Rivalry with Tradition

TUNIS/BERLIN | | tunesien

TUNIS/BERLIN (Own report) - In the aftermath of yesterday's Constitutional Assembly elections, Berlin is using a so-called transformation dialog to strengthen its influence in Tunisia. The "dialog," initiated by the governments of both countries in September, provides for an on-going cooperation, and is particularly aimed at assisting Tunisia's political reorganization and the intensification of economic cooperation between the two countries. It is independent of yesterday's election results and can be applied as leverage for German influence if the Islamic Ennahda Party should achieve a strong position. Simultaneously, it allows Germany to enhance its standing in Tunisia vis à vis France, which still maintains the strongest influence in its former protectorate. The German-French rivalry in Tunisia goes back to the last century. As confirmed by a new publication by the secret service expert, Erich Schmidt-Eenboom, this rivalry had intensively been raging - by means of espionage - already during World War II and in the early period of the Federal Republic of Germany. Bonn, at the time, could rely on Nazi personnel and networks to weaken Paris, which, just a few years earlier, had been under occupation.

Transformation Partner

The new phase of the German-Tunisian cooperation began back during the first weeks after the overthrow of the long-term ruler, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, January 14, 2011. Already on February 12, the German Foreign Minister offered Tunis a "transformation partnership." They then initiated an ongoing cooperation. Using the intermediate steps of a reinforced engagement of German party-affiliated foundations in Tunisia and the initiation of closer "development" cooperation, Berlin and Tunis broadened their contacts. The preliminary highpoint of these relations was the September 13, signing of a memorandum of understanding launching a regular "transformation dialog." According to the German Foreign Ministry, this dialog includes German assistance in Tunisia's political restructuring as well as an intensification of economic cooperation. These measures will be undertaken within a national, rather than an EU, framework, thereby reinforcing Berlin's position in particular with the objective of achieving advantages for Germany vis à vis France, the former protectorate power. These measures are opening a new round of rivalry between Berlin and Paris - in a country that had once been exclusively within France's sphere of influence.

Rebellions Against France

German-French rivalry in Tunisia extends far back into the last century. The intelligence services expert, Erich Schmidt-Eenboom and the political scientist, Matthias Ritzi recently sketched this rivalry for the period beginning in the early 1940s to the early 1960s, using the example of the case of a top Nazi spy - who later worked for the West German BND intelligence service. In their book, Schmidt-Eenboom and Ritzi portrayed Richard Christmann, a German, who was forced against his will to serve in the French Foreign Legion in North Africa from 1926 to 1932. Christmann became very knowledgeable about Tunisia, particularly the political situation in this French protectorate. This knowledge became advantageous, when, beginning in 1940, he was assigned to the High Command of the German Wehrmacht, section counter-intelligence in Paris. He was in charge of establishing a network of contacts to the North African opposition to French colonial rule. Schmidt-Eenboom and Ritzi explain "tactically, the counter-intelligence was interested in recruiting reliable French-speaking agents for this mission in France and the Maghreb." "Strategically" the intention was to "instigate rebellions against France in the North African colonies" that eventually could also "tie down a larger contingent of Anglo-American troops, thereby relieving pressure on the German Africa Corps."[1]

Against the Paris Monopoly

Christmann's knowledge and his personal contacts again were advantageous after World War II, when he settled in Tunis in 1956, as the resident of Bonn's foreign espionage service. The newly founded Federal Intelligence Service (BND) was in the process of expanding its foreign operations and, at the time, was particularly concentrating on Arab countries, partially under the direct orders of the CIA. Occasionally the CIA was looking for assistance, to avoid having to take offensive measures itself against its British and French allies, as for a certain period in Egypt.[2] In Tunisia, which only became independent in 1956, Christmann's efforts were aimed at strengthening West Germany's position, in general, but especially in the economic sector. The objective was not only to consolidate the Federal Republic of Germany's position vis à vis the German Democratic Republic but also to roll back French influence. Therefore, BND resident Christmann was concentrating his sharp attacks particularly on French companies, which allegedly maintained a monopoly in Tunisia even after decolonization.

Access to the Colony

His activities against French interests culminated in Christmann's support, rendered from his headquarters in Tunis, to the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) with the objective of wrenching Algeria from under French colonial rule, to make it accessible to other powers. As proven by Schmidt-Eenboom and Ritzi, the BND agent's support comprised more then merely providing medical supplies and pieces of equipment, but also included propaganda for French foreign legionnaires willing to desert as well as intelligence service training. The BND even withheld information about terrorist attacks from its French counterparts. The Federal Republic of Germany always "applied a seesaw policy in its official diplomacy regarding the Algerian conflict," Schmidt-Eenboom told german-foreign-policy.com. The Federal Republic "did not want to come into confrontation with their NATO partner, France, on the one hand, but on the other, they, of course, sought to curry favor with the Arab world, to win advantages for their own policies and exports." The BND, explains Schmidt-Eenboom, certainly crossed the line of such a seesaw policy, and "unambiguously sided with the FLN."[3]

Overlapping Struggles

Following up on the activities of its former BND resident Christmann, the Federal Republic of Germany has been able to insure a strong standing in Tunisia over the past few decades - even while French hegemony over the country remains intact. The current measures for enhancing influence are aimed at using the transformation situation to make further inroads in this German-French power struggle, which, most recently, had especially involved Libya.[4] North African social revolts are being overlapped with conflicts that, as can be seen with the Christmann example, had already been aspects of the anti-colonial struggles in North Africa - the conflicts to determine which of the stronger European powers will predominate.

Please read our interview of Erich Schmidt-Eenboom as well as our review of the new book about Richard Christmann.

[1] Matthias Ritzi, Erich Schmidt-Eenboom: Im Schatten des Dritten Reiches. Der BND und sein Agent Richard Christmann, Berlin 2011. See our review
[2] see also Guarantor of Stability (I) and Guarantor of Stability (II)
[3] see also Ein Resident mit Erfahrung
[4] see also Action Plan - Libya