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Germany has faced reparations claims for decades – but insists the cases are closed. Now, with Greece, Poland and former colony Namibia bringing up the topic, is Berlin afraid of a slippery slope due to its complex past?
In 1941, Nazi forces invaded and subsequently occupied Greece; according to official figures, 300,000 people were killed under Nazi occupation. Greece was exploited economically, and when German forces withdrew from the country, they laid waste to its infrastructure. The Nazis also forced the Bank of Greece of issue a "loan" worth the equivalent of some €10 billion ($11.5 billion) to cover the "costs of occupation." Yet Germany never repaid this debt, and the government has repeatedly stated that the issue of repayment or reparations is closed.
However, with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier's visit to Greece and apology for Nazi crimes, the topic is yet again gaining attention on both sides. On Wednesday as the president traveled to Athens, German government spokesman Steffen Seibert told DW: "Our position is that the question of German war reparations has been settled politically and in legal terms."
A question of timing
In rebuffing calls for reparations, the German government has repeatedly referred to two past agreements. In 1960, Germany reached a deal with several European governments over the payment of 115 million Deutschmark (€59 million, $68 million in current terms).Moreover, German lawmakers say, an "extensive war reparations scheme was established," from which Greece supposedly benefited as well. The Two Plus Four Agreement struck between East and West Germany as well as the four occupying powers after German reunification in 1990, meanwhile, stated that "no further war reparation" would be made.
Greek PM Tsipras has broached the topic several times with his German counterpart, Chancellor Angela Merkel
Government spokesman Seibert also told DW that "Incidentally, the Greek government has made no official request in this regard." He could have qualified his statement with the word "new," because it has indeed brought up the topic several times in recent years, most vehemently so during the height of the Greek debt crisis in 2015 when Alexis Tsipras' left-wing government came to power.
Such a request might come soon. In September, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas met his Greek counterpart Nikos Kotzias in Athens. After the encounter, Kotzias said that "the right moment, right approach and right time is key to addressing this historic issue." And that movement and time may be in December when Nikos Voutsis, the speaker of the Hellenic Parliament, will present the reparations commission report. DW has learned the commission has calculated Germany owes Greece €300 billion in reparations.
What are the odds that Germany will actually pay up? Professor Ulrich Battis, an expert in constitutional law, told DW that the Greeks "have called on national and international courts numerous times to make their demands, so far without any success." Even so, he would not rule out that they could be successful one day, Battis said.
The London Debt Agreement, which Germany and its former wartime enemies concluded in 1953, stipulated that a final settlement of war debts would be contingent on a final peace agreement. But following German reunification several decades later, German decision-makers "deliberately opted not to sign a peace agreement," professor Ulrich Battis explained, instead calling the document on the united, sovereign German state the Two Plus Four Agreement. This fact, in Battis' opinion, is used by the German side to argue it effectively never signed a peace agreement and therefore owes no war reparations to anyone. Greek premier Tsipras once dismissed this as a "legal trick," but Battis disagrees. "Everyone involved with the agreement signed it; the Germans never dictated anything."
Most likely, the German government is less worried about the possibility of paying war reparations to Greece than it is about setting a legal precedent. Other former wartime enemies, occupied countries and colonies might similarly demand reparations.
Polish-Greek talks: Strange bedfellows united
The German leadership will be wary of Polish plans to submit a request for war reparations, too. The Greek and Polish reparations committees, after all, are working hand in hand to exert pressure on Germany. "Yes, there has been a meeting," the president of the Greek reparations committee Triantafyllos Mitafides and his Polish counterpart and PiS parliamentarian Arkadiusz Mularczyk confirmed. The latter said the Greek report was very insightful but stressed Poland would deliver a much more detailed paper.
During their trip to Athens, members of the Polish reparations committee also met Greek lawyers who represented victims of the 1944 Distomo massacre at the hands of the German occupiers. In June that year, SS troops brutally butchered hundreds of villagers (possibly up to two thousand; sources differ on the precise numbers), among them many elderly, women and children – and burnt down their houses. In 1997, a Greek court ruled that Germany must pay €40 million to the victims, yet Germany refused to comply. The Greeks then called on the European Court of Human Rights but their case was rejected. "In Poland, there were a thousand villages like that one," says Mularczyk.
"There were a thousand villages like that one" in Poland during the Nazi era, says Polish parliamentarian Arkadiusz Mularczyk of the Distomo massacre
Pressure campaigns planned
Accordingly, Poland intends to demand much greater war reparations. The parliamentary reparations committee estimates a sum of €740 billion. Mularczyk will present the final report in early 2019. Only then will it become clear if Poland plans to officially demand reparations. So far, Poland's government has merely publicly discussed the issue.
Athens and Warsaw hope Germany will be willing to compromise as the pressure mounts. "We assume that Berlin will want to settle our claims individually," Mularczyk thinks. But he has already thought this possibility through. "If we get stuck, we could 'internationalize' our cooperation."
Greek-Polish cooperation on the matter is not built on a shared political foundation, however. On the contrary. Poland's national-conservative PiS government and the Greek left-wing Syriza government could not be much more different in terms of their political positions, ut they are united on the reparations quistion. And publicly urging Germany to pay up could serve both governments well in the run-up to parliamentary elections in both Greece and Poland next year. Both government may also seek to capitalize on the issue ahead of the European parliamentary elections in May 2019. Surveys indicate that a majority of Poles would welcome its leaders pressing Germany to pay reparations.
Asked whether he knew of this Greek-Polish cooperation on war reparations, Germany's government spokesman Steffen Seibert responded: "To be honest, I have no information about this, and it would be also be astonishing if I had any information on possible discussions between Poland and Greece. I don't have any."