Lecture Review: Dr. Lorena De Vita on ‘Democracy, Relativism and Pragmatism: The 1952 Agreement between the Federal Republic of Germany and Israel’.

Written by Eleanor Hemming

This semester, the Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary History are putting on a series of fascinating and relevant seminars, where leading scholars from all over the UK and Europe come to Edinburgh to talk about their research.

This week, the visiting speaker was Dr. Lorena De Vita, a professor of History of International Relations at the University of Utrecht. Presenting her paper on the topic of ‘Democracy, Relativism and Pragmatism: The 1952 Agreement between the Federal Republic of Germany and Israel,’ De Vita highlighted the importance of this agreement as not only the first case where reparations were paid between two countries that had not themselves existed at the time the crimes were committed, but also a subject that breaches the broad question of responsibility and repentance from state to state. Furthermore, De Vita emphasised that this agreement between the FRG and Israel sheds light on broader topics of the Cold War, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the relationship between the FRG and the GDR, and even the importance of linguistic choices.

Dr. De Vita began her seminar by highlighting the difference in response to reparation payment from the FRG and GDR, and the reasons for these differing responses. As a young democracy, she highlighted that it was important for West Germany (the FRG) to show that they were a responsible and democratic nation, ready to negotiate as a serious player on the world stage. Furthermore, De Vita argued that negotiations with Israel helped solidify the FRG’s self-proclaimed position as the voice of all Germans. Despite the FRG’s already precarious financial position, pressure from outside in the form of allied forces advised the FRG that reparations were ‘politically smart and morally right.’ In contrast, De Vita pointed out that the GDR (East Germany) did not receive pressure from Moscow to likewise showcase their newfound responsibility and remorse. From the outset, the GDR had presented itself as a country of communists, resistors against the Nazis, who had thus also suffered and, had not played a part in the genocide of the Jews. De Vita concluded that the result was two opposite policies on Israel from the two Germanys – one of attempted reconciliation, and one of a lack of recognition.

Dr. De Vita then went on to underline the significance of these negotiations in the international sphere, which went beyond the Cold War tensions between East and West, having important implications for the Arab-Israeli conflict. One of Israel’s claims for reparations stemmed from the flow of Jewish refugees they had received after the collapse of the Third Reich, which had cost them dearly – and after the Arab-Israeli conflict, the numbers of refugees only grew, as those who had previously lived happily in the Middle East found themselves subject to hostility. However, the Arab League was concerned by the prospect of reparations strengthening Israeli power and thus becoming a greater threat in the Middle East. Furthermore, Arab states argued that if Israel was being compensated for the flow of Jewish refugees into Israel, then they themselves should be equally compensated for the flow of refugees out of Palestine. The Arab League felt that they too had been seriously affected by the creation of Israel, and, having always had an accepting attitude to Jews in their own countries, felt they also had a right to reparations. From the perspective of the FRG, they did not want to upset the Arab League by taking sides with Israel in the conflict, and in an attempt to reconcile the situation, a delegation was sent to Cairo to negotiate with the Arab League there. Unfortunately, a spanner was thrown in the works – East Germany turned up out of the blue! This put an end to negotiations – De Vita emphasised that it was not only embarrassing for the FRG to be shown up like this, it moreover made it difficult for West Germany to act as the one defining voice of all Germans.

Alongside the political effects of these negotiations, Dr. De Vita was keen to emphasise the importance of language and the moral implications language choices had. Language can say a lot about people’s attitudes to an event, and this agreement was no different. De Vita focused on the words chosen by either side to mean ‘reparations’, which interestingly, although perhaps not surprisingly, had two very different connotations. The Hebrew ‘shilumin’ used by the Israeli side indicates a material payment, but no expiation of guilt for the crime. In contrast, the German word ‘Wiedergutmachung’ translates as ‘making good again,’ and has a sense of going beyond the material sphere. It was not only the linguistic choices around the word ‘reparations’ that became a political point. At the negotiations themselves, despite the fact that every member sitting round the table spoke German as a native tongue, all talks were conducted in English. This, if nothing else, highlights the still high hostility between both governments – a fact perhaps unsurprising as many members of the new FRG state had also worked in the government of the Third Reich. Furthermore, it represents the desire of both states to present themselves as established states with separate values – despite the fact that at this time many Israeli citizens had ties to Germany, and vice versa. These ties were shown up clearly at the negotiation table itself, as one member of the German delegation, hearing English being spoken in the accent of his home town, discovered that he had gone to the same high school, one year apart, as his Israeli counterpart.

The paper was then commented on by Stephan Malinowski, who led us to consider whether reparations had impacted the future relations between Germany and Israel, and discussed the continuing question of anti-Semitism today with a rise in right-wing voting sympathies across Europe. Malinowski reflected that De Vita raised some broader questions about the moral meaning of reparations as a purely monetary gesture to ‘make things good again,’ or as a transaction with a deeper meaning that can be applied today in post-colonial states or amongst Native and African-Americans.

The CMSCH will be holding two further seminars this semester, firstly on the 31 October, where anthropologist Esra Ozyurek from LSE will be discussing Holocaust memory and democratic emotions amongst Turkish Germans, and on the 14 November, when Jake Blanc from Edinburgh University will present his paper on democracy and dictatorship in the Brazilian countryside. To find out more, look up the Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary History on Facebook, and come along to what promises to be another interesting and thought-provoking event.

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