Mentioning the war so we don't have to mention the war

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis

Fawlty Towers was never a popular show in Greece and the concept of not mentioning the war is not one familiar with Greeks. In fact, Greece is a country where history is often viewed as a collection of unresolved issues - such as the Asia Minor Catastrophe, the Second World War, the Civil War and the military dictatorship – that continue to shape the present. The sense that there has been a repeated lack of closure is prevalent at each new crisis, each key turning point in the country’s progression.

Alexis Tsipras’s first act as prime minister was to visit the National Resistance Memorial at Kaisariani firing range, where he laid flowers in memory of 200 Greeks executed there by Nazi occupiers. It was a gesture that immediately blended the past with the present. Many outside observers interpreted this as the immediate firing of a broadside at Germany – an attempt to show that historical debts far outweigh financial ones. There’s little doubt that this was part of the message Tsipras wanted to send but there were other elements to it as well. For instance, it was a nod to the long and painful road, including war, executions, torture, persecution and exile that Greece’s left travelled in the previous decades in its efforts to reach power. It was also a reminder of the death and destruction wreaked by the same Nazis that today find sympathisers among Greece’s third largest party, Golden Dawn, and its supporters.

One of the problems of using history as a reference point is that it is open to more than one interpretation. This was underlined by the government’s decision this week to set up a new parliamentary committee to investigate Greece’s case for claiming war reparations from Germany. Within Greece, this is mostly seen as a perfectly legitimate move. The previous coalition also had a committee for the same purpose. In fact, the issue of settling war reparations has been a topic that Greek governments have returned to repeatedly since the early 1990s. There is a prevailing feeling among Greeks that moral and financial issues have been purposefully left unresolved by Berlin.

In Germany, and elsewhere with Europe, the reaction to the government’s decision and Tsipras’s accusation of “dirty tricks” against Berlin produced outrage. Bild newspaper labelled it “moral blackmail,” while Guy Verhofstadt, president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) accused Tsipras of “fuelling hatred between Greeks and Germans.”

Of course, it is difficult to disassociate the new coalition’s pursuit of reparations from the current difficulties in negotiations with its lenders. Cornered due to a combination of incessant financial pressure, its own cloddish diplomacy and a repeated pummelling from its partners, Tsipras wants to show that Greece is being unfairly victimised. His argument is that within a historical context, the ideas of commitment, debt and even morality must apply to all and that Greece is a relatively minor offender.

The right time

Again, though, the problem of jumbling history with the present is that everyone draws different conclusions and the crux of the matter is often ignored. In this case, the issue should not be whether the time is right to raise the matter but whether there is any matter to resolve. The problem with a case like this, which Tsipras admitted is very “technical and sensitive,” is that there is never a good time to settle it. If relations with Germany are positive, raising the matter will lead to accusations of trying to undermine them. If relations are poor, as is the case at the moment, returning to the subject elicits claims of guilt-trip politics.

“What’s not clear to me is: when was the right moment for Greece to raise this issue?” German historian Hagen Fleischer, one of the leading experts on the subject, told the Irish Times. “From a German perspective, it was always either too soon or too late.”

Indeed, if one avoids a kneejerk reaction to the Greek side reaffirming its claims for restitution, then the historical facts show that there has been an unsatisfactory handling of the matter in political and legal terms.

Raising the issue

In 1953, Greece was one of the signatories at the London Debt Conference that granted West Germany debt relief aimed at allowing the country to recovery from its collapse, while also delaying any reparation claims until the country was reunified. A few years later, German paid Greece “voluntary compensation” of 115 million Deutsche Marks for Nazi crimes.

Yet, when reunification came, Greece’s repeated attempts to reach a settlement with Germany were rebuffed. Athens was told that it was too late to claim reparations. At the same time that Greece and others were being turned away, a reunified Germany paid off the debts that had accrued as a result of the reparations imposed on the country at the end of the First World War. Berlin paid the last instalment of 70 million euros in September 2010, which covered the interest on bonds it had issued between the wars to raise money to pay for the reparations agreed at Versailles.

