Foreign Relations & International Law

When Forgiveness Is Impossible: How Atonement Works as Policy

Kathrin Bachleitner
Sunday, August 27, 2023, 9:00 AM
The 1952 Luxembourg Agreement between West Germany and Israel provides a model for reconciliation through acknowledgement and reparations. 
Konrad Adenauer, chancellor of West Germany, signs the Reparations Agreement between Israel and the Federal Republic of Germany in Luxembourg on Sept. 10, 1952. Photo credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Benjamin Ferencz.

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Editor’s Note: Perpetrators of great crimes and their victims often remain hostile for generations. One notable exception is Germany, whose apology and material compensation to Israel, while highly controversial at the time, paved the way for what became a friendly relationship. Drawing on her recent article in International Security, Oxford’s Kathrin Bachleitner examines this historically rare case of atonement and explains what it might teach us about how perpetrator countries today might try to confront their past crimes.

Daniel Byman


In 1952, West Germany and Israel signed the Reparations Agreement between Israel and the Federal Republic of Germany, which became known as the Luxembourg Agreement. Prior to its conclusion, West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer gave an official apology for “unspeakable crimes” that called for “moral and material indemnity.” The agreement committed West Germany to paying the state of Israel 3 billion deutschmarks (around $714 million at the time, equivalent to more than $8 billion today) over 14 years. The Luxembourg Agreement’s combination of an official apology and material compensation remains unique to this day. However, it doesn’t have to remain that way. Reviewing what made West Germany select this path shows how atonement could become a reality for other states that have committed severe human rights abuses.

Atonement is the state practice through which political representatives issue official apologies and reparation payments to the victims of mass atrocities, war crimes, and human rights abuses. This policy can be seen as an ethical choice because atonement is considered the moral and correct response to wars and conflicts, particularly in today’s world of liberal international norms. But atonement can also be viewed as a political choice. Politicians may give official apologies and pay reparations not because of goodwill or conviction, but because doing so promises tangible political benefits, such as regional integration, bilateral trust, and improved partnerships between countries.


The West German Exception


Atonement is a difficult policy to pursue, and both the perpetrator and the victim states have reasons to avoid it. Politicians usually choose their courses of action based on political interests. As a result, they promote narratives of the past that foster their own political legitimacy and national cohesion. Reparations, in contrast, involve publicly admitting to shameful events. This acknowledgement of being the perpetrator of a severe transgression invokes the collective guilt of the nation, which can be politically unpopular. For the victim, acknowledging a passive, inferior status of helplessness has the potential to trigger “victim’s shame.” It also requires appearing to forgive the unforgivable—for cash, no less.

These consequences of atonement policies illustrate part of the reason why the Luxembourg Agreement’s approach has never been replicated. Highlighting a community’s guilt and shame by negotiating reparations seems unlikely to be a winning political strategy, at least not in domestic politics. And yet, this succeeded for West Germany and Israel.

Reparations were deeply unpopular among West Germans after World War II. In West Germany, the idea of accepting collective guilt was widely rejected amid the postwar climate of public silence. If anything, West Germans remembered their own victimization under the war, the Allied bombings, and the occupation, but not their role as perpetrators of the Holocaust (a term that emerged only later). The concept of reparations was also extremely unpopular in Israel. First, reparations were widely considered a form of “blood money” from the Germans—an idea that enraged the victims of the Shoah. Second, the policy promoted victim’s shame, which manifested in Israel through the reinforcement of harmful narratives that diaspora Jews let themselves be “led like sheep to the slaughter.” Finally, facing the past and the perpetrator of the genocide reopened the emotional wounds of survivors who were mostly still silent about the traumas they had experienced. With the domestic public largely opposed on both sides, atonement would seem like a political nonstarter.

Despite this opposition, leaders in both countries had strategic motivations that helped them overcome their domestic political constraints. Adenauer recognized that reparations would help West Germany’s integration with Western Europe. For instance, on the same day that he signed the reparations agreement with Israel in Luxembourg, he also attended the first meeting of the European Coal and Steel Community, which laid the foundation for the European Union. With the reparation agreement sealed, West Germany entered the European Community with clear proof of its desire for reconciliation. Israeli officials also understood that they stood to benefit from a reparations agreement. The income would provide Israel with the financial means to build its new state. After the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948, Israel had to quickly develop a capable military to defend the new country while integrating large numbers of Jewish immigrants and refugees from all over the world. Reparations from West Germany provided vital resources for the survival of the Israeli state in a hostile environment. Both West Germany and Israel had important political and security interests in reaching a reparations agreement in the early 1950s.

