Originally Published 2015-05-26 00:00:00 Published on May 26, 2015
A legalistic position towards the Greek demand for reparations is neither sufficient nor politically wise. A generous gesture towards Athens would strengthen Germany's position as a country that is more than a leader by default in the EU.
Why Germany should deal generously with Greece's call for reparations
When Loukas Sehremelis (84) from Distomo, a small village at the foot of Mount Parnassus in Central Greece was a teenager, he experienced how a German soldier stormed the house of his family with an automatic rifle and aimlessly fired until the magazine was empty. Loukas' small brother and two women were left dead. This happened on 10 June 1944 and it is not unknown in both Germany and Greece. In fact, the so called Distomo massacre where Germans killed 218 people, most of them elderly, women and children has been well documented by historians, filmmakers and the media.I However, the relatives of the victims never received a single Euro as compensation. Although a Greek court awarded them the amount of 28 million Euro altogether in 1997, Germany refused to pay. All levels of German courts who dealt with the issue cited the international law of sovereign immunity that basically says that each country is immune from another state's jurisdiction. And this is not the only case in which Germany denied compensation for crimes committed by the Nazi regime with legalistic arguments. The rationale in Berlin is, that the "final settlement of the problem of reparation" as stated in the London Debt Agreement from 1953 has been settled by the so called "Two-Plus-Four-Treaty", signed by the USA, France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, West and East Germany after the reunification in 1990. According to the Ministry of Finance, Germany paid a sum of 71 billion Euro as compensation of war crimes until 2013 - and it wishes to draw a line under the issue. But there are two problems with this view. Both treaties were negotiated under certain conditions and the outcomes are political compromises rather than book-keeping exercises. Nobody will ever know the exact amount that Germany owes the various countries that it has been at war with in the last century. While Berlin might be legally right, it cannot stop the question from resurfacing politically. The other problem is related to this but of rather philosophical nature: Germany itself chose reparations as the preferred way of dealing with crimes committed by the Nazi regime after World War II. This means it tried to transform guilt in a moral sense into financial debt.II A process that always leaves a gap that cannot be repaired through money. It is this unconvertible "rest" that never allows Germany to finally close the accounts. I shall therefore argue that a legalistic position towards the Greek demand for reparations is neither sufficient nor politically wise. A generous gesture towards Athens and the victims of German crimes would strengthen Germany's position as a country that is more than a leader by default of the European Union. But let's have a very short look at the long history of the problem that covers more than 70 years between the end of World War I and the German reunification in 1990. It all started in 1919 with the "Treaty of Versailles" that formally ended the First World War. The treaty severely damaged the German economy through territorial loss and high reparations that were widely perceived as "unjust". Historians believe that the following political propaganda against it facilitated Hitler's ascent to power, destroyed the nascent German democracy of the Weimar Republic and subsequently lead to World War II. Although the German Reich paid a considerable amount of money and in kind, many demands of its creditors remained open. After the Second World War seemingly nobody wanted to burden Germany again with an amount of reparations that would prevent the heavily destroyed country from economic recovery. The question of German reparations therefore, was largely a trade-off between the country's obligations and the political necessity to recreate Germany as a functioning state in the centre of Europe. Against this backdrop, the London Debt Agreement from 1953 covered a number of different types of German debt from before and after World War II. Parts of them resulted from the "Treaty of Versailles", which Germany decided to pay in order to restore its reputation. Others represented post war loans by the USA. But the repayable amount was reduced by 50 percent and stretched out over 30 years to keep the German economy running. 115 million Deutschmark were paid to Greek victims of Nazi crimes but some outstanding bills were "forgotten." For example the 476 million Reichsmark which the Nazi regime forced the Greek Central Bank to lend them as a war loan in 1942 and that the Greek government under Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras now demands back. This and many other demands were "deferred until the final settlement of the problem of reparation" in a peace agreement, as the text states. And here lies the crux of the matter. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the "Treaty of the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany" paved the way for German reunification and full sovereignity. However, at no point are reparations mentioned in the so called "Two-Plus-Four-Treaty." And this was a political decission, as leading German negotiators of that time admit openly.III Germany feared a fresh wave of financial demands from the over 50 nations that Hitler was at war with - not without reason, as we see today. While it is understandable that German politicians want to spare German taxpayers further payments, it is also a legitimate question, if the participating parties of the "Two-plus-Four-Treaty" had the right to settle the claims of other nations who suffered under German occupation. Greece, for example never signed the treaty (but also did not complain about it in 1990). The important point here is that once again, as in the case of the London Dept Agreement, a political decision lead to the existing legal framework. Lawyers and experts in international law have different views on the question, if the Greek government has a right to claim reparations. Legally, the German government has a consistent position. But since Germany has assumed the role of a creditor in the Eurozone crisis, the discourse has gained a new dimension. Other than in 1945, Germany is the dominant economic power of the European Union and its political and economic stability is firmly intact. It is therefore not surprising that the Greek government unearthed the question of reparations. Athens can rightly argue that large amounts of German dept have been written off for political reasons in the past. Why should the Greek dept not be set in some way or the other against its reparation claims? Why should the few surviving victims of German atrocities in Greece not receive a pension, as many other Nazi victims do? While there might be economic reasons to resist these demands, a generous German gesture would be an important contribution to stability in the European Union. The European sovereign default crisis has once again brought out some spectres of the past that will keep on haunting the continent if they remain unaddressed. Seen it as a political signal, not a legal obligation would bolster the leadership role that Germany that it assumed as a result of its economic strength. Germany has come to terms with its violent past long ago. It is now time to take the next step of taking the responsibility that comes with being the largest economy in Europe. (The writer is a Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi) I.    Loukas Sehremelis' story was narrated in "Die Welt", 10 April, 2015. II.    See Sigrid Weigel, "Reparationen fuer Griechenland. Deutschland sollte sich nicht druecken" in "Der Tagesspiegel", 7 April, 2015. III.    Interview with the former advisor of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Horst Teltschik in "Deutschlandfunk", 4 March, 2015.
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