Subscriber OnlyMiddle EastAnalysis

How attitudes to Israel are shifting – and hardening – in the wider German population

Merkel suggested Israel’s security was Germany’s Staatsräson (raison d’etre) but how far, and how unconditional, is that support in these challenging times?

The past does not stop: it interrogates us in the present. The words of late German writer Siegfried Lenz have been haunting his homeland as it scrambles to respond to the horror of October 7th.

Two weeks on, Israel now describes that day – the murder by Hamas of 1,300 Israelis and capture of more than 200 hostages – as the largest massacre of Jews since the Shoah.

Some 4,000km away, in the country behind the industrialised Nazi-era murder of six million European Jews, the panic is palpable.

Eight decades ago in October 1943, SS officers liquidated the Minsk ghetto and deported thousands of Jews from Rome and Kaunas. Today the grandchildren of those same perpetrators now wonder what to say or do about the horror of October 7th, the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza – and the massacre many fear is to come.


For some in Ireland this week, the post-attack trip to Israel of European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen offers a blueprint of what not to do and what not to say.

In two hard-hitting Bundestag speeches – and a press conference in Jerusalem – Chancellor Olaf Scholz rammed home one message: ‘Germany’s place is at Israel’s side’

Her expression of unqualified support for Israel while failing to mention the plight of Gaza civilians was, according to President Michael D Higgins, “thoughtless and even reckless”. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told von der Leyen this week that her remarks “lacked balance”.

After days of damage-limitation and row-back from her commission, though, how typical – or atypical – are the German politician’s remarks her homeland?

“I think the commission president headed off with a very strong German instinct,” said Prof Guntram Wolff, president of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), a leading think-tank in Berlin. “But you cannot forget the time element, either. She was one of the first there with the images of terror in Israel still fresh. For everyone this is very difficult to balance, and for Germans in particular.”

Striking a balance on Israel is a deceptively simple business for a German chancellor. In two hard-hitting Bundestag speeches – and a press conference in Jerusalem – Chancellor Olaf Scholz rammed home one message: “Germany’s place is at Israel’s side.”

“Our history, our responsibility arising from the Holocaust, makes it our constant task to stand up for the existence and security of the state of Israel. This responsibility guides us,” he told Berlin’s parliament on October 12th.

In that first post-attack Bundestag address, he backed Israel’s right to defend itself and offered German material support, before warning against others getting involved. Iran’s jubilation at the attacks was “disgusting”, the silence of the Palestinian Authority “shameful”.

When the chancellor mentioned the civilian population of Gaza, 14 paragraphs into his address, it was to note that “the suffering and distress of the civilian population in the Gaza Strip will only continue to grow. Hamas also bears responsibility for this with its attack on Israel.”

A notable shift came in last Thursday’s Bundestag address, perhaps mindful of latest Gaza developments and the von der Leyen blowback. Two minutes into his address, Scholz told the Bundestag of the growing humanitarian tragedy among the people of Gaza: “They are as much hostages of Hamas.”

Scholz is Germany’s ninth postwar chancellor to walk the Middle East minefield. In 1951, two years after West Germany’s foundation, then-chancellor Konrad Adenauer spoke of how “untold crimes have been committed in the name of the German people, which demand moral and material reparation”. A year later he signed a reparation agreement with Israel, paying compensation for the suffering of millions of Jewish people as well as stolen assets.

Formal ties between Bonn and Jerusalem were established in 1965, with wariness and caution defining the early relationship. Two years later, Bonn remained silent during the six-day war when Israel’s territory quadrupled after its takeover of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the old city of Jerusalem.

During a visit to Poland in 1971, West Germany’s first Social Democratic chancellor Willy Brandt knelt at a memorial to the Nazi-erected Warsaw Ghetto. He later described his gesture as motivated by “the guilt and historical responsibility of the German people”.

Helmut Kohl irked some in Israel during his first visit in 1983 by declaring he was young enough not to have served under the Nazis and thus enjoyed the ‘mercy of a late birth’

“The ineradicable murder of millions of Jews in Europe,” he said, “will determine the German relation to Israel and gives it its distinctive feature.”

