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With the kind permission of C.H. Beck Verlag, former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, and Columbia University historian Fritz Stern, I am pleased to present here the first in a series of excerpts from the bestselling book Unser Jahrhundert – Ein Gespräch, in an English translation I have prepared.
i. israeli-german relations
schmidt: … In this connection we need to discuss the relationship between Israel and Germany.
stern: Yes, but also the relationship between America and Israel and not just with respect to the neoconservatives. Until recently hardly anyone was permitted to criticize Israel. An open discussion is just beginning now—on this point I have become more optimistic. There is a new organization composed of reasonable Jews and non-Jews that is attempting to develop a new policy. Overall we can say that a majority of American Jews are reasonable and do not belong to those who support every policy of the Israeli government. But the minority is so well organized, so wealthy, and so ideologically motivated that it plays a major role. By this I mean groups that are not necessarily neoconservative, but are close to Likud and identify themselves strongly with Israel and believe that no criticism can be tolerated. It’s much more difficult to speak critically of Israel in America than in Israel. The Israeli press, the Israeli public is much more open than my country, where criticism of Israel is quickly denounced as anti-Semitism. It’s even worse than in Germany, I think.
schmidt: But in Germany it’s pretty bad. Even here one hardly dares to express any criticism of Israel for fear of being labeled an anti-Semite.
stern: Sometimes America is hindered by its political correctness. In the beginning it was different, then after the Holocaust there was a genuine sympathy for Israel together with a sense of responsibility, and the United States was the first nation to recognize Israel. Perhaps there was a conscious or unconscious feeling of guilt: we should have done more for the persecuted Jews. Then the power of American Jewry grew stronger, playing an important role during the elections.
schmidt: It also plays an important role in the media.
stern: That’s true, but of lesser importance. Those organizations that engage in electoral politics exercise greater influence, such as aipac–the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. They took an extreme right-wing position from the outset, aimed at American populism, and built a close tie between right-wing Americans and Israel. But even Democrats in Congress find it impossible to articulate any criticism of Israel. I remember that during the last primaries John Kerry gave a speech, during the last primaries, in which he said that we had to be “even balanced” in Middle Eastern questions. This provoked a storm. I was asked what I thought of this. This was very reasonable, I said. If America wants to exercise influence, it has to be “even handed,” not “even balanced,” but “even handed,” just to both sides. But the strength and the sensitivity of a large part of American Jewry, which is well organized, reach far. For them there is only – My Israel, right or wrong. My attitude towards them is simple: why shouldn’t I be every bit as critical of Israeli politics as Israelis are themselves? Just because I live in New York and not in Jerusalem?
schmidt: You see how prickly this issue is.
stern: Indeed. In America I could easily be labeled an anti-Semite for saying what I just said.
schmidt: We should be clear that there are at most fifteen million Jews in the world, of which five million live in Israel and five to six million in the United States. I’m not sure. That makes eleven, and the remaining four are distributed across the entire world—out of which a few hundred thousand are in Germany, and more in France, a few remain in the Middle East and a few in Russia. This is a small state whose settlements policy on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip makes a peaceful solution practically impossible. This is why the Israelis have squandered much of the sympathy for them in Germany.
stern: When did the turnaround come?
schmidt: The sympathy was in the beginning absolutely overwhelming. This persisted into the seventies and eighties. I don’t believe there is any one precise turning point, but the sympathy for Israel dissipated.
stern: As a result of the settlements policy?
schmidt: Probably, yes. And through the pattern of responding to terror with terror of their own.
stern: And the sympathy for the Palestinians in spite of a figure like Arafat –
schmidt: There is little sympathy for the Palestinians in Germany, I sense none. There is absolutely the will to develop sympathy for the Islamic world, but not with respect to the Palestinians, not in Gaza, not in Lebanon or the West Bank.
stern: Is there a lobby for Israel in Germany, as there is in the United States?
schmidt: As Chancellor in 2008, Mrs. Merkel publicly stated that Germany bears responsibility for the security of the state of Israel, and I wonder whether this came from proximity to American policy or from other moral inspiration. In my eyes this was a serious exaggeration, but it is the official line. Steinmeier would have formulated it similarly.
stern: Would you not agree that Germany bears a special responsibility for the security of Israel?
schmidt: The expression “special responsibility” popped up this morning in connection with Poland; and in this case I declined it as well. Germany has a special responsibility to insure that such crimes as occurred in the Holocaust never occur again. But Germany has no responsibility for Israel.
stern: On this point I have a different view. I can well understand that Germans have a sense of joint responsibility for Israel. But that does not exclude criticism, rather to the contrary. It is important to criticize Israel’s policies and to strengthen domestic forces there.
schmidt: A special responsibility for the security of Israel—that strikes me almost as the duty of an ally.
stern: I wouldn’t go that far. But consider as an example the revolting threats of Ahmadinejad, who denies Israel’s right to exist and who appears to pursue a policy aimed at Israel’s destruction. Are the Germans not obligated on the basis of what happened in the past to stand at Israel’s side in this circumstance?
schmidt: That is correct, but I would not use the word “responsibility.”
stern: All right, support and solidarity in such a case—
schmidt: I am always very skeptical when I hear that Germans are supposed to have a certain view and this view finds its expression with respect to the politics of other states and other nations. Very skeptical. There is an aspiration to being a big player that stands behind this which is very unsympathetic and suspicious to me.
stern: Do you think that this aspiration is particularly developed among the Germans?
schmidt: No, I don’t think so, not as it is in America, for instance.
schmidt: And not so well developed as it is in France, for instance – that is true. Nevertheless, the German aspiration to be a player is unattractive.
stern: Yes, and in view of Germany’s past particularly unpleasant.
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"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."