In recent years, Germany has been the bogeyman in Greece. Europe’s most powerful country was viewed as the driving force behind the austerity measures forced on the bankrupt Mediterranean minnow after its debt crisis, a source of misery for its hapless citizens.
Germany hoped that the end of the Greek aid program last month might help reset relations. But where Berlin saw a chance for reconciliation, a newly confident Athens saw an opportunity: The Greek government is putting the issue of German war reparations back on the agenda.
Just as German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas flew in Wednesday to start building bridges, Greek Parliament Speaker Nikos Voutsis warned that his chamber would debate compensation in November and “enforce our demands in bilateral negotiations and through legal channels.” The Greek Court of Audit puts the claim at €309.5 billion ($363 billion).
The topic of reparations for atrocities and destruction during the 1941-1944 occupation has festered for decades. Few people suffered as much as the Greeks at the hands of the Germans. Hundreds of thousands died from starvation and freezing weather, in massacres that wiped out entire villages trying to resist the occupation. Around 70,000 Greek Jews were deported to extermination camps. The economy was also ruined: By the time the Germans withdrew, half of all industry and roads were destroyed.
Greece has long sought compensation for families of massacre victims, as well as the damage to its economy and a forced loan. In 1960, the Federal Republic of Germany transferred 115 million deutsche marks (worth about €200 million today) to Athens for Greek victims of Nazi rule. But since then, Berlin has held the line that further payments have “lost justification,” and has focused on cultural rather than financial schemes.
The issue came up a lot in Greece as it struggled to regain its feet after the debt crisis that began in 2010. In 2015, for example, ministers considered seizing German property, and a year later Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras demanded that the German government “finally acknowledge these crimes.” But such saber-rattling was largely viewed as pandering to an increasingly anti-German electorate.
Not anymore. Earlier this month, on a visit to the village of Chortiatis, site of a 1944 Wehrmacht massacre, President Prokopis Pavlopoulos said Greece’s demands were justified and “non-negotiable.” Days later, in the Cretan village of Kandanos, where 189 men, women and children were shot in 1941 in revenge for a raid on a German convoy, Mr. Tsipras followed suit. Reparations were a “historical debt to the victims, but also to future generations,” he said.
Now that the multi-billion-euro aid program has ended, Mr. Tsipras is more confident in his foreign policy – and is pushing reparations demands up the agenda ahead of elections next year. As a result, Mr. Maas’ visit could be uncomfortable. He is meeting both Mr. Pavlopoulos and his counterpart Nikos Kotzias Thursday, although it is unclear if the reparations issue will be discussed. Either way, it will loom large over relations for years to come.
Gerd Höhler is Handelsblatt’s correspondent in Athens. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org