While it may seem strange and impolite, if not outrageously offensive, to point this out, modern Israel and Germany share a number of things in common.
Both countries are outgrowths of the defeat of the most ignominious regime in history, Nazi Germany, and acquired statehood at approximately the same time — Israel in 1948 and West Germany in 1949.
Tenuous Claim to Sovereignty
Both began as provisional states in the sense they initially held tenuous claims to sovereignty and nationhood.
After proclaiming its independence in 1948, Israel embarked on a long, arduous struggle to affirm its sovereignty. Under a United Nations proposal, it was originally intended to function as a kind of binational state, sharing the territory of Palestine with an Arabic state with whom it would maintain an economic union.
But Israel’s assertion of independence led to an Arabic uprising rather than a union. In the fighting that followed, Israel ended up securing a large swath of the territory envisioned for the Arabs. Consequently, the Jewish state has struggled with a legitimacy issue from the beginning.
West Germany, formerly known as the Federal Republic of Germany, faced its own territorial dilemma and struggles asserting its legitimacy. Encompassing slightly more than half of the territory of the pre-war German Reich, it was established in spite of a previous Allied agreement to set up a unified German state in all the remaining Reich territory.
Until its unification with East Germany in 1990, the Federal Republic never claimed to be the successor of the German Reich, only a democratic government organized in a part of Germany.
Further complicating the legitimacy issue, both states lacked what is arguably the most critical asset in terms of asserting national sovereignty and legitimacy: their lack of unambiguous claims to their historic capitals — Jerusalem in the case of Israel, Berlin in Germany’s case — facts that caused both states a measure of psychological unease.
Like all emerging states, they struggled to build compelling national narratives. In another remarkable coincidence, both of these states looked to events in the desperate struggle against Nazi Germany as defining events of their national identities — prequels to their emergence as states — much as Americans look to the Boston Tea Party as the opening act of their own national history.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943
Israel pointed to the ill-fated Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, an armed struggle to prevent German authorities from transporting the remaining residents of the Jewish ghetto the Treblinka extermination camp — a struggle commemorated today as a singular act of human courage in the face of overwhelming odds.
For West Germany, the seminal event was the July 20th plot, an attempt by a circle of German political and military leaders to assassinate Hitler, to depose his genocidal state, and to establish a more humane state, though not necessarily a democratic one, in its place.
It, too, is remembered today as a collective act of remarkable valor in the face of desperate odds.
Holocaust Remembrance Day was established in 1953 to commemorate the Ghetto Uprising, the celebration of which provides an unusually compelling backdrop for Israel’s ongoing struggle for survival in the volatile Middle East.
Yet, the uprising was not an exclusively Zionist undertaking, nor was it the opening act of Israeli nationalism. Zionists certainly played a part but so did other Jews who held diverse views of Jewish identity: Orthodox, Hasidic, Zionists, and assimilated Jews.
Indeed, most of the politicized Jews were not Zionists but Polish communists, socialists and members of the Jewish Socialist Bund. Writing a few years ago for the New York Times, Yale University Professor Marci Shore cites the debate between Zionists and Bundists over “hereness” and “thereness,” with the Bundists arguing that the future for Jews was in Poland, living in a Jewish community that was autonomous but nonetheless a part of the Polish State. Indeed, the combatants fought under Polish and Star of David flags displayed side by side.
The July 20th Plot
The West Germans faced their challenges, too, trying to meld the July 20th Plot into the modern German national narrative. Well into the 50’s, many Germans considered members of the plot as traitors who violated their oaths, even though these had been given to someone so despicable as Hitler. In 1956, a public outcry followed a proposal to name a school after Klaus von Stauffenberg, the principal conspirator.
Only with the passage of time was the July 20th plot successfully woven into the German national narrative. The ill-fated conspiracy is now commemorated annually on the grounds of the old Reichstag, where soldiers of the Bundeswehr, the federal armed forces of Germany, reaffirm their oaths to protect and defend democratic Germany.
But Israel and Germany were sealed in another, quite unexpected way in the years following the war. While the emerging West German state did not claim successor status to the German Reich, Chancellor Adenauer contended that as Germany’s only democratically elected government, it bore responsibility for compensating Holocaust survivors.
Feelers went out to the new Jewish state, but initially few Jews were willing to talk. Eventually, Adenauer built a close working relationship with German-born Nahum Goldman, President of the World Jewish Congress. After a series of talks, Adenauer and Goldmann agreed to a sum of $1.5 billion, which was delivered to Israel in the form of capital goods over the next 12 years.
According to Dennis Bark and David Gress, authors of “A History of West Germany,” these payments covered roughly 15 percent of the value of Israeli imports “and were of inestimable value to the country,” which teetered on the verge of bankruptcy early in the 1950’s.
Singular Acts of Kindness
Historians speculate that Adenauer’s determination to provide compensation, despite the material deprivation that prevailed in Germany at the time, stemmed from two acts of kindness by two prominent Jews during one of the darkest periods of his life. Both of these men —Dannie Heinemann and a Frankfurt professor named Krauss—offered financial support to Adenauer after he was removed as mayor of Cologne, his bank account blocked and his pay docked by the Nazis.
Reflecting on this kindness years later, Adenauer wrote: “As Lord Mayor of Cologne, I had many friends. Heinemann and Professor Kraus were the only ones who offered me any help after I was dismissed. Both were Jews.”