As Germans Push Austerity, Greeks Press Back

Source: nytimes

Angelos Tzortzinis for The New York Times

Giannis Syngelakis at a mass grave in Amiras, Greece, for local men killed by the Nazis.

Residents of Amiras gathered for a Mass for victims of the Nazis.

Mr. Syngelakis, who was 7 then, still wants payback. And in pursuing a demand for reparations from Germany, he reflects a growing movement here, fueled not just by historical grievances but also by deep resentment among his countrymen over Germany’s current power to dictate budget austerity to the fiscally crippled Greek government.

Germany may now be Greece’s stern banker now, say those who are seeking reparations, but before it goes too far down that road, it should pay off its own debts to Greece.

“Maybe some of us have not paid our taxes,” Mr. Syngelakis said, standing beside the olive tree where his father died 70 years ago. “But that is nothing compared to what they did.”

It is not just aging victims of the Nazi occupation who are demanding a full accounting. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s government has compiled an 80-page report on reparations and a huge, never-repaid loan the nation was forced to make under Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1945.

Mr. Samaras has sent the report to Greece’s Legal Council of State, the agency that would build a legal case or handle settlement negotiations. But whether the government will press the issue with Germany remains unclear.

Some political analysts are doubtful that Athens will be willing to take on the Germans, who have provided more to the country’s bailout package than any other European nation.

Others, however, believe that the claims — particularly over the forced loan — could be an important bargaining chip in the months ahead as Greece and its creditors are expected to discuss ways to ease its enormous debt burden. Few here think it was an accident that details of the report were leaked to the Greek newspaper Real News on Sept. 22, the day that Germans went to the polls to hand a victory to Germany’s tough-talking chancellor, Angela Merkel.

“I can see a situation where it is politically difficult for the Germans to ease the terms for us,” said one high-ranking Greek official, who did not want his name used because he was not authorized to speak on the issue. “So instead, they agree to pay back the occupation loan. Maybe it is easier to sell that to the German public.”

So far, the Germans have given little indication that they are so inclined. During his latest visit to Athens in July, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, said, “We must examine exactly what happened in Greece.” But he insisted that Greece had waived its rights on the issue long ago.

The call for reparations has elicited an emotional outpouring in Greece, where six years of brutal recession and harsh austerity measures have left many Greeks hostile toward Germany. Rarely does a week go by without another report in the news about, as one newspaper put it in a headline, “What Germany Owes Us.”

The main opposition party, Syriza, has seized on the issue as well, with its leader, Alexis Tsipras, barnstorming across the country promising action to enthusiastic applause.

Estimates of how much money is at stake vary wildly. The government report does not cite a total. The figure most often discussed is $220 billion, an estimate for infrastructure damage alone put forward by Manolis Glezos, a member of Parliament and a former resistance fighter who is pressing for reparations. That amount equals about half the country’s debt.

Some members of the National Council on Reparations, an advocacy group, are calling for more than $677 billion to cover stolen artifacts, damage to the economy and to the infrastructure, as well as the bank loan and individual claims.

Even the figure for the bank loan is in dispute. The loan was made in Greek drachmas at a time of hyperinflation 70 years ago. Translating that into today’s currency is difficult, and the question of how much interest should be assessed is subject to debate. One conservative estimate by a former finance minister puts the debt from the loan at only $24 billion.

It is not hard to see why the issue is so attractive to many Greeks. It offers, if nothing else, a chance to take Germany down a peg. The last six years have hit Greek pride hard. Some here feel that the country’s officials are merely puppets these days, imposing whatever solutions the country’s creditors — the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the European Central Bank — come up with.

Experts say that the German occupation of Greece was brutal. Germany requisitioned food from Greece even as Greeks went hungry. By the end of the war, about 300,000 had starved to death. Greece also had an active resistance movement, which prompted frequent and horrific reprisals like the one that occurred here in Amiras, a small village in Crete. Some historians believe that 1,500 villages were singled out for such reprisals.

Giannis Syngelakis among photographs of the local Nazi victims. His father was among those killed by German soldiers in 1943 as part of a reprisal for an attack on an outpost.

After the war, experts say, Greece got little in reparations. But few countries did. The Allies concentrated on rebuilding Germany, not wanting to once again impose crushing reparations bills as they did after World War I, an important factor, they believed, in bringing about World War II. Some German property was divvied up, but many claims were simply put off until East and West Germany might be reunited.

When that moment arrived, the world’s landscape had changed significantly. By then, the European Union was in place, Germany was contributing more to the bloc’s budget than it was getting back, and, some experts say, the books were closed. (Germany has paid huge reparations to Israel in the name of the Jewish people at large, and the German government, German companies and a number of other institutions established a multibillion-dollar fund to compensate those forced to perform labor during Nazi internment.)

Yet some groups in Greece have long felt that Germany still owes victims like Mr. Syngelakis. And others, now looking back, believe that Germany was let off the hook back then and should be more generous now in Greece’s hour of need.

A few individual cases have made their way through the Greek courts, including one representing the victims of a massacre in Distomo in 1944. Germans rampaged through the village gutting pregnant women, bayoneting babies and setting homes on fire, witnesses have said. Lawyers for Distomo won a judgment of $38 million in Greece. But the Greek government has never given permission to lay claim to German property in Greece as a way of collecting on the debt.

Christina Stamoulis, whose father was a lawyer on that case, said that many older people in Greece had only recently started talking about what happened in the war, in some cases because older Germans had arrived in their villages with their grandchildren wanting forgiveness.

“O.K., apologize,” Ms. Stamoulis said. “But we are expecting actions, too.”

Experts say that Germany is highly unlikely to want to revisit issues of reparations with Greece, since other countries would be likely to make similar claims. But some believe that Greece might have a shot at getting repayment on the bank loan.

“What is unusual about that loan is that there is a written agreement,” said Katerina Kralova, the author of “In the Shadow of Occupation: The Greek-German Relations During the Period 1940-2010.” “In other countries, the Germans just took the money.”

Asked about the 80-page report, officials of the Greek Foreign Ministry said that Greece had no intention of mingling war claims with the current financial situation. But, they said, its reparations claims are still valid. “The issue has been brought forward repeatedly, as per the international laws, both on a political and on a diplomatic level, on a bilateral basis, in a direct and utterly documented way, among partners, friends and allies,” said one official, who declined to be named as is common practice here.

For those who survived the Amiras massacre, a crushing poverty set in. Mr. Syngelakis said his mother sometimes scrounged for edible weeds to feed her children. He did not have shoes until he was a teenager.

“Back then, they destroyed us with guns,” Mr. Syngelakis said, the anger still clear. “Today, they do it financially.”

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