East Germany Offered Survivors Compensation to Boost U.S. Ties

Contrary to popular opinion, East Germany considered the idea of compensating Holocaust survivors — and even offered a token payment in hopes of satisfying Jewish claims.

So argues German historian Angelika Timm in her new book, “Jewish Claims Against East Germany: Moral Obligations and Pragmatic Policy,” which will arrive in U.S. bookstores in January.

On ideological grounds, the Communist regime of East Germany had since the early 1950s resisted pressure from Jewish groups and Israeli leaders to compensate survivors.

But the regime, writes Timm, a professor at Humboldt University in Berlin, began to entertain the idea soon after its admission to the United Nations in 1973.

The motive for the change was pragmatic: to improve trade and diplomatic relations with the United States.

Her first insight into East Germany’s past came in 1990, when she served as a Hebrew-German interpreter at negotiations between Israel and East Germany.

She later gained access to archives detailing high-level meetings among East German, U.S., Israeli and Jewish officials.

East Germany was willing to negotiate the issue, she said, but at home the state-controlled media kept the public in the dark.

“I grew up in East Germany and more or less believed what I’d heard,” Timm said in a recent interview.

“Everyone thought [East Germany] was denying its role. But nobody knew there were negotiations. Even the Jewish community had no information about it.”

East Germany had long maintained that its anti-fascist forces had defeated Hitler, so it could not be held responsible for the suffering of German Jews or the Aryanization of their property.

East German officials also claimed that efforts to “shake down” the country were the work of American capitalists trying to make inroads into the East German economy.

By the mid-1970s, though, with trade and international recognition on its mind, East German officials began singing a different tune, Timm said.

In 1976 the regime sent a check for $1 million to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

Claims Conference officials rejected the check as a laughable sum and held fast to demands for a minimum payment of $100 million.

Still, the East German gesture was significant because it was the first time it had recognized its obligation to make restitution.

Only when the East German economy failed in the 1980s, however, did its leaders begin to negotiate in earnest.

At the same time, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika prompted U.S. officials to attempt to lure East Germany away from the Soviet sphere through carrot-and-stick diplomacy concerning compensation.

Eventually, East Germany began considering compensation ranging from $10 million to $100 million.

But the talks ultimately proved fruitless after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent efforts to unite the two Germanys.

Timm’s account of East German cynicism and pragmatism resonates with relevance in Central Europe today.

Critics charge that Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic now seem intent on providing just enough compensation to placate Washington and clear one more hurdle for integration into NATO and the European Union.

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