A few weeks ago, a member of the opposition Greens in the German parliament, Manuel Sarrazin, put a simple question to the Christian Democrat/Social Democrat coalition government. Whether any political memorial actions were planned to mark the 80th anniversary of the attack on Greece and Yugoslavia by the German forces. A foreign office official replied that the government was “very conscious of Germany’s historic responsibility of this anniversary for Greece and the countries of former Yugoslavia”. Presumably “a large number of memorial events of individual victim communities would take place in Greece, in which the embassy, consulate general and honorary consuls will take part,” the official added.
In other words: nothing was planned in Germany itself on 6 April the anniversary of the attack. That fits in with the impression that has long been prevalent in Greece – that in the memory of Germans the crimes of the Wehrmacht in Greece hardly matter. This, although between 1941 and 1944 the Wehrmacht, SS and Gestapo rampaged there rabidly. Massacres, hostage shootings and merciless exploitation shaped the occupation regime. Nearly all Greek Jews were deported to Auschwitz and Treblinka to be killed. Except for compensation of 115 million marks agreed in 1960 for certain groups of victims, Greece has received no financial restitution.
In February 2012, former Greek foreign minister Stavros Dimas told parliament in Athens the issue of German reparation payments remained open. The financial crisis hit Greece especially hard and strained relations with Germany, hauling history into the here and now. Since then the question why there was never financial compensation for German crimes nor for a loan Greece was forced to give Germany has weighed heavily on relations. So far the German government categorically rejects Greek and Polish reparation claims.
“Respect and equal footing between partners”
The Greens have made a move to try to unlock the rigid positions. They argue that it should not be allowed to keep responding “only with silence and rejection to Greek concerns”. “It is important to us to try out of an historic, moral and political responsibility to find shared answers to open issues,” Mr Sarrazin said.
“We are aware of Germany’s guilt and our historic responsibility,” said Claudia Roth, vice president of the parliament, the Bundestag. With that background, “respect and an equal footing among partners are essential to European cohesion.” This is likely to be attentively noticed in Greece. Although the motion has no chance of getting a majority in the parliament, it does place an obligation on The Greens. Should they form part of any coalition government after the September Bundestag election they could hardly fail to bring the hot potato matter into coalition talks. That’s all the more likely because Germany’s legal stance up to now has been anything but unassailable. That has repeatedly been the conclusion of the Bundestag’s scientific advisory service, most recently in 2019.
“The position of the federal government is arguable in international law but it is by no means incontrovertible,” said a status report.
The core point is whether the German government can fall back on the two-plus-four treaty of 1990 which conclusively clarifies reparation obligations and Greece has lost any claims it has not formally made long ago.
In Greece’s view that is groundless. For one thing because it had no part in the 1990 Two-Plus-Four negotiations in which the two Germanies, and the Four Powers which occupied Germany at the end of World War II in Europe: France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States renounced all rights they held in Germany, allowing a reunited Germany to become fully sovereign the following year. And secondly, because it never ceded its claim to reparations. The Bundestag paper states that there are reasonable grounds“ for the German position, but Greece’s position is also “justifiable”. The Greens now suggest that the Bundestag accept that “in Greece’s view the issue of reparations and compensation payments for the German war and German occupation in Greece was not settled at any point“ and that this is a heavy strain on relations.
Several concrete proposals should be made to Greece „as a humanitarian gesture of goodwill by Germany,” the Greens demand. Part of that should first and foremost be a “new response” to the Greek demand for repayment of the loan forced from Greece. Part of the gesture should also be payments to the victims of Nazi crimes and their children that have so far not or only inadequately been recompensed. Socio-medical assistance is also suggested. Above all, Jewish communities should be supported. Additionally there should be remembrance projects and investments in the future for places that suffered heavily under German occupation and were totally or partially destroyed.