Going it alone
While working on his M.A. thesis, Hannes Pichler spent weeks in the archives in Berlin and Freiburg, applying for access to files, and analyzing documents that shed new light on the early phase of Germany’s diplomatic ties with Israel.
Now Hannes is on the road again: The fruits of his archival research, as set down in his Master’s thesis, have persuaded the Israel Institute in Washington to give him a year-long fellowship at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv. He will, of course, devote his time there to further study of the topic that fascinates him most: Israeli policy and the evolution of the strategic situation in the Middle East.
His interest in this field was sparked by an article in Der Spiegel, which he came across while researching quite a different subject. Published in 1963, the article first revealed details of the secret arms deals that the then Federal Minister for Defense, Franz Josef Strauss, had concluded with Israel. – And Hannes, sitting there in the library, asked himself how the Bavarian politician, in his capacity as German Defense Minister, came to be in a position to intervene in the foreign policy of the Federal Republic, and to arrange a meeting in his holiday home in Upper Bavaria with the Director-General of Israel’s Defense Ministry, Shimon Peres. In his memoirs, Strauss himself later referred to his actions as an instance of “Freundschaft der mutigen Tat” (“friendship backed up by deeds” -- rather than by words alone). History student Hannes wanted to know more about the whole episode, and set about looking for the relevant files.
Adventures in the archives
In his thesis, entitled Freundschaft der mutigen Tat: Franz Josef Strauß and Israel: Eine biographische Studie zur Frühphase der deutsch-israelischen Beziehungen, Pichler fills in the background on the secret meeting between Shimon Peres and Franz Josef Strauss that took place in Rott am Inn in 1957, which would subsequently transform the relationship between the Federal Republic and Israel. The initiative for the meeting came from Peres, who was anxious to obtain military aid for the young State of Israel. In the course of his researches, Hannes was able to bring to light new aspects of bilateral German-Israeli relations and of Germany’s policy vis-a-vis the Middle East as a whole during this period. His work is based largely on the examination of documents now held in public archives in Berlin and Freiburg im Breisgau -- which he was able to visit for weeks at a time, thanks to support provided by Lehre@LMU. By lucky chance, the relevant government papers were released for public inspection just as he began work on his thesis, thus giving him timely access to previously unknown information.
However, his initial request for permission to peruse records held by the National Military Archives in Freiburg was rejected. He was informed in writing that access to the files requested was possible only after extensive checks on his background and contacts. This would take several months and could not be justified in his case. Nevertheless, when Hannes presented himself and his credentials at the Archives in Freiburg, he was readily granted access to the files he sought.
His study shows that Strauss as Defense Minister was given so much latitude in his discussions with Peres primarily because the Foreign Ministry’s options in relation to Israel at the time were constrained by the political climate at the time. In 1957, the Foreign Minister in Bonn was reluctant to entertain any official contacts with Israel, because it was feared that such a move would encourage Arab states to grant diplomatic recognition to the GDR. Strauss, on the other hand, was only too happy to grasp the nettle. “The files reveal that the Foreign Minister informed of the scope and the ramifications of the decisions made by Strauss only much later,” says Hannes. “And what's even more remarkable is that these decisions were in fact implemented, and the positions taken by him were ultimately accepted by his colleagues.” In fact, the whole affair opened a new chapter in relations between Germany and Israel. “In 1964, the two countries agreed on a framework for the establishment of diplomatic relations and ambassadors were officially exchanged in 1965. But by this time, Strauss had already signed several defense contracts with Israel and was one of the first top-ranking German politicians to visit the country – a visit that provoked no significant protests at home.” Pichler’s research thus confirms for the first time that Germany had entered into secret military agreements with Israel long before the public became aware in 1964 of plans to establish diplomatic relations between the two countries – a development which itself provoked a diplomatic crisis.