In 1941, Axis forces from Italy and Germany moved into Greece and seized control of the country. The wartime occupation lasted four years, during which some 250,000 Greeks perished. Many died slow and tortuous deaths — around 40,000 people starved to death in Athens alone.
To add insult to injury, Nazi forces removed valuable archaeological artefacts and forced the Bank of Greece to loan it money, totalling billions, in today's terms, which Berlin never paid back.
On Monday, Athens formally requested wartime reparations from Germany and, for the first time, named its desired price: 279 billion euros ($303 billion), as calculated by Greece's central accounting offices.
Perhaps coincidentally, that figure is rather similar to the total value of Greece's existing state debt, at over 320 billon euros.
The push comes two months after the election of the left-wing Syriza party, and as down-and-out Greece struggles under the weight of severe austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union as a condition of its 2010 international bailout, which allowed Athens to stave off bankruptcy.
This timing has not escaped the notice of German lawmakers. "They won't get their debts paid by conjuring up German obligations from World War II," scoffed German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, last month, when Athens made noises about a renewed reparations push.
"The likelihood is zero," echoed German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel also in March.
For decades, successive Greek governments have angled for financial damages from Berlin and chased claims in national and international courts. They have never been successful.
But last week, a new parliamentary panel — set up by Greece's new anti-austerity Syriza government — began work on a firm proposal to claim German debts, including WWII-era reparations. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has accused Berlin of resorting to "legal tricks" to avoid reimbursements.
Indeed, Greek ministers have become increasingly strident in their demands of late. Justice Minister Nikos Paraskevopoulos has threatened to seize German assets already in the country, including the German Archaeological Institute.
In part, Greece wants payback for a $11.2 billion wartime loan that its central bank was forced to make to Hitler's government. Athens also wants Germany to return looted archaeological treasures. Over 80 percent of Greeks agree that the country should pursue its war debt claims from Germany, according to a recent poll.
Germany, for its part, has declined to engage with Greece on the reparations issue. "We will not enter negotiations with the Greeks," said a resolute Martin Jaeger, spokesman for the German Finance Ministry.
Yet some German parliamentarians are starting to break rank with Chancellor Angela Merkel. In March, lawmakers from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) — the junior partner in the country's coalition government — pledged to further Greece's cause. "It is about recognizing the fact that we committed a serious injustice in Greece," Gesine Schwan, chairwoman of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) values committee, told Der Spiegel.
In fact, German has made small reparations payments to Greece before. But in almost every instance, those offerings have only inspired further disaccord.
In the 1946 Paris Conference on Reparations, Greece was among 23 nations awarded wartime compensation. But Athens has argued that the amount was never paid in full. Indeed, by the late 1940s — as the Soviet Union began to expand westward, swallowing East Germany into its orbit — the former Allies largely dropped their effort to extract reparations from Berlin.
In 1960, West Germany made a 115 million deutschmark payment to Athens. (The final exchange rate when the euro replaced the deutschmark in 1999 was 1.96 deutschmark to 1 euro.) That was just a sliver of Greece's initial demands, but the money was paid on the condition that Athens made no further claims. Today, Greece says that the earlier deal was not conclusive, since it did not address loss of infrastructure and direct compensation for German war crimes.
Greece began to revisit the issue of reparations around 1989, when the Berlin Wall crumbled. But in 1990, after German reunification, Germany and its former wartime enemies signed the "Two Plus Four Treaty" — or the "Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany" — whereby the Allies renounced the claims they held on Germany, allowing the country to become fully sovereign. In the opinion of Berlin, this wiped Germany's war debts clean, but Athens disputes this interpretation.
On March 18, in a rather stunning display, a German couple traveled to Greece to make their own financial amends. Arriving in the town of Nafplio, the couple stopped in at the town hall to hand over a check for 875 euros.
"They came to my office yesterday morning, saying they wanted to make up for their government's attitude," said Nafplio mayor Dimitris Kotsouros. "They made their calculations and said each German owned 875 euros for what Greece had to pay during World War II."
The latest demands have arrived in the context of mounting tension between Greece and Germany over the conditions of the 2010 bailout — in which Berlin played a critical role — and fear that Greece might default on its upcoming repayments.
Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis has recently accused Europe of taking advantage of the situation, by "loading the largest loan in human history on the weakest of shoulders — the Greek taxpayer."
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