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Κυριακή, 12 Απριλίου 2020 12:24

Rolf Steininger, Germany and the Middle East: From Kaiser Wilhelm II to Angela Merkel, Berghahn Books, 2019

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Rolf Steininger’s diminutive book is a welcome addition to anglophone literature on Germany’s Middle Eastern involvement. It is addressed more to the layman than the specialized scholar, but that does nothing to detract from its status as a compact summation of the country’s regional role after its 19th century unification. The author states as much in the introduction, where he alludes to the book as an amalgamation and recapitulation of serious recent work on the topic. Summaries are often viewed as rehashings of the commonplace. Yet in their sober, distantiated approach they can also serve as reminders and enlighteners of the neglected. Steininger manages to do just that.

Discussion of the historical role of Western states in the region has traditionally been dominated by the actions of Britain and France; and with good reason, given the long-term impact of the machinations of the two. But the importance of Germany’s periodic dalliances with the hot-button issues of the region cannot be dismissed out of hand, if only because they have served to mould the country’s outlook and its attitudes up to the present. Thus, Steininger wisely begins by elucidating the two factors that have dominated Germany’s Middle Eastern approach: the Turkish state and its Ottoman predecessor, and the Zionist enterprise climaxing in the creation of the state of Israel. Both figure prominently in Kaiser Wilhelm II’s pre-WWI Middle Eastern activism, where preserving strong commercial and military ties with the Ottomans was complemented at the turn of the century by Germany’s keeness to become guardian of the modern Zionist cause.     

A similar picture is painted for the years of WWI. The sole occasion when Germany aimed at ‘grasping for world power’ via a Middle Eastern route, the countries’ leaders are once more shown to try to reconcile strategic alignment with Ottoman authorities with pushing for the creation of a Jewish homeland, the latter endeavour being received with mixed feelings by the Ottoman authorities. German diplomacy is portrayed as walking a tightrope, encouraging or turning a blind eye to Turkish massacres of the Armenians in return for the formers’ abstaining from widescale atrocities against the Jewish population. It was indeed German ‘protective measures’ that forestalled a potential genocide, or widespread pogroms, of Palestinian Jews. The latter are also seen in the context of German-British competition, the Kaiser at some point even contemplating an ‘Ottoman Balfour Declaration’.

The chapters on the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich are not aimed at offering much new. Rather, they serve as a necessary cog in the wheel of the author’s narrative, which culminates in the last three chapters. Still, the uninitiated reader might find the intricacies of Arab support and admiration for Hitler’s anti-Jewish positions, encapsulated in the Mufti of Palestine’s keenness to contribute to the ‘final solution’, striking. In addition, German superciliousness towards the Arabs comes across by way of a number of official statements and can also be seen in the fact that Hitler never delivered on the expectations raised by repeated pro-Arab pronouncements.

The antepenultimate and penultimate chapters, covering the time-span between 1949 and 1990 and a disproportionately large number of pages, are the book’s strong points. Right after WWII, Steininger quotes the president of the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce as saying ‘first comes trade, then the flag’, in what seems to be a fitting bellwether of the country’s future foreign policy. At the same time, a convincing job is done not only of enunciating the driving forces of West Germany’s post-war regional policy (with the East present only  faintly in the background), but also of explaining how inter-German dynamics and competition compelled certain foreign policy decisions. The Cold War factor also emerges as paramount; when contemplating the corollaries of a reparations agreement with Israel, Chancellor Adenauer is quoted as saying that ‘more consideration should be given to America than to the Arab States’. And State Secretary Walter Hallstein as pointing out that in the Arab world Germany is seen as a representative of the entire West and thus should avoid compromising the position of the latter, to Soviet benefit.     

Following the June ’67 war, the reader gets the sense that West Germany always prioritizes its ties with the West (and thus, Israel) and this seems to hold true even when the country’s choices seem to others to conflict with those of its allies (this is certainly true from an Arab standpoint). But bilateral ties with Israel emerge as a priority even when the relationship is going through rough patches. All in all, the portrait is painted of a country that does not deviate from the European norm: on hard security issues, it seldom avoids playing second fiddle to the US; on regional peace initiatives, it seldom raises its voice above that of its American counterpart, while faithfully toeing the line of its European Community partners; on the Israel/Arab conflict, a usually steadfast line on Israel policy contrasts with a lack of precision and clear goals vis-à-vis other players. 

If there is one part in the book that could be said to leave something to be desired, it is the final, six-page-long chapter dealing with the country’s Middle Eastern policies after its unification. Given the book’s purview and objectives, a thorough interrogation of these policies would have been somewhat incongruous. Yet the author focuses solely on the –apparently immutable- relationship with Israel, while briefly touching on the two Gulf Wars. He does mention that the second of the latter led to a low point in German-American relations; but he forgoes situating this moment in its broader context. Was Germany simply against US unilateralism? Was something changing in its anschauung of the Middle East? More importantly, it would have been wise to include a few words on Germany’s relationship with Turkey, a sempiternal pillar of its regional approach.  

Steininger is a historian of the Western world and not of the Middle East. Therefore, to have expected a detailed exploration of Germany’s ties to the Middle East over the past 150 years would have been asking for too much. It would also have required a much more voluminous book. He is certainly in firm ground in what he has done and his work is an original and much needed entrée into a topic that is bound to elicit scholarly interest in the near future.

Charalampos Tsitsopoulos