A winding road towards friendship

February 06, 2015

Scientific relations between Israel and Germany have never been more open, even for subjects once considered taboo, as science historian and Max Planck Director Jürgen Renn tells in his interview. The Max Planck Society is one of many organisations which had a long road to travel to get to this point. It began with the rapprochement of the two states following the Holocaust, facilitated by secretive diplomacy and dedicated scientists. Then, in the light of international crises like the Six-Day War, government and the scientific world were compelled to interact in a very particular way – and reconcile themselves with their own past.

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Jürgen Renn is Director at the Max Planck Instititute for the History of Science.
Jürgen Renn is Director at the Max Planck Instititute for the History of Science.

Mr Renn, Germany and Israel are celebrating 50 years of diplomatic relations in 2015. The scientific world is considered to have paved the way for the two nations’ rapprochement, which led to the exchange of ambassadors under Chancellor Ludwig Erhard in 1965. What's your view on this?

In actual fact, the first official delegation of scientists from the Max Planck Society (MPG) travelled to Israel back in 1959 on the invitation of the Weizmann Institute of Science (WIS), the delegation being led by Otto Hahn who was then President of the MPG. That was the start of the official cooperation, not on a political level but between the two states, both still very young at the time. Contrary to popular belief, in spite of this trip it was not the MPG, not the scientific establishment, that built bridges, the governments then following suit. It was, in fact, the other way around: in a political context that was extremely delicate for both nations it was political contacts that started it all. These political contacts and the desire for cooperation were easiest to advance in the medium of science.

So who was it who organised that first trip?

On the Israeli side, the initiative was launched by the WIS, which had a representative in Europe: Joseph Cohn was looking for financial and scientific support for the WIS, still a young organisation at the time, in order to facilitate the expansion of the research there. Cohn had connections with Federal Chancellor Konrad Adenauer through a mutual friend in industry. And the latter     took up the initiative and ultimately made the funds available for cooperation with the WIS for political reasons.

Why was the Max Planck Society chosen?

For a start, the MPG is the natural partner of the Weizmann Institute owing to their shared focus on basic research, but it was the personal contacts that seem to have been more important: with Otto Hahn as President, and most notably with Max Planck Director Wolfgang Gentner, who had good contacts with Amos de-Shalit, an Israeli nuclear physicist, and with Joseph Cohn. From a German perspective, the WIS was the ideal partner. It conformed to how the MPG saw itself, as the WIS the focal point of science in Israel. Israel’s cutting-edge research was more or less pooled very closely together in Rehovot, with the result that one contact was all it took to be able to realise many particularly worthwhile research projects.

So the scientific world itself was also interested in making contact …

Not “the scientific world”: after all, there were scientists on both sides who were sceptical or even hostile to the idea of cooperation, but individual scientists were very interested. And after the trip, Hahn himself noted that the WIS was better equipped in some areas than comparable institutes of the MPG. Aside from the state of the equipment, Hahn was impressed by the scientific level. Naturally, they also sought to connect with the USA through Israel, given the close cooperation that already existed between those two nations. So it really was about scientific “added value” right from the start and not about development aid or solely about making moral amends. The latter played an important part for Adenauer the politician. Furthermore, scientific cooperation was for him a form of compensation for the self-created German difficulties to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. This difficulty was intertwined with the interest in having good relations with the Arab states. The Federal Republic of Germany took a very ambivalent stance towards Israel at the time. And incidentally, Adenauer had asked Otto Hahn to send him a memorandum on the structure of the cooperation with the WIS that was rather controversial within the MPG. The ultimate success of the cooperation is the result of a political constellation in which there were also opportunities, and the initiative of courageous scientists that was nothing less than heroic.

At a ceremony to celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations, you are giving a speech with your fellow scientist Hanoch Gutfreund on the subject of “A Special Relationship: Turning Points in the History of German-Israeli Scientific Cooperation”.

Exactly, and that is why I discussed these turning points in great detail with Thomas Steinhauser – a historian here at the MPI for the History of Science who is working on our new project on the history of the Max Planck Society and also addressing relations with Israel very intensely. We have been particularly impressed by the way in which politics and science have interacted, each presenting independent yet entangled dimensions.

What was the effect of this entanglement?