The international context also pushed West Germans and Israelis toward bilateral negotiations. Historical documents demonstrate that the Allies refused to be interlocutors. When Israeli officials decided to pursue reparations, they first asked the United States to pressure West Germany to provide reparations, but Washington refused. In the 1950s, reparations for crimes against humanity were unheard of and were not required by international law. Furthermore, the United States was focused on maintaining its Cold War interests in occupied West Germany and was not eager to punish a potential ally with reparations. As a result, the Israelis were compelled to engage directly with the West Germans, despite how unpalatable this prospect was. The U.S. refusal had the unintended consequence of forcing West German and Israeli officials into direct negotiations with one another in 1951, which essentially paved the path to reparations.


Why International Incentives Matter


A similar set of factors shaped the lack of reparations from two other perpetrator states in World War II: Austria, which, as a part of Nazi Germany, participated in the Holocaust, and Japan, which committed severe human rights abuses across Asia. Both countries officially pursued narratives of victimhood—Austria pointed to the occupation and abuses by the Nazi regime, and Japan singled out the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As with West Germany, the United States did not request that Austria and Japan pay reparations. Instead, the United States had an interest in turning them into allies within the U.S. sphere of influence.

What differed in the German-Israeli case was that the victim state actively pursued reparations. Israel focused on West Germany but did not request reparations from Austria. Meanwhile, China, the victim of the Nanjing massacre, did not press for reparations from Japan. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had other enemies and interests at the time, first and foremost the Chinese Nationalists (and, by extension, the United States). The goal of the Chinese leadership was to achieve Japanese recognition and detach Japan from the United States’ embrace. By not requesting reparations early on, Israel and China were able to normalize relations early through the provision of development aid, which they did not frame as reparations. From there, the relationships that developed between Israel and Austria and between China and Japan were not special relations based on a shared historical legacy but instead resembled normal diplomatic relations. Despite later attempts by the victim states to revisit these issues, the dynamics of these relationships have never become those of perpetrators and victims but rather of “tolerated” business partners. The absence of early, proactive agency by the victims closed the path to atonement in the postwar decade. Because this historical legacy was never addressed directly, it has resurfaced periodically, burdening bilateral relations between Austria and Israel and between Japan and China, whereas Israel and Germany have developed a sustainable and durable relationship.


Can Atonement Be Pursued Elsewhere?


Atonement—as the case of West Germany and Israel in 1952 illustrates—is an active political project couched in moral language. It should not be limited to the West German case. There are opportunities for atonement policies to reconcile Japan and South Korea over the issue of sexual slavery during World War II, Turkey and Armenia over the Armenian genocide during World War I, and Serbia and Bosnia to heal the wounds of their war in the 1990s and clear the way for their prospective inclusion in the European Union. Atonement can also be a strategy to approach the legacies of colonialism and slavery. In any case, international incentives and the active agency of former victims will be crucial.

The German-Israeli example offers a road toward international stability that goes beyond the formal settlement of a conflict to build a more durable peace. “State atonement” should be added to the toolkit of postconflict reconciliation practices, alongside trials and truth commissions, as a way to bring together a former perpetrator with its victim and create a fruitful and lasting connection between them. Finally, to those who view atonement as merely an ethical policy choice, these insights serve as a reminder to bring politics and strategy back into the equation. The good news about these strategic incentives is that atonement does not require the “right” beliefs, but an alignment of interests: Atonement, after all, is a political choice between a former perpetrator and its victim precisely in contexts when forgiveness is impossible.

Kathrin Bachleitner is a researcher in international relations at the University of Oxford and a senior scientist at the University of Salzburg. She focuses on memory and the legacies that wars leave on societies and countries. Her research explores how states can reconcile in the aftermath of mass violence and atrocities.

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