New research highlights the Dutch role in Holocaust reparations negotiations

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Historian Lorena De Vita unravels impact of local and global security issues of 1952

Menachem Begin protesting against the Luxembourg Treaty. The banner reads, &rsqu
Menachem Begin protesting against the Luxembourg Treaty. The banner reads, ’Our honour will not be sold for money; Our blood will not be repaid with goods. We will undo the disgrace!’ Source: Wikimedia/Hans Pinn
In 1952, now 70 years ago, Wassenaar was the scene of a historic breakthrough. Representatives of the victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust negotiated reparations in the aftermath of the Second World War, allegedly in secret. The result was the Luxembourg Agreement. Signed on 10 September 1952, the agreement changed the meaning of reparations forever. Until today, the role that the Netherlands played in these negotiations, has largely been forgotten. New research by historian Lorena De Vita ( History of International Relations ) shows why Wassenaar was chosen as the location of the negotiations, and exposes the local and global intrigues in which the Dutch authorities became embroiled.

Safe haven in the Netherlands

But why exactly did these negotiations 70 years ago between Israel and Germany take place in the Netherlands? De Vita’s research shows that the meeting was opposed by many in several parts of the world, ranging from Europe to the Middle East and beyond. The negotiators therefore sought a safe and ’neutral’ location. They found it in Wassenaar, partly because the Dutch authorities were willing to go to great lengths to allow the talks to continue safely and in secret, despite fierce protests.

Research article in BMGN

In the article ’Dutch Hospitality: The 1952 German-Jewish-Israeli Negotiations amid Post-Holocaust and Post-Imperial Tensions’ recently published in the scientific journal ’Low Countries Historical Review’ (BMGN), Lorena De Vita elaborates on her research.

"In an article that at times reads like an intriguing spy story, Lorena De Vita explains why the meeting was held in the Netherlands and why the Dutch police and intelligence services were so crucial to its success. We leave it to the reader to judge how decisive some small details in this Dutch story were for the further course of European history," BMGN’s editor Marnix Beyen writes.

Secret archives and a letter bomb

On the basis of previously unexamined archives, some of which are still classified as secret, De Vita was able to reconstruct how complex it was for the Dutch authorities to ensure the safety of the emotionally charged meetings. That strict security was necessary became clear within a week after the start of the talks: a letter bomb addressed to the German delegation was intercepted just in time. "The newspapers reported on this at the time," says De Vita, "but the episode soon landed in the dustbin of history."

Securing the safety of the site and the negotiators involved not only local police, but also border police, intelligence services, diplomats and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As De Vita realised while reading the archival documentation: "There was cooperation and information exchange between the Dutch and the Israeli authorities, but also with German, British, French, Swiss and Belgian security services. This was an extraordinary counterterrorism operation for that time."

With such fierce and widespread opposition, it was crucial for the Dutch authorities to keep a discreet eye on the negotiations they were secretly hosting.

For her research, De Vita also interviewed the only surviving negotiator of the Jewish Claims Conference delegation at the time, the now 102-year-old lawyer Benjamin Ferencz. He is also the last surviving prosecutor of the Nuremberg trials against Nazi war criminals after World War II. De Vita also gained access to numerous official and personal archives.

Ground breaking negotiations

In the Oud Wassenaar Castle, representatives of the State of Israel, the Jewish Claims Conference, and the Federal Republic of Germany came together for the first time between March and August 1952. The agreement they reached was ground-breaking, De Vita explains: "Those negotiations and the agreement that followed, made history. The German, Jewish, and Israeli negotiators who met in Wassenaar in 1952 concluded one of the most striking agreements in the history of international reconciliation in the wake of genocide and mass victimisation." Until then, reparations had been negotiated in the aftermath of wars between two parties: the victors that demanded them, and the vanquished, which were left with no other choice but to pay them. "There was no legal mechanism in 1952 that forced Germany to sit at the negotiating table with Israeli and Claims Conference representatives in the aftermath of the Holocaust." While today we are used to reading about the strong ties between Germany and Israel, the situation was very different back then. Furthermore, while today in The Hague an institution like the International Criminal Court has a special Trust Fund for Victims which deals with reparations, an ins this was not at all in place (not even in the offing in 1952. things are remarkably different  The 1952 agreement introduced new ideas and practices concerning repair after genocide.

Fierce resistance

In 1951, both the state of Israel and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer agreed that the time had come to talk about reparations, although Israel and the Claims Conference repeatedly stressed that the unimaginable suffering could never be repaired. "But there was also fierce resistance to the negotiations in many parts of the world", De Vita explains. Within the Jewish community - in Israel, Europe and elsewhere - many people were shocked at the idea of negotiating material compensation with the perpetrators of the Holocaust. In West Germany, many residents could not see why they should pay when their own cities were still in ruins and food was scarce. And in the Arab Middle East, the idea that Israel could gain more military power with German support, was met with horror. De Vita: "With such fierce and widespread opposition, it was crucial for the Dutch authorities to keep a discreet eye on the negotiations they were secretly hosting."

Conference about the 70th anniversary

Supported by a KNAW Early Career Partnership , on 22 and 23 March, Lorena De Vita organised an international and interdisciplinary conference  on the historical context and significance of the Wassenaar negotiations in 1952. The conference linked perspectives from history, law and international relations. Former MA student Anouschka Witte wrote this report about the conference (in Dutch) .

Dr. Lorena De Vita  is Assistant Professor in the History of International Relations. In 2020 she published ’Israelpolitik: German-Israeli Relations 1949-1969’ , which this year came out in paperback edition as was praised by reviewers as international history at its best. She is currently leading a five-year research project titled ’Holocaust Diplomacy: The Global Politics of Memory and Forgetting’, funded by the Alfred Landecker Foundation.