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Berlin faces new WWII reparations demands

Christoph Hasselbach / gro
March 12, 2015

The Greek government has stepped up its calls for German reparations for World War II. Although an argument can be made in favor of Athens' proposal, there is little chance of successfully asserting the claims.

Deutsche Soldaten beim Aufziehen der Hakenkreuz-Flagge auf der Akropolis
Image: cc-by-sa/Bundesarchiv/Bauer

The damages in question date back more than 70 years. Under the German occupation in WWII, thousands of Greeks were murdered, infrastructure was destroyed, and Greece's central bank was forced into giving Germany a loan. Germany never reimbursed individual claims.

Berlin now considers the case closed - both legally and politically. Martin Jäger, spokesman for the German Finance Ministry, made that very clear by saying, "We will not enter negotiations with the Greeks."

Nonetheless, government spokesman Steffen Seibert also stressed on Wednesday, "Germany is absolutely and constantly aware of its historical responsibility for the harm that National Socialism caused to many countries in Europe."

The German government has repeatedly pointed out that 115 million deutschmarks were paid out under an agreement in 1960 with several European governments. Furthermore, Berlin argues there was an extensive system of compensatory measures in place that Greece also benefitted from.

No peace treaty - no money

But in Greece, the matter has by no means been resolved. Ulrich Battis, a specialist for constitutional law in Berlin, told DW, "[The Greeks] have tried many times - in national and international courts. They have not yet been successful."

But the legal expert says he would not completely rule out their chances of realizing their demands.

In the London Agreement on German External Debts dating to 1953, former West Germany and its WWII enemies decided that a final settlement of German war debts should be deferred until after the signing of a peace treaty.

During the process of German reunification, the Germans, according to Battis, "intentionally avoided concluding a peace treaty." Instead came a Two Plus Four Treaty (formally known as the "Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany"). That treaty, Battis says, forms the basis of the current German stance, which he describes as: "There is no peace treaty, so you get nothing."

Claims as high as the state debt

That is what Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras seems to have meant when he recently told parliament in Athens that German governments have avoided reimbursing claims by using "legal tricks."

Constitutional scholar Battis admits, "A certain legitimacy of the demands cannot be denied."

However, Battis rejects accusations of using "legal tricks," instead arguing, "All parties involved signed. [Germany] did not dictate anything." He adds that it's understandable from the Greek perspective "to play any card they have - especially because of the difficult situation they are in now."

Tsipras has not named an exact sum in the reparations discussion. But last Sunday, the Greek newspaper "To Vima" quoted figures from a 2013 investigation marked as top secret that estimated the total at 300 billion euros($316.56 billion). That includes more than just the forced loan. Whether coincidental or not, the figure is almost exactly the same as Greece's state debts.

In other words, if Germany were to pay Greece the total sum - although nothing points that way currently - Greece would suddenly be rid of all of its debts.

Bailiff already in the building

Justice Minister Nikos Paraskevopoulos says he's prepared to resort to seizing German property if the dispute comes to that. The property could include, for example, the Goethe Institute and the German Archaeological Institute. Government spokesman Seibert declined any comment on this.

Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a German member of European Parliament with the FDP, called the idea "unlawful" and criticized the Greek judicial system, which he said is "harnessed to the cart of a political campaign."

Athens' Goethe Institute
The Goethe Institute in Athens is one prospect for seizureImage: DW/Irene Anastassopoulou

In Lambsdorff's opinion, all war debts have been settled: "Rather than fight the battles of the past, the new Greek government should instead fight for the future."

Justice Minister Paraskevopoulos' threat, Battis says, also has precedents, "Several years ago, a bailiff measured the rooms at the Goethe Institute in Athens as part of completing its seizure."

However, according to the relevant law and existing judgments, the seizure of property is prohibited, Battis argues. Even at the time, he continues, the bailiff "did not enforce the warrant because Greece had lost the case."

Sympathy in Germany's parliament

As for claims resulting from the forced loan, the Greek government has an ally in Bundestag member Annette Groth of Germany's Left party.

Groth told Reuters, "The government should work with Greece to find a way of paying off the 11 billion euros now."

Eleven billion is the sum that had been calculated by the previous Greek government led by Christian Democrat Antonis Samaras. Groth also says she supports Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis' proposal to use that sum to finance a development bank based on the German example of the Reconstruction Credit Institute (Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau).

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