In Greek Town, Reparations Claim Against Germany Hits Home

by Matthew Dalton – May 19, 2015

The Wall Street Journal

On Dec. 13, 1943, German soldiers gunned down 496 men and boys, the worst of many massacres during their brutal occupation of Greece, then torched the town. The hands of the church clock stopped at 2:35–where they have been fixed ever since.

Today, people here say they are still waiting for Germany to pay for their loss: They are among the thousands of Greeks demanding compensation from Berlin for wartime atrocities.

“Germany must recognize the damage that it did,” says Athanasios Papadopoulos, a former mayor of Kalavryta, whose grandfather and three uncles were killed in the massacre. “And it must pay reparations any way it can.”

Those demands, viewed with unease by previous leaders in Athens, have gained new life with the victory of an outspoken, leftist-led government in January.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza party have pledged to push for reparations, tapping into a lingering reservoir of anger that has been magnified by Greece’s deeply unpopular financial bailout.

Mr. Tsipras now must decide how far he wants to go. Pushing the demands would risk further angering Germany , the eurozone’s leading member, at a time when Athens wants it to renegotiate its bailout conditions and restructure the more than [euro]200 billion ($225 billion) Greece owes to the rest of the currency bloc.

If he backs down, Mr. Tsipras could alienate some of his most steadfast supporters.

The government in April released an official estimate that found Germany owes Greece [euro]279 billion for the occupation. German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel responded by calling the claim “dumb.”

The West German government paid 115 million marks to Greece in 1960, or about $220 million in today’s dollars. It also paid tens of millions to individual victims of Nazi crimes, mainly Greek Jews.

Berlin insists that the “2+4” treaty that reunited Germany in 1990–signed by East and West Germany, the U.S., France, the U.K. and the Soviet Union–shielded it from any more war-related claims.

Despite that, some Germans say the government should reconsider its stance. “It is right for a history-conscious country like ours to explore what possibilities might exist for reparation,” Germany President Joachim Gauck said in the Munich-based Süddeutsche newspaper on May 1.

Perhaps the most immediate decision for Mr. Tsipras will be whether to enforce a court decision in a nearly 20-year-old lawsuit brought by residents of another town, Distomo, for a 1944 massacre.

Greece’s highest court upheld the [euro]28 million award in 2000, but the justice minister at the time refused to sign an order allowing German government assets in Greece to be seized to pay the plaintiffs.

In March, Mr. Tsipras’s justice minister said he was ready to enforce the Distomo decision, although he didn’t give a timetable.

Distomo residents sought to enforce the award in an Italian court several years ago, but that triggered a battle there over international law that has yet to be resolved.

Germany argues the principle of sovereign immunity shields it against such claims in foreign courts.

The German occupation of Greece was one of the most brutal in Europe outside the former Soviet Union, said Mark Mazower, a historian at Columbia University and author of “Inside Hitler’s Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941-1944.”

Starting in 1943, many of the occupying units came from the Eastern front, where they had used mass killings to subdue local Slavic populations. “Those units are kind of bringing Eastern rules with them,” Mr. Mazower said.

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