German youth, increasingly Arab and Muslim, but also those whose ancestors perpetrated, abetted or suffered the Holocaust, can move toward the internally more honest, confident country they deserve, free of the simplistic extremism of the Antideutsch and its outsourcing of Holocaust guilt to Palestine.

Israel will see the settling of a painful debt but in a way that helps it too in becoming a healthier entity, more unified with the Palestinians who have suffered most while being responsible for least of the violence that accelerated its way from Europe into Palestine during the 1940s and after. No amount of money can compensate either Jewish or now Palestinian suffering for what has been done. But this approach is at least holistic in accounting for atrocities that have come to take place not only in Europe but also in Palestine.

Regional Thinking

For all that a method like this cuts against the extremism of the Antideutsch, it is not unsuited to the existing German, and in turn EU, approach toward Israeli policy in Palestine. Although the German state still sells arms and policing equipment to the government in West Jerusalem — just as it did in the wake of the Holocaust — and during the recent Israeli bombing of Gaza censored Palestinian voices in notionally “free” German media, it does — in true German and EU fashion — try to maintain a certain by-the-book stance on Palestine.

EU member states are regular aid partners to Palestinians, donating solar panels and mobile classrooms (many since stolen and sold-on by Israeli occupation forces), and hosting civil society groups. Germany is one of the largest bilateral donors to Palestine, and official EU policy is for an Israel along 1967 lines, before its territorial grab in the Six Day War.

One long-standing source of acrimony was resolved in 2019 by a European Court of Justice ruling in favor of claims that benefit Palestinians and small producers globally. To uphold European consumer rights, EU food-origin regulations require honest and accurate labeling of foods exported from illegal Israeli settlements — in so doing helping EU customers to boycott human rights–compromising products. Despite the regulations covering produce from disputed regions around the globe, and region-specific labeling having an overall positive impact for small farmers everywhere, Israel was quick to claim that this was in fact merely Europe engaging in antisemitism.

Soft and technocratic approaches to solving a hard, military, and supremacist occupation in Palestine are obviously limited in what they can achieve. But such measures, and conditioning compensation to Israelis and Palestinians, at least offer small ways forward, and mark an effort to encourage Israel into a regard for the rule of law. Emphasis should be to move toward justice for Jews and Palestinians together, while impressing upon Israel the merits of not being an apartheid state.

Nor do these gains only flow one-way. A common source of discord within the EU is its need of a foreign policy, and while France has preferred to pursue militarism and antagonism toward ex-colonies in North Africa, and together with Greece in the Mediterranean, Germany has generally been better attuned to grasping and wielding soft power. Angela Merkel implicitly understood the need and the good in taking 1 million Syrian refugees, or liaising with, rather than antagonizing, Turkey in the face of France’s eastward Mediterranean expansionism.

Although its autocratic leaders increasingly try to obfuscate it, the Arab world and Middle East is entirely united in its support of the Palestinian cause, and the EU would do well to acknowledge this, forging representative relations with populations rather than their repressive juntas or monarchs. For all that it sometimes tries not to, Europe borders the Middle East, but still struggles to understand how best to do so.

Today, few people know of Germany’s debts. But they offer an important opportunity to place German atonement and Jewish healing alongside the now interrelated questions of Palestinian justice and Middle East peace. Right-wing Zionists have until now failed to recreate the initial left-right coalition that so forcefully opposed the insult of German reparations in the early years of the Israeli state project. It might be that success in their claims requires engagement also with the question of Palestine. Under such terms, current petitioners may even find some unexpected allies.