German-Greek War Reparations: The Story So Far

Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Greek’s incumbent Syriza party, is no stranger to populism in his own country, but even he may be surprised by the reaction within Germany to his latest demand. Last week, Tsipras re-opened the debate regarding the (non-)payment of war reparations by Germany in the wake of World War II, and, perhaps to the surprise of some, the claim has received a significant amount of support within Germany itself. But a number of questions remain only superficially answered amongst general reports on the issue. Precisely, what is it that Greece want? What is the debate over it in Germany? And perhaps most importantly, what are the implications?

Before we get going on the current stuff it’s probably best to just recap what all these arguments are about. The Axis powers occupied Greece from April 1941 to October 1944, during which time thousands died of starvation and extermination, as well as vital infrastructures being destroyed. Since then, Germany has paid reparations a couple of times, with a voluntary payment of 115 million Marks in 1960, followed by the so-called ‘Two-Plus-Four’ treaty in 1990, in which Germany ‘finalised’ its reparations with the four main allied powers; the U.S., the U.K., The Soviet Union, and France. Now that the historical detail is out of the way, let’s get our teeth into what’s happening now.

What Greece Want

Let’s start by looking at what Mr Tsipras has actually said. A full translated transcript of the speech, which was given to the Parliamentary Committee for the Claiming of German Reparations can be found here by The Greek Analyst, but there are several notable points to be taken out. Firstly, as you might expect from a leader such as Tsipras, the speech itself has its basis in demagoguery, starting off with that old rhetorical chestnut of asking the following.

‘What country, what people can have a future if it does not honour its history and its struggles? What people can move forward, erasing the collective memory and leaving historically unjustified its struggles and sacrifices?’.

Hardly a surprising angle to take, and certainly nothing new, but it does not mean that he does not make some pertinent points. By acknowledging the legitimacy of the London treaty, which wrote off the German WW1 reparations that helped to spark WW2, he avoids giving the impression that this is merely an unlikely money-grabbing scheme, and actually makes his case all the stronger. Tsipras furthers this by claiming that the Bilateral Agreement of 1960, in which the Germans paid 115 million Marks, ‘did not have to do with the damages that involved the damages suffered by the country, but with the reparations to the victims of Nazism in Greece’. He plays a clever game of admitting that some reparations have indeed been paid, but only a limited amount, and not to the state itself, but rather to the people who were made to suffer.

So what does he actually hope to gain from this tactic? Well, by claiming that the 115 million Marks paid during the Bilateral Agreement was merely reparations to those who suffered at the hands of Nazism, he leaves the road open to reclaim the money he says is due to Greece for the ‘almost-complete destruction of the infrastructure of the country, and the destruction of the economy during the war and the Occupation’ along with the so-called ‘Occupation Loan’, which alone totalled around €8 billion in today’s money. In total then, Mr Tsipras is attempting to claim back as much as €170 billion by basing his case on the fact that Greece never recovered from the Occupation and was left behind by Europe and Germany for that reason. Given the fallout over the proposed restructuring of Greece’s €260 billion bailout, this is hardly an insignificant amount and is bound to have turned a few heads, particularly given the threat to seize German assets in Greece if the demand is ignored.

The View from Germany

In perhaps a surprising twist, the claims have received some significant support in Berlin. Senior Social Democrat officials such as Gesine Schwan and Ralf Stegner have spoken on the subject, with the former claiming that ‘it’s a mater of recognising that we committed terrible crimes against Greece’.

The situation remains a delicate one, however, as Germany has previously refused to respond to war reparations requests since the signing of the ‘Two-Plus-Four’ treaty in 1990. As such any response to Greece could cause a potential domino effect, with any number of countries perhaps using it as a precedent to claim their own reparations, particularly those countries of Eastern Europe such as Poland that suffered most under Nazi occupation and had no real say in the signing of the treaty due to being part of the Soviet Union until after the treaty was signed. This could cause issues not only economically but also politically as the past is dragged into the light once again and old wounds are torn open once again after decades of silence.

What Will Happen

This still remains anyone’s guess really, but Germany have been growing increasingly impatient with Greece over their recent economic manoeuvring, and this claim will not aid that, despite the support it has garnered among some politicians. Reparations have always been a tricky issue, and the number may be seen to be too close to the bailout negotiation amount to be taken as seriously as it perhaps otherwise might have been.

The official response from the office of Ms Merkel this week re-iterated their previous position that war reparations were not open to re-negotiation, but it is certainly a debate that deserves to be had, and how it plays out may well have a huge effect on the future of Europe itself. This would be particularly true if there is any ruling that Germany does still in fact owe reparation money, which could well result in a scramble of claims to follow Greece’s example. Either way, it will certainly be an interesting few months for German-Greek relations, and it will remain one to watch as long as Mr Tsipras is in power.

N.B. This post originally appeared on http://www.tremr.com

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