“Our allies the Greeks, have seen off the Italian army,” said Winston Churchill near the height of the Second World War. “Hence,” he declared, “we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but we will say that heroes fight like Greeks.”
Those words live on in Greece’s national imagination.
The war irretrievably scarred the country. Some figures estimate that almost one in ten Greeks died fighting the Nazis—and it wasn’t in vain. Greek resistance at the Battle of Crete on May 20, 1941, caused the Germans more loss of life in a single day than the Wehrmacht had experienced up until that point. Even more importantly, Greek resistance delayed the German invasion of the USSR by almost two months, dramatically changing the outcome of the war.
But Greece paid heavily for its bravery. Entire villages were massacred in retaliation for the actions of resistance forces that continued to fight on after the Germans had conquered the country. The Greeks suffered pervasive war crimes, looting and heavy damage to property as well as a €10.3 billion occupation loan that the Bank of Greece was forced to pay the Nazis.
It is these issues—and the wounds they have left—that Greece’s new hard left governing party Syriza is now seeking to exploit in its ongoing battle with the International Monetary Fund and European Union led by Germany, to which it owes hundreds of billions of euros.
The E.U. is demanding payment of its loans; the Greek government is doing its best to renegotiate the terms. In the latest rhetorical blow in this ongoing saga Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has demanded that Germany pay—literally—for the destruction it visited on his country almost 70 years ago.
After only a few months in power, and desperately trying to stave off bankruptcy, the new government’s general accounting office has found the time to calculate (for the first time in Greece’s history) that Germany owes it nearly €279bn ($303bn) in reparations.
The Germans reject the claim, pointing to a payment of 115 million Deutschmarks they made to Greece in 1960, and consider the matter closed. This didn’t stop Tsipras bringing the demand up in a recent meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin.
It’s a typical Syriza move: deeply populist and somewhat cynical as it seeks to distract from the vast sums Greece owes to its creditors—most immediately an outstanding €450m loan from the IMF due this week—and to build on widespread anti-German sentiment across Greece at the same time.
“The Germans are trying to take over Europe again,” is a comment I’ve heard in various forms over the past few years in Greece as bitterness at the harsh, German-led austerity reforms that successive Greek governments have been forced to impose on their people in exchange for massive cash bailouts has grown. Greeks have seen their standard of living plummet as salaries and pensions have been slashed and unemployment risen to around 25 percent of the population.
Syriza was elected on a platform that promised to end the austerity measures. Its rhetoric was aggressive and confrontational—promising Greek voters a Syriza government wouldn’t bend to E.U. demands. But so far it has been forced to backtrack because its still needs E.U. funds in order to avoid going bankrupt. The fighting rhetoric has so far not been matched by deeds.
So the rhetoric continues.
“The demand for war reparations shows a reinvigorated determination by the new government in Athens to press the issue of war reparations and the forced loan,” says Jens Bastian, an independent economic advisor for Southeastern Europe based in Athens. “This issue has been raised before, most recently by the previous Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, but he never put a specific number on the amount to be claimed, nor did he threaten to confiscate certain institutions such as the Goethe Institute owned by Germany in Greece.”
“This has a lot to do with domestic politics,” continues Bastian. “It is to show to the electorate and the general public that Syriza means business and that it will stand up to Germany.”
The issue is certainly emotive. Many in Greece still feel that Nazi Germany’s crimes in the country have received scant attention compared to its atrocities elsewhere. The question is: will it work? It seems unlikely in the extreme that Germany will be paying Greece close to €300 billion any time soon and Bastian believes that Greece would be ill-advised to use the war reparations as leverage in any attempts to negotiate the restructuring of its accumulated sovereign debt.
More fruitful might be repayment of the forced loan. “The interesting thing is that it [the loan] is based on a contract,” says Bastian, “and it included a timetable for repayment including interest that would accrue. In this case it is much more difficult for Germany to say the matter is legally and politically closed.”
Whether or not any claim succeeds, Syriza continues to show its displeasure with the E.U. and is keen to show its European “partners” that it has options. Tsipras has just flown to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. At issue as far as he is concerned will be any possible financial assistance that Russia might be able to offer Greece. For his part, Putin will be more than happy to try to further divide the E.U.
But Russia has its own problems. With oil prices collapsing and its war in Ukraine emptying it of cash and men, Moscow is unlikely to offer Greece anything of real help.
In the meantime, Greece and the E.U. grow farther and farther apart, the consequences of which could reverberate across the continent for many years to come.