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Greece: Germany’s Long-Suppressed War Guilt

For a long time, Germany's stance was that reparations had been paid for its war crimes in Greece. However, this claim falls short in many respects

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Hilde Schramm
Visitors look at portraits of victims at the Holocaust Museum in the town of Kalavryta, western Greece.

The 6 April marks the 80th anniversary of the German attack on Greece. German crimes in the Second World War are still deeply anchored in the collective memory of the Greeks, yet Germany’s willingness to compensate Greece for the destruction and plundering of the country and the suffering inflicted on its people remain shamefully low to this day. Greece has been off the radar of most Germans for far too long, except as a holiday destination of course.

Only the conflict between the two countries over the debt crisis about ten years ago had the side effect of making Germans increasingly interested in Greece and bringing the two states – paradoxically – closer together. But the new attention towards Greece also brings with it the long-repressed terror of the occupation into the consciousness of those born after it. As time passes, the crimes against humanity committed by Germany do not appear to be less; on the contrary, they are becoming greater as a result of increasing knowledge and new evaluations. Hence, there is also a growing realisation that further compensation is urgently needed.

In view of this, as recently as 4 June 2019, the Greek Foreign Ministry once again called on the German government in a verbal note to negotiate compensation and reparations. But even though politicians in this country now describe the massacres of the Greek civilian population by the German Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS as war crimes and crimes against humanity, the official response from Berlin was limited to three terse sentences: “In the view of the Federal Government, the reparations issue is closed. The position of the Federal Government is unchanged. It, therefore, does not intend to enter into negotiations on this subject.”

The German schizophrenia

We are dealing with an almost absurd situation: the crimes are no longer denied, but the behaviour stays the same. This disconnect between realisation and action borders on political schizophrenia. Such cognitive dissonance urges resolution; it cannot be sustained indefinitely.

But how has the federal government gotten to this stage? At the 1953 London Debt Conference, clarification of the reparations claims from all eligible countries was postponed until after a peace treaty. But in 1960, when pressure from the eleven western European countries that Germany had occupied in World War II became too great, the Federal Republic agreed to conclude bilateral treaties on a “voluntary basis”. Greece received DM 115 million for people who were persecuted by the Nazis on the basis of this agreement. With about 100,000 applications approved, this meant an average of DM 1187 in compensation per person. To this day, the German government claims that with this, Greece agreed not to make any further claims. However, this is contradicted by numerous experts in international law.

Finally, during the course of the reunification in 1990, the de facto peace treaty was declared a “2+4 treaty” – with the clear intention of German actors wanting to avoid paying reparations and further compensation. Although Greece was not a party to the treaty, the German government claims that the treaty represents a final and comprehensive settlement of the reparations issue. Yet, neither there, nor in the Charter of Paris that also refers to it, was the issue even addressed; the word reparations does not even appear as an indirect reference. Nevertheless, the German government has repeated ever since: “The reparations question has been settled, and, moreover, it is time-barred.”

But the obligations arising from the war debt are by no means “settled”. It is true that over the years, always below legal claims, the Federal Republic of Germany has agreed with individual countries on “indirect” or “extra-legal” payments and has set up funds or foundations that were justified on humanitarian and moral grounds. However, all this is far from sufficient. Finally, it is undeniable that, as a result of the 1960 treaty, only individual compensation was paid – and this only went to a limited group of people. Resistance fighters, for example, were not covered, nor was compensation for the plundering and destruction of the country.

Irrespective of whether the disputed reparation issues will be renegotiated with Greece, three central demands can be named today on the basis of political and moral obligation as well as legal arguments which cannot be rejected: firstly, the repayment of the forced loan which the “German Reich” extorted from Greece; secondly, the reimbursement of ransom for Jewish forced labourers and rail travel costs for the deportation of Greek Jews, and thirdly, support for the sustainable development of rural areas – with special consideration for victim communities.

The uncompensated forced labour bond

The Greek government under Alexis Tsipras, which was in office until 2019, has renewed an old demand to the Federal Republic with broad support from the Greek parliament: the repayment of the forced loan that Germany extorted from Greece in 1942. This was already isolated by the Greek government as a special matter at the Paris Reparations Conference in 1945/46, as it has been at all subsequent occasions. In the meantime, it has been sufficiently proven that it was not a question of occupation costs, but of an interest-free loan that served only in part to cover occupation costs. Repayments were contractually agreed upon. Evidence shows that parts of the loan were repaid during the war. The amounts still outstanding are referred to in official German documents as “Reich debt”. At the end of the war, the remaining debt amounted to 476 million Reichsmarks. Its value today is estimated at 11 billion euros, including interest. In this country, there are more and more voices that believe repayment is justified. In view of this, Germany should offer the Greek government to jointly appeal to the Court of Conciliation and Arbitration within the OSCE in Geneva, which is responsible for such cases. Such a step would signal a willingness to talk, for which Greece has been waiting for decades.

