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Germany

In Berlin, a show of history and politics

The Greek government has called for Berlin to pay reparations. During his visit to Berlin, Alexis Tsipras visited the Holocaust Memorial. A highly unusual step for a foreign visitor, as Naomi Conrad reports.

Tsipras? The group of Italian teenagers clustered outside the Marriott Hotel in central Berlin, drawn by the many camera positioned by the entrance, conferred briefly, then shrugged. "Nah, never heard of him", one slightly pimply young man piped up. The Greek prime minister's two-day visit to Berlin obviously didn't factor too highly on this teenager's list of priorities. He turned to his friends: "He's not a pop star, let's make a move then."

Others are paying more attention: The Greek prime minister's visit comes at a fraught time in Greek-German relations: Alexis Tsipras and his leftist Syriza party came to power in January on a pledge to end, or at least renegotiate the country's strict austerity policies, while Chancellor Angela Merkel insists that further reforms are essential to securing a deal with its European creditors.

With cash-strapped Athens teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, a failure of the talks would most likely result in it crashing out of the euro.

A row over reparations

But that is not all: Relations have been further soured by Greek demands that

Germany pay reparations

for atrocities committed during the Nazi occupation of Greece - a demand that the German government categorically rejects: All reparations, the government insists, have long been settled in the Two-plus-Four agreement which reunified Germany in 1990.

Greece disagrees: At a joint press conference on Monday night, Tsipras called for negotiations over his government's demand. Reparations were, he said, an "ethical and moral issue." Merkel's response was typically curt: reparations, she said, had been resolved both "politically and legally."

Tsipras and Steinmeier (Foto: Michael Gottschalk/Reuters)

Steinmeier said the "tone in the German-Greek talks in recent days has clearly changed and clearly improved"

Standing behind the police barricade erected around Berlin's Holocaust Memorial on Tuesday in anticipation of the Greek delegations visit, a very unusual move for a foreign visitor, Aspasia-Athina Volakaki shrugged: She was sure the Greek and German governments would find a solution. "But we don't want Germany to say that we want to steal their money." Volakaki, a vivacious pharmacist from Athens on holiday in Berlin, said she had not voted for Tsipras, but supported his government's attempts to renegotiate its debt obligations. "Something has to be done, we've had five years of crisis, it just can't continue this way."

Unusual visit

Volakaki said she had heard about the prime minister's visit to the Holocaust Memorial "by accident", and wanted to show her support.

As the prime minister's motorcade drew up, Volakaki and her friends waved and snapped pictures on their phones, as Tsipras, surrounded by his security detail, ventured a few steps into the Memorial's concrete stele, before being whisked off into the small museum below, which features display boards on the Holocaust.

Was the prime minister intentionally sending a signal, reminding both voters at home as well as politicians in Berlin of Germany's historical guilt? Upstairs, a Greek journalist shrugged: "Maybe." Yes, he added after a pause, it was possible that the visit was linked to the demands for reparations, quite likely even, he grinned, before turning back to the melee of journalists waiting upstairs for Tsipras to reemerge and issue a statement.

A futile hope: When the prime minister reemerged half an hour later, he headed straight for a group of onlookers straining over the barricades. As he shook their hands, a woman's voice floated across the Holocaust memorial: "Alexis, I want your baby." A member of his delegation smiled: Tsipras, she said, was quite enjoying all the attention.

Berlin, it seems, had found its pop star after all.

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