May and June mark two important anniversaries in Germany’s postwar rebuilding and return to the community of nations: the end of World War II in Europe and the beginning of German-Israeli diplomatic relations. These two events have been instrumental in how Germany approaches its reconciliation efforts with both its former victims and its former enemies, a topic discussed in this working paper by Dr. Lily Gardner Feldman, originally presented on April 22, 2016 at a conference at George Mason University entitled “Facing a Violent Past: Dealing with History and Memory in Conflict Resolution.”
History and memory, specifically regarding the Holocaust, have indelibly defined the German-Israeli relationship since 1949. Over the last seven decades, the two partners have publicly introduced history and memory in a variety of ways: as acknowledgement of and responsibility for historical crimes; as acts of commemoration at memorial sites; as remembrance speeches on anniversaries of Holocaust events; and as negative backdrop for positive activities that underscore the friendship and partnership of contemporary German-Israeli relations. The first three expressions are direct examples of the role of history and memory in current ties, whereas the last is a more indirect manifestation. The first three speak to the moral motivations both Germany and Israel bring for the partnership, whereas the fourth reflects pragmatic thinking by Germany and Israel.
This paper examines the similarities and differences between the German and Israeli official approaches – between perpetrator and victim – to history and memory. Rather than analyzing these issues through the seven-decade life of the German-Israeli “special relationship,” the paper focuses on activities in 2015, in which the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the Holocaust and the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries coincided. While commemoration and remembrance have a long history in post-war Germany and in Israel, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the Holocaust was underscored by leaders because of a dwindling generation of witnesses. Foreign Minister Steinmeier, for example, observed at the anniversary of the liberation of Sachsenhausen:
“[I]it is getting ever more difficult to keep this memory [of the Holocaust] alive as, unfortunately, ever fewer survivors of the National Socialist terror remain to recount their experiences themselves.” Conceptually, the analysis is informed by notions of history found in literature on reconciliation.
Dr. Lily Gardner Feldman is the Harry & Helen Gray Senior Fellow and Director of the Society, Culture & Politics Program at AICGS.