Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Still paying for the past

By Salama Ahmed Salama

Salama Ahmed Salama A few days ago, Germany signed an agreement for the payment of nearly 10 billion marks ($5.2 billion) in compensation to the victims of forced labour under the Nazi regime, who are said to have worked in German factories during the second World War. The majority of the estimated two million survivors are, as expected, Jews living in America, Eastern Europe or Israel. The agreement was concluded after lengthy and painstaking negotiations in which the principal advocate for the compensation of Jews was not Israel but the US Administration itself, represented by its undersecretary of the treasury, Stuart Eisenstein. He spoke on behalf of Jewish-American pressure groups, who threatened to pursue legal action and boycott the products and services of some 65 of Germany's mega-firms, accused of having used forced labour during the war.

The US involvement in this cause comes neither as news nor as a surprise to anyone. Only recently, the Swiss government and Swiss banks went through the same blackmailing experience when they were asked to pay some $1.2 billion to the holders of accounts no one had claimed since the war. Jewish pressure groups came up with a few thousand alleged owners still alive today. While the Swiss succeeded in bargaining down the amount of compensation claimed, the Germans have fallen into a trap from which they cannot or will not emerge.

On my last visit to Germany, the conflict raging between German companies, which had refused to pay more than five billion marks ($2.3 billion) in compensation, and the Jewish groups, which had claimed over 15 billion marks, was at its peak. Afraid of being dragged into a commercial war with its principal ally -- the US -- and to avoid legal action in US courts, Schröder's government agreed to pay five billion marks, bringing the total amount of compensation to ten million. This may be the second, third or nth time that Germany has paid compensation to the Jews, or rather to Israel, coming after the huge amounts it paid in compensation and aid (totalling some 140 billion German marks or $60 billion) during four decades, which at one time had precipitated a break in relations between Germany and most of the Arab states.

Germany, meanwhile, is suffering from austerity measures, which could lead to the defeat of the present government in the upcoming elections; yet absurdly, it is now doing its best to scrape funds together, even if that entails selling its property or closing its cultural centres abroad and scaling down its military forces.

A number of conclusions may be drawn from this situation. First, trilateral relations (the US, Israel and Germany) will always dominate Germany's position on the Middle East problem. Germany's relations with Israel in the past half century have failed to achieve normalcy and to eliminate the guilt and complexes that rule them once and for all. The present generation of businessmen, diplomats and industrialists belong to the post-war era, and carry no scars from the holocaust (a stigma which the Japanese have managed to exorcise to a great extent).

Second, all the talk about free trade in the age of globalisation could amount to nothing if the US and Israel decide to apply sanctions or take legal action in one place or another. Third, what if Palestinian workers claim compensation for their work in Israel under conditions that are hardly different from forced labour? What if Egypt and other African nations claim compensation from their former colonialists for the forced labour and the plundering of their resources under colonial rule? And what if Japanese and Vietnamese prisoners of war demand compensation from the US for the forced labour they endured operating American factories during the war? They need only hire American lawyers, it seems.

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