Menachem Begin 'backed plot to kill German Chancellor'
The dramatic claim by the author and researcher Henning Sietz is sure to stoke resentment on the German far Right and send shockwaves through the always delicate relationship between Germany and Israel.
The details of the 1952 parcel bomb attack, in which a policeman died, have been kept secret for fear of upsetting reconciliation between the two nations. It was carried out by a group of Jews embittered by what they saw as West Germany’s grudging attitude towards compensating victims of the Holocaust.
"There have always been rumours that revisionists in Israel were responsible for the assassination attempt on Adenauer," said Moshe Zimmermann, a leading historian at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
The new allegations are based on a memoir written by the man who planted the explosives in a hollowed-out encyclopaedia, Elieser Sudit, a former bomb expert for Begin’s Irgun Zwai Leumi group, which used terrorist tactics against the British occupation of Palestine.
Herr Seitz says that Sudit tells how he went to Begin with the idea. Begin had become chief of the opposition Cherut party and was fiercely critical of West Germany’s stance on compensation. Begin contributed $1,000 (£540) to the operation and, according to Sudit, even offered to sell his gold watch to cover the costs. Neither Begin nor Sudit were entirely convinced that the powerful bomb would reach its target.
"He was ready to commit himself, though, to a symbolic act that would express our anger even if we could not stop the agreement with Germany." The parcel bomb was supposed to be an appeal "to shake the conscience of the world".
Begin, who later took power at the helm of a Likud coalition, put Sudit and his accomplices in touch with two Knesset members, Jochanan Bader and Chaim Landau, as well as with Abba Scherzer, former intelligence chief of the Irgun. Together they planned not only the bomb attack on Adenauer but two other letter bombs on the West German delegation negotiating compensation with Israel.
Sudit’s team was hampered by a lack of cash and an amateurish approach. The parcel to the Chancellor was addressed wrongly, in childlike handwriting. One of the conspirators gave the parcel to two teenagers in Munich and tipped them to take it to the Post Office. Suspicious about the handwriting, the boys took it to a police station where the bomb ripped apart an office, killing a member of the bomb squad and injuring two others.
For Begin, who lost his parents and a brother in the Holocaust, the compensation talks were a sell-out, a cynical attempt to buy respectability for West Germany. He was against any kind of diplomatic reconciliation.
"Adenauer is a murderer," he said at a rally in early 1952. "Every German is a murderer." In a Knesset debate on January 7, 1952, he declared: "We are ready to die, to abandon our families and children," rather than accept accommodation with West Germany.
In the end Adenauer, overcoming critics in his own Christian Democratic Party, settled with the Israeli Government on a compensation deal worth about $1 billion.
"It doesn’t bear imagining what this information would have done for the already strained relations between Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and Prime Minister Begin in the 1970s," says Clemens Wergin, senior commentator for the Tagesspiegel newspaper.
Now relations are more solid - Israel and Germany celebrated 40 years of diplomatic friendship with great fanfare last year - but even so, Begin’s involvement in a murder plot has stunned analysts.
The bomb plot was hatched at a time when many Jewish fighters wanted to wreak revenge on Germany for families lost in the Holocaust. The group Nakam (Revenge) succeeded in poisoning the bread of thousands of SS men held in a prisoner-of-war camp and tried unsuccessfully to poison the water supply of Nuremberg. Another cell of eight former members of the Jewish Brigade, who fought with the British in Italy, assassinated about 200 SS men after the war.
Sudit, who later served a short jail term for firearms offences, waited until Begin died before releasing his memoirs, which were published in Hebrew in a very limited edition in 1994. He too is now dead. Herzel Makov, the director of the Menachem Begin Heritage Centre, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz today that he knew nothing about Begin’s involvement in the bomb plot.
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