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German Court Rejects Greek Reparation Claim for Nazi Massacre

June 27, 2003

A top German court on Thursday turned down claims for compensation from family members of Greeks killed in a Nazi massacre at the end of World War II.

Before the 1944 massacre: the Greek village DistomoImage: AP

Germany's Federal Court of Justice rejected reparation claims for the massacre of around 300 civilians by the Nazis in the village Distomo in German-occupied Greece in 1944. The court said Germany was only liable to pay compensation to states, not to individuals affected by war crimes perpetrated almost 60 years ago.

"This massacre is one of the most despicable crimes of World War II," presiding judge Eberhard Rinne told the court. But he explained that "moral or humanitarian aspects could not play a role because the case could only be considered according to the limited means of the law."

Brutal retaliation

The case was brought by four siblings whose parents were killed in Distomo.

On June 10, 1944 Greek partisan fighters ambushed soldiers from an SS tank division near the mountain village, killing four of the Germans and forcing the remaining troops to retreat. In retaliation, the SS killed every man, woman and child they could find in Distomo and burnt down the village. The oldest victim was a 85, the youngest a two-month-old baby.

After the war the perpetrators of the massacre were acquitted in the Nuremburg War Trial for lack of evidence.

Today Greeks see Distomo as a memorial to the Nazi occupation of the country from 1941 - 1944. For years survivors of the massacre have been trying to claim compensation from the German state. In 1997 a Greek court in Livadia ordered Germany to pay the plaintiffs around €28 million ($32 million). Germany fought the decision in Greece's highest civil court, the Areopag, but in 2000 it lost.

Germany -- which had already given Greece around €67 million in reparations in the 1960s -- then refused to pay the Distomo survivors. The 200 plaintiffs tried to force the sale of the buildings of the Goethe Institute -- Germany's cultural and educational organization -- in Athens, but failed after the Greek government did not back the action.

Around 60,000 Greek claims

Claims from survivors and their relatives have already been rejected in lower German courts and by the European Court of Human Rights. In the 1970s a Munich court suspended criminal investigations into the Distomo massacre because the statute of limitations had expired. Some 60,000 Greek plaintiffs have filed claims against Germany.

The Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe also dismissed the earlier ruling from the Areopag, saying that it violated the principle of state immunity, whereby states may not judge other states. Both the European Court of Human Rights and Greece's supreme court confirmed the legality of state immunity in rulings last year. The German government and the plaintiffs' lawyer also agreed that the decision was legally flawed and not binding.

In the course of the latest Distomo legal proceeding, the government said it deeply regretted the events, but still rejected paying reparations to the survivors. It said the massacre was "a particularly brutal but unfortunately not unique action by German soldiers."