Secondly, the Federal Republic should reimburse the Jewish Community of Greece for the ransom of Jewish forced labourers from Thessaloniki, as well as the railroad fare for the deportation of Greek Jews.

In July 1942, several thousand Jewish men were forced to work, among other things, building roads and military installations. Living conditions were so miserable that more than ten percent of the forced labourers died in the first two months. In order to save their sons and husbands, the Jewish community made an agreement with the head of the military administration, Max Merten: they bought the forced labourers for a ransom of 2.5 billion drachmas. However, this could not save them: a few months later, from the spring of 1943, they were deported to Auschwitz and Treblinka together with the other Jews from Thessaloniki. The Jewish Community of Thessaloniki is demanding that Germany return the ransom money paid at that time, which has a current value estimated at 45 million euros.

Together with the Zug der Erinnerung e.V. (Train of Remembrance) initiative, the Thessaloniki Jewish Community is also demanding that the heirs of the deportees and the Jewish communities be reimbursed for the travel costs to the extermination camps, which today are estimated at 89 million euros. About 60,000 Jewish Greeks, mostly from Thessaloniki, were murdered there. They or their communities had to pay for their tickets themselves, as happened in other countries. But the German government and Deutsche Bahn AG have so far refused to reimburse them. However, Germany is coming under increasing pressure on this issue: the French state railway (SNCF), which transported Jews and other “undesirables” from France to concentration camps on behalf of the German occupation, has paid survivors and descendants of those murdered 60 million US dollars since 2016, following an agreement with the USA. The Dutch state railway has also been compensating the corresponding group of people with 50 million euros since 2019. Since last summer, the Dutch initiators have also been making their demands to Deutsche Bahn and the Federal Republic of Germany.

Thirdly, and finally, Germany should make amends in another field: sustainable development in rural areas. As the German Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS completely, or partially, destroyed over 1000 villages in Greece and killed many thousands of civilians. The suspicion of partisan support was enough to burn villages and murder their inhabitants. For the attack on a German soldier or his death, 50 to 100 hostages were to be shot on the order of the High Command of the Wehrmacht. In these instances, German troops were authorised to kill women and children as well. In this way, the German commanders wanted to break the resistance of the partisans against the occupation – unsuccessfully.

Although several Greek mayors asked for this in the 1950s, the German government did not support the reconstruction of these villages and towns. Nor did Greece receive any other reconstruction aid from Germany, although the German government sometimes declared previous commercial loans as a “contribution to reparations”. In the post-war period and long afterwards, the German government preferred to classify the terror of the occupation under “general consequences of war”. As late as 1995, the German embassy in Athens described the massacre in Distomo in a letter to the survivor Argyris Sfountouris “as a measure within the framework of warfare”. In the meantime, Germans, not just Greeks, are increasingly seeing these actions as crimes against humanity. It is noteworthy, for example, that the former German ambassador in Athens, Jens Plötner, distanced himself from the statements of his predecessors in a speech in 2018: “Some official correspondence from recent decades – including from the German embassy – is difficult to bear in its style. For that, I am ashamed and for that, I would like to apologise to you today, Mr Sfountouris.”

Now that the crimes committed in Greece are increasingly remembered by German society and politics, it is time to finally put words into action – and engage in negotiations with the Greek government on compensation for the war damage. The result could be a comprehensive programme that responds to the current social and ecological problems in Greece.

Words must be followed by deeds

At present, the German government almost only supports youth meetings and projects in the fields of art, culture, science and education. It hopes that this will lead to a process of reconciliation. But as important as these are, reconciliation will not take place as long as no funding reaches the Greeks in other areas of their lives. In this sense, it is important to support sustainable development in rural areas, with special attention to victim communities. In the short term, the Federal Republic of Germany should provide funds for public welfare-oriented projects that are desired by the communities themselves. More far-reaching programmes would have to follow. The funds needed for this can be interpreted as catch-up reconstruction aid or as indirect reparation payments. In any case, they would be a contribution to an ecological and public welfare-oriented modernisation of Greece.

Above all, however, the repayment of the forced loan would convince many people in Greece that a new phase of dealing with war guilt has begun in Germany. Only if the Federal Republic acknowledges these obligations can stable German-Greek relations grow in the long term.

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