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Settling claims

Jannis Papadimitriou / db
April 15, 2013

Greece is deliberating whether Germany still owes war reparations stemming from the Nazi occupation in World War II. Despite German reservations, some claims just might be justified. But will they ever come?

Crete/1941/Parachuters. Photo.
Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

A secret Greek Finance Ministry report is said to have detailed evidence of atrocities and forced loans during the Nazi occupation in Greece in World War II. The weekly newspaper "To Vima" reported that the internal document was compiled by a group of experts who scoured state archives to find relevant material.

The documents reportedly confirm that, in 1960, Germany paid 115 million German marks in reparation payments to victims of the Nazi terror regime in Greece in accord with a bilateral reparation agreement.

From Germany's perspective, that payment settled all claims definitively - claims that would have lapsed by now, anyway.

Greecein turn refers to the 1953 London Agreement on German External Debts, a treaty between the Federal Republic of Germany and creditor nations stipulating that payment obligations from World War II were to be deferred until "after the signing of a peace treaty."

Once and for all

But Greek demands are quite justified, argues Hagen Fleischer, a historian and professor emeritus at the University of Athens.

Prof. Hagen Fleischer, DW/Kouparanis
Claims are justified, Fleischer says - particularly with regard to loansImage: DW

"Before 1990, Germany tended to point out [that] it was too soon, because Germany was divided and it was the entire country that had gone to war, not just one half. So the issue was supposed to be canned until Germany was again reunified," Fleischer told DW.

After reunification, however, "Germany's response was suddenly, 'So much time has passed - now it's too late," Fleischer says.

The historian doubts the validity of Germany's objection that all reparation claims were settled by the 1960 bilateral accord. One must put the reparations of 115 million German marks into context, Fleischer says.

"The Netherlands, which suffered much fewer losses, received a larger amount of money."

Contentious and complicated

The German historian is convinced that the issue of reparations is not yet settled 68 years after the end of World War II. While the Greek Finance Ministry does not list concrete figures, victims' associations have suggested reparation payments of 160 billion euros ($209 billion). Quite a few editorial writers come up with significantly higher amounts.

Possible claims include reparations for casualties and material assets as well as compensation for a loan the Greek Central bank was forced to give the Nazi regime in 1942.         

soldiers 1941 photo, May 1940.
German troops enroute to Greece in 1940Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

It is precisely this forced loan that should be regarded separately from any other claims, Hagen Fleischer suggests.

For "practical reasons", asserting reparation claims is a dead-end street, as no German government would risk such a precedent, Fleischer says. The Greek side would be well-advised to drop those demands and to focus instead on claims pertaining to the occupation loan. After all, he says, the occupiers recognized their loan debt of 476 million reichsmarks and had actually started repayment shortly before the end of the war.

Schäuble: Issue closed

Today, that loan would amount to about seven billion euros without interest, the historian says.

He added German loans after the war generally had a six-percent interest rate, but even at a conservative three percent, Greece could be looking at a three-digit billion sum. The fact that the Nazis recognized the loan is also an advantage for Greece, he says.

Dimitris Papadimoulis. Photo: Jannis Papadimitriou vergangene Woche in Athen aufgenommen.
Papadimoulis views Schäuble as as sidestepping a valid Greek concernImage: DW/J. Papadimitriou

The SYRIZA radical leftist party, currently the strongest opposition force in Greek parliament, is determined to put pressure on the coalition government to claim war reparations from Germany.

Party leader Alexis Tsipras says he broached the issue at a meeting in January with German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who was quoted last week by the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung as saying the issue of war reparations was definitively closed years ago.

"Much more important than misleading people with such stories would be to explain and spell out the reform path," he told the paper.

Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos retorted that there is no relation between the reforms being carried out in Greece and the issue of German reparations. But observers say the reparations issue is clearly related to Greece's international financial bailout and Greek anger at Germany's EU policies.

SYRIZA parliamentary spokesman Dimitris Papadimoulis told DW that Schäuble is confronting Greeks with the dilemma of "reform or reparations."

No one denies that Greeks must restructure the budget and reform the state, he says, "But that does not change the fact that reparations claims remain in place."

Emotional demands for reparations are not unusual in the Greek media these days: the top-selling Ta Neadaily has even identified what it calls a "cold war" between Athens and Berlin.

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