A huge setback to postwar reconciliation came at the Munich Olympics in 1972, when a bungled West German intelligence and police response to a Palestinian terrorist hostage crisis saw the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes and their coaches.

After a chilly period under Helmut Schmidt, in part because he had served in the Wehrmacht, Helmut Kohl irked some in Israel during his first visit in 1983 by declaring he was young enough not to have served under the Nazis and thus enjoyed the “mercy of a late birth”.

Still, Kohl approved the export of submarines to Israel during the 1991 Gulf War, part of a secretive and long-standing tradition that has seen Germany provide arms, boats, tanks and other equipment at little or no cost. This year saw a role reversal with Germany’s purchase of a $3.5 billion air defence system, co-designed by Israel.

For many, the foundation stone of the modern German-Israeli relations was laid in 2008. To mark the 60th anniversary of the modern state of Israel, Angela Merkel was invited as first foreign leader to speak before the Knesset.

In her address – in German, to some MPs’ disgust – Merkel noted how she, like every chancellor before her, was committed to Germany’s special historical responsibility for Israel’s security.

“Israel’s security is never negotiable for me,” she said, describing this as Germany’s Staatsräson, reason of state or raison d’être.

It was a new term for the relationship and just what she actually meant has, in the past two weeks, become an issue of heated debate.

Former Merkel officials insist today that the term was not intended as a far-reaching upgrade of bilateral relations. Nor, they say, was it meant in a legalistic sense that the chancellor had unilaterally linked Germany’s national interests to those of another sovereign state. Instead, her remark should be seen in the context of the time, they say, when then Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pledged to wipe Israel off the map.

The thinking of the Merkel team as they drafted the Knesset address was: Germany’s postwar return from the moral abyss of the Nazi era was inextricably linked to Israel’s ongoing existence – if necessary with German support.

But how far – and how unconditional – is this Staatsräson support in these challenging times under her successor?

Berlin’s recent security strategy makes no mention of Staatsräson, noting only that Germany “will continue to take on responsibility for Israel’s right to exist”.

Since October 7th, however Scholz has revived Staatsräson, but in a slightly different context, telling the Bundestag: “The security of Israel is the German Staatsräson.

Scholz administration officials decline to say who, for them, defines Israel’s security level. They insist the Scholz-era Staatsräson is a political rather than legal term that is unlikely to involve direct military support and changes nothing about Germany’s commitment to international law in its postwar constitution.

‘It was very clever and very Merkel, avoiding confrontation while creating a certain carte blanche. It’s problematic, though, in that it cuts off certain discussions’

—  Prof Marietta Auer, director of the Max Planck Institute for Legal History

“No chancellor has the power to set all that aside,” said one Scholz official. “Disregarding international law would leave us with no credibility.”

As the world waits to see whether Israel invades Gaza, however, some German analysts suggest Merkel’s “Staatsräson” speech opened a can of worms for her successors.

“It was very clever and very Merkel, avoiding confrontation while creating a certain carte blanche,” said Prof Marietta Auer, director of the Max Planck Institute for Legal History. “It’s problematic, though, in that it cuts off certain discussions.”

In spite of that, many awkward discussions were being held in Germany before the October 7th attacks, in particular about Israel, its far-right ruling parties and their controversial court reforms.

In the middle of this debate last July, Israel’s ambassador to Germany, Ron Prosor, visited a cafe in eastern Berlin. The cafe’s Israeli-born owner Avi Berg threw him out as an unwelcome representative of a government that, Berg said, “implements an invalid and manipulative policy, which claims that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic”.

This week Berg, who has lived in Berlin since 2011, described the Hamas attacks as “horrific” but accuses the current Israeli government of exploiting German officials’ fears of being on the wrong side of history again.

“The Germans simply believe that whatever is good for Israel is good for them,” said Berg, “even if that means giving up space for freedom of expression.”

Like many Israel critics in Germany, he is most concerned about Bundestag action against Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS).

This movement pushes for radical change to Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians, including through a boycott of Israeli academics, artists, investment and goods. Israel accuses it of pursuing radical and anti-Semitic policies with the real goal of eliminating Israel as a Jewish state.