While Greece is in the same boat as other countries on the issue of reparations, it also has a separate, unique claim. During the Second World War, the Greek government was forced to provide loans to the Nazi occupiers so they could cover the costs of maintaining the military presence in Greece. Some estimates put this amount at 10 to 11 billion euros in today’s money.

In today’s discussions about Greece regarding its obligation to pay back the money it has borrowed, it is difficult to ignore at least the unresolved case of the forced loan even it was granted more than 70 years ago.

However, any attempt to settle the issue must be cut out from the current bailout negotiations and handled separately. Attempts to merge the two are doomed to becoming too toxic. This was underlined by Justice Minister Nikos Paraskevopoulos’s threat on Wednesday to implement a 2000 Supreme Court decision to seize German state-owned property in Greece, such as the Goethe Institute, as compensation for victims of Nazi atrocities.

In fact, there was an attempt to seize the Goethe Institute in July 2000, when bailiffs entered the building with a police escort to begin auditing the value of all its contents following the decision of a lower court. The move proved inconclusive, as did Italy’s seizure of Villa Vigoni, a German-Italian cultural centre on Lake Como, because of Germany’s jurisdictional immunity as a sovereign state. In February 2012, the International Court of Justice at The Hague ruled that Italy had violated the law by confiscating the property. Greece had also intervened in the case on behalf of its Nazi victims.

Ties that bind

It is clear that trying to settle any disputes in this way will only lead to acrimony. Perhaps by focussing on the things that bind the two countries, Germany and Greece can find a path to a negotiated solution that will put to bed any sense of injustice and remove from the hands of populists and nationalists an issue that can be used as a blunt object to batter public opinion into their desired shape.

Instead of talking about seizing the Goethe Institute in Athens, for instance, let’s stress that this was the first such centre to open in a foreign country and that during Greece’s military dictatorship it was an oasis of international culture and free thought. Similarly, Greece was the first country to extend, in 1953, an official invitation to a postwar German president. A growing Germany provided hundreds of thousands of jobs in the 1950s and ’60s for Greeks trying to escape the country’s previous worst economic crisis and who ended up playing a vital part in Germany’s “economic miracle.” Currently, about 300,000 Greeks live in Germany and Greece exports about 10 percent of its products there. Also, 2.46 million Germans visited Greece last year, providing vital support to the country’s key tourism industry.

There is a strong basis for understanding and cooperation between the two countries; too strong, in fact, for the debate to be left to those with just short tempers and long memories. There are various constructive ways in which the subject can be approached so that it is not framed within terms that unleash the ghosts of the past. Fleischer has proposed the creation of a “future fund,” a foundation emphasising the countries’ shared history and even the joint construction of a symbolic infrastructure project. A Greek-German "future fund" to which Berlin contributes 1 million euros a year was created in 2014 and Germany’s Minister for European Affairs Michael Roth suggested that this could be used as a tool for settling the WWII issue. Former German-Greek MEP Jorgo Chatzimarkakis has proposed the creation of a reconstruction bank, along the lines of Germany’s KfW, with the money in question.

However, to arrive at such solutions, Greece needs to approach the issue with maturity and a long-term goal, rather than use it for short-term political gains. Germany, on the other hand, needs to overcome the stubbornness and evasiveness it has displayed over the last few decades. Both sides have a historical responsibility to reach an understanding and stop these old wounds from festering.

*A version of this article appeared in last week's e-newsletter, which is available to subscribers.

Follow Nick on Twitter: @NickMalkoutzis 

2 Comment(s)

  • Posted by: Dean Plassaras

    What does mentioning the war have anything to do with tourism?

    The war is an issue of justice for something that happened 70 years ago and tourism is for vacations now.

    Shall we stop buying all German products immediately in order to blackmail Berlin the same way Berlin hints about doing with tourism?

    Because if so we could easily save $3.4 Bil. of German trade surplus which is enough to cover the loss from the penny pinching German misers who crowd our beaches and occupy our swimming pools for the summer.

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  • Posted by: Klaus Kastner

    To anyone who is interested in learning all the details about how the Nazis exploited their occupied countries, I recommend the book "Hitler's Beneficiaries' by Götz Aly. The system they employed was truly unbelievable!

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