Greece, Germany and the complex issue of war reparations
John P. Anton describes the atrocities of the German occupation in Greece during WWII and underlines the lasting effect this has had on the Hellenic nation
Considerable discussion has been generated recently concerning the problem of war reparations with regard to the destruction the German armies inflicted during WWII on the populations and the lands of the various countries that were occupied. Here we look at the special case of Greece. The Germans occupied Greece from April 1941 to October 1944.
I am not so much concerned with the ongoing legal disputes surrounding the unresolved issue about the war reparations that Germany still owes Greece. Rather, my interest is related to an unacknowledged and serious part of the damages that the German occupation brought upon the country as a result of the brief yet catastrophic presence of Hitler's armies in the land.
More precisely, I am raising the broader issue about the breadth of the catastrophes the German occupation forces brought to the status of Greece's culture, beyond the already listed types of damage to the land, the people, and the official institutions of the country. Although this unacknowledged interference cannot be measured with economic and other comparable criteria, its occurrence and consequences played an enormous and irreversible role in the subsequent history of the country. By raising this issue, one can see why the dispute about reparations should have been resolved long time ago. Prolonging the response to the reparation demands of Greece has caused an inexcusable silence about the cultural changes that Greece suffered. A careful consideration of the multifaceted damaging effects will show that the changes the occupation caused and which continued after the withdrawal of the invading armies, were as consequential as they were inestimable.
There can be no doubt that the war disrupted what may be called the "normal development" of Greece as a modern European country. One can only guess today what would have been the "normal" changes in the political and cultural life of Greece had the war not occurred. The first thing that comes to mind is the expected transition from the dictatorship of the Metaxas regime, which commenced in August 1936, to the return to a normal democratic statehood, with the parallel changes in education and other aspects of the cultural life of the nation. It may well be that up to that time the leading European nations were confident that they had so advanced scientifically and politically that they were far beyond the level of having any need for the great achievements of the classical Greek tradition. Consequently, they would have believed that there was nothing that modern Greece could offer in this regard. If anything, the contrary was the case. The new nation was in constant need of protection, help, and support.
The historical record shows that the leading modern nation-states, including Germany, were confident that they had absorbed the substantive values of the classical civilization, especially the lessons of democracy. The literature of the Enlightenment expounded views on the superiority of the developing course of Europe. Greece, in the meantime, was still part of the Ottoman Empire and remained in that state until the War of Liberation started in 1821.
This European stance explains, at least in part, the notable indifference that had been shown toward the issue, namely, the negligence toward extending reparations to cover the cultural turmoil that followed the Nazi invasion of the land.
The cultural issue goes beyond the reparations for the crimes committed by the occupying forces. The issue is not only ethical and political but also artistic and educational. It remains a fact that the actions of the German army created the conditions that led to the complex changes that continue to threaten the identity of the Greek people and the future of the cultural outlook of the country. We should include all the institutions and groups of values that were embedded in the traditions of the land. Herein lies the cause of the multiple splintering of the resistance forces, the December 1944 clash between the armed leftist organization ELAS and the government that had returned with the protection of the English army, and the civil war of 1947-49 that followed the liberation. One of the most serious consequences of these is the abnormal change in the attitudes of the people as they were forced to move from the countryside to the larger cities, specifically Athens. The complex development that marked the conflict of ideas and values among the diverse groups encouraged the intensification of a complex attitudinal trend that can be best understood as a process of gradual de-Hellenization (αφελληνισμός), encouraging the replacement of extant traits of conduct traceable back to ancient times with modern European ways.
In effect, the Germanic presence in Greece, as the Nazi occupation of the land, shows that there was no intent to contribute to the amelioration of the inhabitants' conditions of life. On the contrary, it destroyed whatever it could and imposed a state of terror, violence and thievery. Nothing of the so-called indebtedness to the Greek heritage and civilization was acknowledged in action. In fact, the occupation forces were responsible for extensive crimes. It has been estimated that 520,000 people, or 7.2 per cent of the population of Greece, were killed or died of starvation; at least 800 villages with inhabitants of 500 to 1000 were burned to the ground. Beyond these atrocities, there was extensive theft of Greece's archaeological treasures from a number of museum collections as well as private ones. It should also be noted that in March 1942 the Nazis borrowed by force 10,582,120 British gold pounds (=U.S. $ 23.5 billion) from the Central Bank of Greece.
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