Three years ago the Bundestag adopted a motion condemning BDS as an anti-Semitic organisation which supported collective punishment for all Israeli citizens of Jewish faith. The motion also urged German towns and cities not to provide facilities for BDS members, or invite them to their events.

Though the motion was later dismissed by the federal administrative court for violating the fundamental right to free speech, BDS supporters say it has had a far-reaching, chilling effect, with speakers and events cancelled over purported BDS links.

Israel critics in Germany fear worse is to come after the cancellation of a Frankfurt book fair award to Palestine-born novelist and essayist Adania Shibli.

The organisation behind the prize said it was postponing the award ceremony “due to the war started by Hamas, under which millions of people in Israel and Palestine are suffering”.

But the author, who lives in Berlin and Jerusalem, disputed organiser claims the decision was taken with her consent. Some 350 writers, including Ireland’s Colm Tóibín, have signed a letter of protest. They reminded the prize organiser of its responsibility to create “spaces for Palestinian writers to share their thoughts, feelings, reflections on literature through these terrible, cruel times, not shutting them down”.

Despite claims that they are being muzzled, Germany has no shortage of outspoken critics of Israel.

One of those is Berlin-based researcher Muriel Asseburg of the government-funded SWP think-tank. Compared to the 1990s, she sees a drastic narrowing of official German discourse on Israel today. Back then, she said, Germany was funding new Palestinian institutions as part of the push to peace – and openly criticising Israeli policy.

These days, she says Berlin criticism of the Netanyahu government is rare and, when it comes, has “no real oomph behind it”.

“We have allowed the Israeli government continue to exert pressure because we have made them the referee over whether we have dealt properly with our past and are cleansed,” said Asseburg in a recent interview, for which she received considerable negative reaction.

“It seems to me now that many [in Germany] prefer to decide for one side because they have no interest in enduring the sh**storm they will achieve if they stand up for the other side.”

Amid huge public uncertainty, Die Zeit weekly suggested on Thursday that “feeling morally and political ambivalent at a time like this is not bad, particularly in Germany, with its very sensitive relationship to Israel”.

While a survey this week found that 70 per cent of Germans agree with Israel’s right to defend itself, analysts suggest a full-scale ground offensive in Gaza could change all that support.

“It’s already happening,” said Prof Michael Wolffsohn, an Israel-born German historian, “with ever-more pro-Palestinian demonstrations with lots of understanding for Palestinian terror, sugar-coated with pseudo moralistic arguments.”

On Tuesday evening, Molotov cocktails were thrown at a Jewish community centre in Berlin while public buildings around Germany have reported Israeli flags, flown in solidarity, being ripped down or damaged.

On most evenings this week in Berlin, violent street battles have raged between police and protesters in districts with large communities of people with Turkish and Arab roots. On Thursday morning, police said 65 officers were injured and 174 people detained the night before after a riot involving fireworks, burning tyres and vehicles.

Berlin mayor Kai Wegner condemned the attacks as a “disgrace” for the German capital, which he said stands “fully” with the Israeli state.

“Our Berlin is stronger than hate and exclusion,” he said.

The riots are widely viewed as motivated by deep-seated anti-Israeli views among the Turkish and Arab immigrant communities, around 10 per cent of the population. While many see this anti-Israel protest as a failure of integration, surveys show that attitudes to Israel are shifting – and hardening – in the wider German population.

A 2022 survey conducted by the Bertelsmann Foundation in both Israel and Germany found that 46 per cent of Germans had a positive opinion of Israel and 34 per cent held a negative view. Among Israelis, 58 per cent saw Germany as having a particular historical responsibility to Israel due to history. Just 37 per cent of Germans agreed.

After days of emotional political debate and pro-Palestinian street battles, all eyes will be on Berlin again tomorrow to see how many turn out for a pro-Israel demonstration at the Brandenburg Gate.

Wegner has urged Germans to show their support for Israel and its people. The time has come, he said, to revise Germany’s post-Shoah “never again” slogan.

“Never again,” he said, “is now.”