Inside Israel

That Time Menachem Begin Ripped the West German Chancellor



When people ask me who I think is Israel’s best Prime Minister, the answer has to be Menachem Begin. He knew how to stand strong for us, and, at the same time, knew how to make peace.

Here is an example as to his strength as a leader. In 1981, Begin responded to a statement by German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in which he suggested that Germans had a moral commitment to the palestinian Arabs.

Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel last night accused Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of arrogance, greed and callous disregard of the Jews killed in World War II.

Mr. Begin’s choice of words concerning the West German leader, which came during a speech at a political rally here, stunned foreign diplomats.

The anger of the Israeli leader was caused by a statement by Mr. Schmidt in which he suggested that Germans had a moral commitment to the Palestinians. The statement was made by Mr. Schmidt last week after he returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia.

At one point, Mr. Begin mentioned President Valery Giscard d’Estaing of France along with Mr. Schmidt, charging both with ”unbridled greed and avarice.” And in an even more personal vein, Mr. Begin said Mr. Schmidt had served in the wartime German armies that helped wipe out the Jews.

”From a moral point of view, Schmidt’s statements certainly rank as the most callous ever heard,” Mr. Begin said. ”It seems that the Holocaust had conveniently slipped his memory and he did not make mention of a million and a half small children murdered, of entire families wiped out.

”The German debt to the Jewish people can never end, not in this generation and not in any other. The entire nation cheered on the murderers as long as they were victorious. But what do we hear? We hear of a commitment to those who strove to complete what the Germans had started in Europe.”

Mr. Begin said Mr. Schmidt ”must have concluded some very lucrative business deals with Saudi Arabia.”

Despite pressure, PM Begin did not back down:

PM Begin would later explain to 30 top-ranking leaders of the United Jewish Appeal: 

“What had [Schmidt] done? What had he said?” “He had gone to Saudi Arabia, and he had said in a public statement that Germany had obligations to various peoples, among them the Palestinians, but he made no mention of the Jews. “I was beside myself with astonishment. Could it be, I said to myself, that he, of all people, had failed to make mention of Germany’s obligation to the Jews – and in Saudi Arabia, of all places? So, yes, I told him what I thought of him in public.” “And how did he respond?” “He demanded an apology, but I refused. I publicly told him that he had shown arrogance and callous disregard of the Jews exterminated by his people in World War II. And I counseled him to take an example from his predecessor, Chancellor Willy Brandt. I told him to do what Brandt did: to go to Warsaw. I told him to go to the site where the Jewish ghetto once stood. “Go down on your knees, Mr. Schmidt, I told him. Go down on you knees and beg forgiveness of the Jewish people for what your countrymen perpetrated under the Nazi regime against my people, at a time when you, Mr. Schmidt, remained steadfast to the personal oath you had given to Adolf Hitler, as a soldier in the Wehrmacht.”

The next year, PM Begin reiterated his stance publicly after Schmidt reportedly said he would not visit Israel until Begin apologized for his initial remarks:

Reviving a bitter, nine-month-old feud with West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin said today that Schmidt should “go down on his knees and ask the forgiveness of the Jewish people” for the Nazi extermination of Jews during World War II.

Reacting to a report in the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonoth–it quoted Schmidt as saying in Paris yesterday that he would not visit Israel until Begin apologized for remarks last May–Begin repeated his previous accusation that the chancellor throughout the war had remained faithful to his oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler.

Begin’s statement, issued by his office, said Schmidt is the leader of a nation that “bears thehistoric responsibility for the extermination of 6million Jews, amongst them 1.5 million little children.”

The rancor between the two leaders goes back to last May, when Schmidt, during a visit to Saudi Arabia, asserted that West Germany had a “moral obligation” to recognize Palestinian rights to an independent state. Schmidt also said the Palestinians would have to recognize the Israelis’ right to a secure state.

At that time, Begin charged that Schmidt had “served in an army that was ordered to surround cities and maintain order while other special units entered to liquidate Jews.”

Today, Begin urged Schmidt to “take an example from his predecessor, Mr. Willy Brandt, and visit Warsaw. Go to the site where the Jewish ghetto once stood and go down on your knees and ask the forgiveness of the Jewish people and all nations loving justice and liberty for what your country perpetrated under the National Socialist regime against my people.”

Begin added, “At the time, Mr. Schmidt remained faithful to the personal oath he had given Adolf Hitler as a soldier, an officer of his army.” Schmidt’s service record included two years with an antiaircraft unit and a stint with the German Air Force high command as a junior officer.

They don’t make Jewish leaders like Menachem Begin anymore.

Meanwhile, in an ironic twist, in 1984, the former president of France, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, let it be known that Helmut Schmidt’s father was the illegitimate son of a Jew.


Tags: Germany Helmut Schmidt Israel Menachem Begin

David Lange

A law school graduate, David Lange transitioned from work in the oil and hi-tech industries into fulltime Israel advocacy. He is a respected commentator and Middle East analyst who has often been cited by the mainstream media

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