Bösch (Frank)

Frank Bösch (University of Potsdam/Leibniz-ZZF), “Petting the Tiger“: West Germany and Gaddafi‘s Libya, 1969-1990

We are used to analysing the history of democracy from a national point of view. My paper suggests a different perspective: It will focus on the mutual relations between democratic and autocratic states, in this case West Germany and Libya. West Germany – due to its economic power and financial aid – had quite a strong impact on the political development of many non-democratic countries. As West Germany became the closest economic partner of Libya in the 1970s/80s, my paper asks: To which extent did such contacts influence the political constellation in Gaddafi’s Libya? Did West Germany stabilize Gaddafi’s autocracy or support human rights and democracy? My paper argues that the West German impact on democratization in Libya remained much smaller than on other autocracies in the 1970/80s due to different structural reasons. My research is based so far on documents from the archives of the German foreign office, the ministry of economics and the Chancellor, publications of NGOs like Amnesty International, and interviews with German people working in Libya. I hope to get more sources from the Libyan side in future research.

Here, I would like to conclude some findings:

  • Libyan students in West Germany supported the protest against the autocracy of King Idris since 1967. Some West German students joined their support. However, the situation in Libya did not gain as much attention as the protest in Germany of students from Iran against the Shah or of Greece and Spanish migrants in Germany, who protested against the dictatorship in their home countries.
  • West Germany profited economically from Gaddafi’s regime in the 1970s – due to the exclusion of British, American, Italian and Jewish companies, the new importance of oil and due to German exports for Libya’s huge new infrastructure projects. Brandt’s Ostpolitik was an implicit model for the relation to a more socialist Libya. It was believed that socialist regimes might be influenced by trade and negotiations but not by force and embargos. Oil imports from Libya, which became the highest in West Germany in the 1970s, built a strong relationship. However, this dependency on Libyan oil became so strong that political interventions concerning democratic rights seemed too risky.
  • Many reports stress that Germany held a high reputation in Libya. However, West Germany’s democratic structure was less important for its positive perception and the close cooperation. West German democracy did not become an explicit model, and some Libyans even admired Germany for its national socialistic past before 1945. The admiration for the so-called economic miracle and technical expertise gave rise to a more unpolitical perception, which enabled cooperation.  

Vice versa, the majority of the German population considered Libyan people (like Arabians in general or Africans) in a racist way not as developed and educated enough to live in a democracy. While they expected people in Greece, Spain or Chile to be able to govern and live in a democracy, the same was not expected from African and Arabic societies, which were considered to need “a strong man” to avoid chaos and civil war. Thus, the effort to support democratic movements remained very low.

  • Since the late 1960s, a very active human rights movement developed in West Germany. Amnesty International reported about 800 political prisoners in Libya in the 1970s and about 20 known executions, cases of torture and dozens of prisoners. However, West German “Amnesty” activists received no reply and no information because Libya was less accessible than autocracies like Chile, Spain or Greece. The German foreign office did not assist them and argued that they could only help German citizens arrested in Libya. Libya, like other Arabic or African States, with the exception of South Africa, never became the object of intense human right campaigns in the 1970s. The political left preferred to criticize the human rights situation in states supported by the US (like Chile, Brazil, Iran), because this also supported their campaign against imperialism and capitalism. Therefore, these movements also did not have an impact on a potential democratization of Libya.
  • Some left-wing groups and even some members of the newly founded Green party were fascinated by Gaddafi and his pretended direct democracy, the Jamahiriya. His “Green book” gained some attention although not as much as Mao’s red book. Some prominent members of the German peace movement and the Green party participated in Gaddafi’s diplomacy ”from below” and visited Libya. However, the board of the Greens distanced itself from these meetings. The German left supported Libya after the US-bombing in 1986 as “victim of US imperialism”. Gaddafi also invited seemingly ordinary citizens from Western democracies as ambassadors of the people. However, all these meetings remained very symbolic.
  • While there was a close cooperation in trade and economic policy, the symbolic political cooperation remained rare. Gaddafi tried hard to solicit invitations or state visits from democracies like the US and West Germany. However, all Western countries rejected his efforts since the late 1970s to keep their distance. After new terrorist attacks from Libya, the German chancellor refused to meet him several times. However, these political sanctions did not go undisputed. The foreign office argued that high profile meetings with Gaddafi would “tame the radical Libyan party.“ The German foreign minister Genscher argued against his US-American colleague in 1983 about Gaddafi: ”You have to pet the tiger if you can’t tame him”. I would argue that this had an ambivalent consequence: The political isolation did indeed often radicalize Gaddafi’s policy, while some bilateral meetings, like the ones between Germany and Libya, could tame him for a certain time.
  • The influence of Western democracies on Libya was also much lower than on other autocracies, because Libya was quite a rich country with low international debts. Other autocracies, like Poland, Argentina or Mobuto’s Zaire, were under much more international pressure due to their debts. Instead, Libya’s regime could put pressure on democracies due to its oil exports. Gaddafi threatened West Germany several times to stop his oil supply if they would stick close to the US or keep his terrorists in German prisons. Several Libyan terrorists, who killed people in German streets, were exchanged against imprisoned West Germans. Germany avoided to impose sanctions on Libya but finally followed the pressure of the US government since the late 1980s, because it was afraid to lose the US-market.

So in general one can conclude that West Germany’s pragmatic policy helped to stabilize Gaddafi’s autocracy. At the same time, there were several structural reasons why democracies like Germany, which had strong economic ties, did not have the same impact on democracy in Libya like they did on other countries like Spain, Greece, Chile or Socialist Eastern Europe in the 1970/80s.

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كيف تتفاعل الديمقراطيات مع الأنظمة الاستبدادية ألمانيا الغربية وليبيا في 1970- 1980

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