Initially, it was politics that set the pace. But then in the 1970s, science assumed this role. Interestingly, this happened precisely during an era of great political tensions. In Israel, in the Federal Republic of Germany, and between Israel and the Federal Republic of Germany. Because scientists had come further along the path of mutual understanding than the governments had – Max Planck scientists demanded, for example, that the Society should align itself with Israel in the Six-Day War and must not remain impartial – there was a desire in Israel to expand institutionalised scientific cooperation, including to the universities and particularly the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In West Germany, too, other partner institutions got involved. Besides this, the Minerva-Gesellschaft, a subsidiary of the Max Planck Society and to this day an important funder of cooperation, set up the Minerva Research Centers at Israeli universities and the WIS as a new form of cooperation. So we’re talking about a history of increasing interconnectedness but also asynchronicity between the political and scientific establishments.

Yet still, science and politics were sources of mutual impetus, weren’t they?

Yes, you could say so. But they were also relatively independent for long stretches. All in all, the scientific world eventually built a foundation for cooperation that was more stable than the erratic goings on in the world of politics. Though cooperation in the 1960s was restricted to certain natural sciences, it began increasingly to fan out in keeping with the scientific interests. In the 1970s, historical research was incorporated. Since then, difficult subjects like the Holocaust and the responsibility for inhuman crimes, including on the part of the German scientific establishment under the Nazi regime, became the topic of joint research projects even though they had been deliberately blanked out of the first round of rapprochement initiated by the governments under extreme diplomatic restraint. With ever-widening scientific participation and proximity a strong network arose, one that is largely independent of the vicissitudes of daily politics. The point is that science – considered to have paved the way for diplomatic relations – did not have this role initially, because politics was there in the background acting as the driving force. After this start, however, the scientific world’s partial emancipation from politics enabled it to take the lead in the 1970s.

You just mentioned deliberate blanking out and taboos. In retrospect, was that the circuitous route you had to take in order to face up to past history at a later date?

I don’t know how it would have gone if they’d faced up to the whole truth, the whole complexity of the relationship from the start. That would probably have been too much for all involved. We all know that this is not a normal history. It is profoundly shaped by the past, by the Holocaust and German responsibility for it – even though this is rarely explicitly mentioned. And then there are the present-day challenges, Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, the conflict in the Middle East as a whole. Partly because of the early focus on pragmatism and the fact that progress was made as a result, the fact that they blanked out parts of the whole complexity of the relationship, that’s why we have now managed to weave a tight web of scientific-cultural relations. On the other hand, the lack of acknowledgement of responsibility for the Nazi crimes on the German side gave rise to reservations and unnecessary delays. The MPG itself could have faced up to its past a lot earlier, for instance by reappointing expelled scientists and by critically working through the history of its predecessor organisation, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, under the Nazi regime. It was therefore an important moment when this process of coming to terms with the past did come, albeit very late, but very thoroughly. On the Israeli side, too, there is a realisation that the past and the involvement of Germany’s scientific establishment in the crimes of the Nazi era are no longer being swept under the carpet and that we are and remain aware of this guilt. In other words, we cannot afford to suppress history and present-day problems, nor do we need to do so any longer, because the trust is strong enough.

Federal President Joachim Gauck recently put it in the following words: “There is no German identity without Auschwitz”.

Yes. And I think we must frequently draw that back into our consciousness. The problems that were there at the start did not just disappear. How did Bertolt Brecht put it? “The womb it crawled from is still fertile.” I don’t mean that we have to fear another Holocaust in this day and age. But we do need to resist all tendencies towards anti-Semitism, racism and nationalism, today and forever more. The other side of that is the peace process in the Middle East. The situation is a cause of great concern again now. And those are problems that people in Israel are of course feeling too, and that also play a role in German-Israeli research collaboration. Sensitive subjects like anti-Semitism and xenophobia in Germany, the problems of Israel’s settlement policy or the dangers of Islamism are these days being debated by Israeli, Palestinian and German scientists and even studied in an interdisciplinary milieu. Subjects which would perhaps have been given a wide berth previously. But now there are no longer such taboos in our cooperation. Which, of course, does not imply normality. Israel is incomparable as a partner. As one of the world’s leading research and technology nations, Israel is highly attractive for cooperation – in the human sciences too. And still, this particular history remains, these intertwined fates and German responsibility. And I believe that it should not be forgotten, now less than ever.

Interviewer: Jens Eschert