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22nd Feb 2024

Prominent German politicians side with Greece on war reparations

  • Angela Merkel meeting Alexis Tsipras at last month's EU summit - since then tensions between Germany and Greece have increased (Photo: European Council President)

Greece's increasingly frequent calls that Germany needs to pay it compensation for crimes committed by the Nazis in WWII have been supported by prominent politicians in Berlin.

Two leading Social Democrats - part of Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government - on Tuesday (17 March) called on Berlin to start talks on the reparations issue with Greece.

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  • Germany, for its part, says it has honoured its obligations, having paid Greece 115m Deutchmarks in 1960. (Photo: Valentina Pop)

In an op-ed for Spiegel Online, Gesine Schwan, a former presidential candidate, said Germany "needs to clean before its own door" when it comes to its Nazi past, noting that victims and descendants have longer memories than perpetrators and descendents.

"It looks awkward when well-off Germany demands the repayment of debts from poor Greece but is itself not prepared to even speak about the repayment of a forced loan by Nazi Germany on Greece," she wrote.

SPD’s Deputy President Ralf Stegner made similar comments by saying “we should hold a discussion about reparations" but urged that the matter not be linked to the current euro crisis. "There are still international legal questions to be resolved," he added.

Green politician Anton Hofreiter said Greece's demands cannot simply be "swept from the table" and that "morally and legally" the question remained open.

The statements put Chancellor Merkel in a tough position. Until now she has argued that the question of reparations is legally and political closed.

Berlin's position was helped by Greece's overt linking of its current cashflow problems with Germany's "moral" duty to pay billions of euros in reparations.

But now that centre-left politicians have broken ranks, the issue becomes harder to ignore.

Greece is seeking compensation on three accounts - general war reparations, a claim resulting from a massacre of 214 people in the Greek village of Distomo in 1944 and the repayment of the forced loan that the Nazis got from the Greek central bank in 1943. The total amounts to hundreds of billions of euros.

Germany, for its part, says it has honoured its obligations, having paid Greece 115m Deutchmarks in 1960. It also argues that the matter was closed by the 1990 'two plus four treaty' signed by West and East Germany, as well as the Soviet Union, Britain, France and the US.

But this has been disputed in a 2013 report by the German parliament's research service which argued that these agreements do not necessarily fully close the matter.

Spiegel Online reports that Merkel is keeping a hard course on Greece because she fears similar demands from other countries.

The reparations question has become a flashpoint in the increasingly bitter relations between Berlin and Athens over what reforms Greece needs to undertake to secure the next tranche of bailout money.

The far-left Syriza Party under PM Alexis Tsipras was elected in January on a promise of ending austerity and debt restructuring - but has run up against opposition from its euro zone partners.

Tsipras is due to meet Merkel in Berlin on Monday (23 March) - a meeting that comes after German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said that trust in Greece had been "destroyed" by the behaviour of the Greek government.

However the Tsipras government is not the first Greek administration to bring up the reparations issue. It was also raised by Antonis Samaras, Tsipras' centre-right predecessor, as well as in the 1990s.

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