BERLIN - In the current debate about the possible bankruptcy of the Greek state, one largely dormant argument has recently resurfaced with increasing frequency: the widespread damage inflicted by the Nazi regime during World War II means that Germany still owes Greece major outstanding wartime reparations.
While the claims for payment of damages are based on very real facts, one could likewise argue that over the course of 60 years or so, those claims have already been satisfied under international law.
What is at stake? Without having been provoked, the Wehrmacht the Third Reichs armed forces took over both Greece and Yugoslavia on April 6, 1941. In both countries, German soldiers set up a brutal occupation regime. As was usually the case in European nations invaded by the Germans, the high cost of the occupation was borne by the occupied country -- and the Greek economy was plundered through forced exports.
This resulted in galloping inflation and a radically lower standard of living for Greeks. Additionally, the Third Reich forced the Greek National Bank to lend Hitlers Germany 476 million Reichsmarks interest-free.
After Germanys surrender, the Allied powers organized the Paris Conference on Reparations in the fall of 1945. Greece laid claim to $10 billion, or half the total amount of $20 billion the Soviets suggested that Germany pay.
The suffering caused to Greece by the Nazis is undeniable. Yet at the same time, human suffering cannot really be measured. Independent historians unanimously agree that the total economically measurable damages suffered by Greece as a result of the German occupation, in both absolute numbers as well as proportionate to the population, put Greece in fourth place after Poland, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.
At the Paris Conference on Reparations, Greece was finally accorded 4.5% in material German reparation and 2.7% in other forms of reparations. Practically, this meant that Greece received mainly material goods such as machines made in West Germany worth approximately $25 million, or 105 million marks, which in todays money amounts to as much as 2 billion euros.
However, the stipulations made at the Paris conference were all but irrelevant given that the United States opposed heavy economic penalties. U.S. leaders recalled what happened after World War I, when Germanys first democracy, the Weimar Republic, was massively weakened economically by having to pay off reparations. Indeed, one of the consequences of this policy was the rise of Hitler.
All four allies agreed
That is why under the terms of the 1953 London Debt Agreement, reparation payments were put off until a peace treaty was signed. That finally happened in 1990, which didn't require Germany to pay further reparations to other countries like Greece.
Greece accepted the treaty, though clearly it had little choice. After decades of partnership with Germany (Greece had been a member of NATO since 1952 and associated with the European organizations since 1961) it would have been politically difficult to demand huge reparations although periodically the issue of compensation was raised by Greek politicians, mostly to score points in domestic politics.
And yet payments were made over the years at different times and from different pots probably as much as 30 billion euros since 1949, although given the variety of agreements that were reached its impossible to say with certainty.
Independent from all other claims, the Federal Republic of Germany did pay compensation to individual victims of Nazi crimes. On March 18, 1960, an agreement was signed between Greece and West Germany to the effect that Germany would pay 115 million marks to Greek victims of the Nazi occupation. The agreement was made under the stipulation that no further claims for individual damages would be accepted.
However, claims from the descendants of Greek victims continued to be made. The best known case was made by children of the residents of a village called Distomo who were killed on June 10, 1944 in what the Germans called a retaliatory strike. In 1997, they received a verdict that they were entitled to 37.5 million euros in damages from Germany. After much legal wrangling, the case is now before the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Another legal issue that has surfaced concerns the 476 million Reichsmarks lent against its will to Germany by the Greek National Bank during the war. If this were to be considered a form of war damage, then in principle it would be subject to reparation except that according to the 1990 treaty Germany would not have to pay it. If the money were, however, to be considered a normal credit, then Greece would be entitled to get the money back.
Without interest, the amount in todays money would amount to 10 billion euros. With interest at 3% over 66 years that would come to at least 70 billion euros. The problem is this: even just partial recognition of such a debt would create a precedent that could bring untold further claims in its wake.
Read the original story in German
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