Sitting in his living room in California, former Nuremberg prosecutor Benjamin J. Ferencz recalled the early run-up to the negotiations between German, Jewish Claims Conference and Israeli representatives. In 1952, he was one of the members of the Claims Conference to make his way to the Netherlands to negotiate compensation and indemnification for suffering and losses resulting from persecution by the Nazis.
“And when I say a challenge, I mean, it was a real challenge”, Ferencz told me, speaking some seven decades after the facts. I worried that he would not remember much about his time in the Netherlands. I was wrong.
Speaking at 101 years of age, he still vividly remembered his critics from back then: “They said – what? You are going to sit down with German Nazi bastards who killed our whole family and you are going to talk to them about compensation?”
Between March and August 1952, a group of men and few women met in Holland, in a secluded and idyllic villa in Wassenaar, just outside The Hague, for a very unusual kind of negotiation – the first to ever discuss, at the international level, reparations for mass human rights violations and genocide.
March 2022 will mark the seventieth anniversary of the beginning of the negotiations in Wassenaar. Today, Germany and Israel are solid partners across a variety of domains – a reality that became gradually possible only after the German commitment to pay Wiedergutmachung, literally, ‘to make good again’ (the Hebrew word, ‘shilumim’ does not have this connotation).
At the end of those negotiations, the Federal Republic agreed to pay DM3 billion of reparations in kind, which proved to be crucial for the young state, and DM450 million to the Jewish Claims Conference. In many respects, that agreement was groundbreaking.
Few today remember just how fraught the atmosphere was when those talks began. Negotiating about paying reparations to the Jews seven years after the end of the Second World War was not a popular idea in Germany. Then Finance Minister Fritz Schäffer, for one, was vocally against it. Former Nazis who by 1952 were back in positions of power – and there were many – did what they could to interfere with the negotiations.
Resistance to those talks came from other quarters, too. Arab League members soon mobilised to threaten Germany with a boycott should the country start paying reparations to Israel. The prospect of the talks was abhorred in Israel, too – a sentiment shared by many Jews in Europe and beyond.
“This is the abomination of abominations”, cried future Israeli Prime Minster Menachem Begin from his seat at the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, in January 1952. As a debate on the topic was under way, thousands of protesters mobilized in Jerusalem against the negotiations, disrupting the Knesset debate. “And so we began with a boom, with a riot”, recalled Ben Ferencz.
In Wassenaar itself, the situation was tense. The negotiators met in a narrow and elongated room located on the first floor of Kasteel Oud Wassenaar. They were careful not to come too close to each other, and to keep their distance – a symbolic physical remove.
But then, the Israeli deputy head of delegation, Felix Shinnar, recalled in his memoirs, “on the second day [German negotiator] Küster passed me a note that said, essentially, “I think I detect a Swabian accent in your English. Am I right?”.
“In short, it turned out that Otto Küster was right. I was born in Stuttgart, went to school there … it also turned out that we had attended the same high school [and] the same classes, had the same teachers.”
For the days that followed in that narrow room, those men looked at each other knowing that, had Hitler not come to power and German democracy not crumbled, things would be dramatically different.
After months of difficult negotiations, those men concluded an agreement that made history. Conventional wisdom casts those early negotiations as a success – and understandably so. Germany did honour its payments and what it had agreed upon. And Germany’s emphasis on the importance of confronting the past, both nationally and internationally, has largely characterised the country’s post-war history.
Activists asking for reparations today, for example reparations to confront the legacy of slavery in the wake of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, frequently refer to the 1952 German-Jewish-Israeli talks. As US intellectual and activist Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his Case for Reparations: “In 1952, when West Germany began the process of making amends for the Holocaust, it did so under conditions that should be instructive to us”.
Those negotiations marked a fundamental turning point in the history of post-genocidal reconciliation. Until that time, reparations were usually negotiated between victors and vanquished in the aftermath of war – not between representatives of perpetrators and victims in the wake of genocide and mass atrocities. The agreement signed in 1952 was expanded upon in later years. Until today, Germany has set up one of the world’s vastest reparations programmes for the atrocities committed in the course of the Second World War and the Holocaust.
The fact that the 1952 negotiations would end up setting up “the historical referent for most reparations programmes”, in the words of former UN Special Rapporteur Pablo De Greiff, was by no means a foregone conclusion, back then. And the possibility to overcome – or even just live with – the tensions that characterised that first attempt to conceptualise reparations in the aftermath of historical injustice, rendered the German-Jewish-Israeli negotiations all the more significant today.
Dr. Lorena De Vita, an assistant professor of international history at Utrecht University, is the author of “Israelpolitik: German-Israeli Relations 1949-1969”. She is currently leading a five-year research project funded by the Alfred Landecker Foundation titled: “Holocaust Diplomacy: The Global Politics of Memory and Forgetting”.