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What’s Really Behind Greece’s Demand for World War Two Reparations?

Headlines about Nazis could distract from a more pressing issue: current tensions within the EU.

Michele Tantussi/Getty Images

In April, Greece’s parliament voted to try to claim reparations from Germany for World War One and World War Two. This is not the first time Greece has explored the idea, which became popular during the financial crisis. From 2012 onwards, Greek prime ministers have appointed panels and committees to investigate a potential legal case for demanding compensation from Germany, as well as to calculate an appropriate number (currently, it’s estimated at around 300 billion Euros). 

It is tempting, with European, local, and national elections coming up, to dismiss this move spearheaded by Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras as merely an opportunistic political stunt. But that would miss the bigger issue—a tension that has more to do with recent than early-twentieth-century history, and which, unresolved,  could yet threaten European Union stability. Greece’s grievances for the way it was treated during the financial crisis haven’t gone away. Germany was the driving force behind the strict austerity measures imposed on Greece as a condition of EU bailout programs. The pinch from those austerity measures reignited anti-German sentiment in Greece, which suffered greatly in the hands of the Nazis during the second World War. Protests in Athens in 2011 and 2012 frequently featured references to Germany’s Nazi past, comparing Merkel to Hitler. The reparations debate, resurfacing in those years, both took aim at a German sore spot and offered hope for a country that needed an economic miracle: The sudden rediscovery of money it was owed by its current harsh lender would have been the perfect way out.  But digging up Europe’s bloody past is no way of finding solutions to the present’s problems. It also avoids asking a difficult question: What is Germany’s more recent legacy as the driving force behind the EU?

During the 2014 election, Alexis Tsipras and his leftist Syriza party turned German reparations into a major campaign promise. When Tsipras then met Merkel in 2015 as prime minister, he broached the subject: “It’s not a material matter, it’s a moral issue,” he said. Earlier that month, he had given a speech in Greek Parliament, reciting locations where German forces in World War II executed and tortured Greeks. He rejected the thesis that any reparations owed were settled in the bilateral agreement of 1960 between West Germany and Greece, claiming the 115 million deutschmarks payed to Greece only addressed the individual victims of the war, not the damage done to the country’s infrastructure. The German position continues to be that the issue is both politically and legally settled.

Then as now, Tsipras has tried to separate Germany’s harsh bailout terms from the reparations discussion. Reparations are about the past, he claims, not the present. The parliamentary committee set up in 2014 with the purpose of calculating the value of the reparations owed to Greece arrived at its conclusions in 2016, but the government only reopened the matter last month. Tsipras recently argued that he wanted to wait until Greece was no longer part of a bailout program, as proof that the renewed calls for reparations aren’t motivated by trying to balance the country’s debt repayments with money received from the reparations. 

The danger here is that the reparations discussion are a distraction from the actual tension that needs addressing. Tsipras’s claims about the current Greek situation aren’t entirely true: Greece is still a long way from settling the bailout loans it received during the past nine years, and the country’s economic performance continues to be monitored by its lenders. Greece remains a broken country experiencing a painfully slow recovery and continuing high unemployment, with no clear path to the prosperity it enjoyed during the first decade of the twenty-first century. And its present condition has a lot more to do with the influence contemporary Germany has had within the EU than with the Axis occupation of Greece in the 1940s.

Germany, as the EU’s primary financial power, was indeed behind the bailout formula imposed on Greece between 2010 and 2015. The formula involved budget cuts, unrealistic fast-track reforms, and further borrowing, rather than the more lenient, debt-relief focused approach the IMF was favoring by 2015. “Germany has long been known as Europe’s ‘reluctant hegemon,’ for its reluctance to be too assertive in diplomacy given its history of militarism,” The New York Times observed that year. “But the unique circumstances of the Greek crisis…have helped make it a country that is both a little less reluctant and a little more of a hegemon.”

Germany enjoys a generally favorable reputation in northern Europe, going by opinion polls. But Greeks’ far dimmer view of the country—43 percent of the population having a very negative view of Germany according to 2017 numbers—reflects a broader trend. Southern European countries have repeatedly expressed concern about Germany’s disproportionate decision-making power within the EU. Italy and Spain, but also France, were against the strict austerity-driven politics of Berlin when it came to dealing with the Euro-crisis, and were overridden.

Germany’s influence over the EU has not only been explicit in its handling of Greece’s debt-crisis, but extends to another major challenge for Europe in recent years: the so-called migrant crisis. Angela Merkel’s 2015 policy of openness toward migrants had an impact not only on her own party’s declining popularity in Germany, driving the rise of the far-right AFD party but, as some have argued, has also been instrumental in the rise of right-wing, anti-immigrant populist parties across Europe. EU migration policies tended to affect Southern European and specifically Mediterranean port countries like Greece the most, and continue to do so, despite Brussels declaring that the crisis is over. Around 15,000 refugees are still stranded on Greek islands, and the country has proven unable to cope, resulting in squalid and dangerous conditions in the camps.

There is a certain kind of perverse comfort in returning to the past, even one filled with horrors, rather than addressing the present. But a renewed debate over Germany’s Nazi crimes and debts to Greece only distracts both countries, and the union they are both a part of, from focusing on the more recent causes of popular discontent. Greece could stand to more closely scrutinize the Syriza party’s government tenure, which has included worrying attempts to control justice and the media, as well as the undoing of higher education reforms, bringing back an era of party-political influence over universities.  Listing Nazi executions disguises Greece’s, but also other countries’, anxieties about German influence today, making a much-needed, more productive conversation almost impossible. Without this more open debate about EU power structures, nationalist resentment is all too likely to fester and express itself as right-wing backlash or further Brexit-like debacles. Germany has done a lot to come to terms with its Nazi past. What Europe needs to do now is to hold it accountable for the way it exercises power in Europe in the present.