May 1941: A policeman directs German motorcycle troops in Athens

When Greek governments have periodically sought reparations from Germany for crimes committed during the Nazi occupation, Berlin has tended to respond with an abrupt: geschlossen. As in, case closed.

But the latest Greek demand — aired in the context of an increasingly bitter fight with Germany over access to the country’s bailout loans — is finding an opening with unlikely allies in Berlin.

On Tuesday, two leading Social Democrats — Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition partners — urged the government to start talks with Athens over second world war reparations questions.

Gesine Schwan, a former Social Democrat presidential candidate, and Ralf Stegner, an SPD vice-chairman, were echoed by Anton Hofreiter, parliamentary chief of the opposition Greens. All three were quoted in the online version of Der Spiegel, the news magazine.

“The government’s legal argument isn’t convincing,” Ms Schwan told the Financial Times. “It leaves a bad impression that Germany doesn’t want to face up to its responsibilities. It was possible to find a solution in German-Polish relations. Something similar can be done with Greece.”

Ms Schwan suggested that any negotiations about wartime claims be kept separate from the hard bargaining over Greece’s bailout. But she said she could see why the Greek government — “with its back to the wall” — had raised the issue.

Memories of the Nazis’ brutal rule, in which an estimated 250,000 people died, are still vivid for older Greeks. With the economic crisis, the country’s media are not shy about drawing parallels between the wartime suffering and the financial pressure now being exerted by Berlin.

Greek politicians have aired three separate demands. The first is a general claim to wartime reparations they have put at €160bn. There is also a €28m claim arising from the massacre of 214 people in 1944 in the village of Distomo, central Greece, for which the Greek high court in 2000 found Germany responsible. Berlin denies liability, citing sovereign immunity.

Finally, Athens is seeking the repayment of a compulsory 476m Reichsmark loan the Nazis extracted from the Greek central bank in 1943. Greek estimates put its current value at €11bn, plus interest, which could raise the total to €50bn and beyond. Greek lawyers regard this claim as particularly strong because it is well documented and even the Nazis made moves to start repayments towards the end of the war.

The German Archaeological Institute building in central Athens

The current German government has treated such demands as a cynical tactic by Alexis Tsipras, Greece’s new leftwing premier.

“They won’t get their debts paid by conjuring up German obligations from world war two,” said Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, who was recently caricatured in a Greek newspaper as a Wehrmacht officer.

Steffen Seibert, Ms Merkel’s spokesman, has repeatedly said that the “question of reparations and compensation is legally and politically closed”.

But Eberhard Rondholz, a historian who has studied the reparations question, concludes otherwise. “The government view is false,” he said. “This issue is not closed. It is very much still open.”

His argument is supported by a 2013 report for MPs from the Bundestag’s own research service, which surveyed the history of Greek reparations questions and found that the international agreements cited by the government as evidence of a final settlement did not actually dispel all doubts. International lawyers held contrary opinions, said the report.

The earliest such pact was the 1953 London Treaty in which West Germany and the western wartime Allies agreed to reduce some German war-linked debts and reschedule others. This was followed by a 1960 Greek-German bilateral reparations treaty under which West Germany agreed to pay Athens 115m Deutschmarks in compensation.

German reunification in 1990 was accompanied by the so-called Two-plus-Four treaty, signed by West and East Germany, as well as the Soviet Union, the US, Britain and France, in which the four occupying powers gave up their remaining rights in Germany. Berlin interprets this as the last word on reparations. But Athens disputes this.

Goethe Institute in Athens

Before Mr Tsipras came to power in January Greece raised reparations questions. It did so before 1990 — and afterwards, notably in a 1995 diplomatic note to Germany which stated: “Greece has not renounced its claims to compensation and reparations for the damages suffered during the second world war.”

The 2010 Greek debt crisis gave the demands a new lease of life, as Athens faced huge international debts, with Germany as its biggest creditor. Antonis Samaras, Ms Tsipras’s conservative predecessor, ordered an inquiry into the reparations question. The issue was prominently raised last year during an official visit to Greece by Joachim Gauck, the German president.

Sevim Dagdelen, an MP from the far-left Linke, which has long questioned the government’s position on reparations, welcomes the widening support for Greek claims. “It is shameful,” she said, “that the government is still refusing to budge.” No doubt, many in crisis-hit Athens feels the same.

1941-44Nazi occupation of mainland Greece: estimated 250,000 deaths, many from hunger, around 60,000 in massacres.
1953London agreement between Germany and World War II western Allied powers for cuts or reschedulings of German wartime and postwar debts, with some repayments delayed until after German reunification.
1960Germany agrees to pay Greece 115m Deutschmarks under a bilateral general reparations treaty.
1965German chancellor Ludwig Erhard promises Greece to repay central bank loan after German reunification.
1990German reunification confirmed by Two-plus-Four Agreement, signed by West and East Germany, the US, the UK, France and the Soviet Union, under which the occupying powers gave up their rights. Berlin says this also ended all rights to wartime reparations.
2000Greek high court awards €28m damages against Germany over the 1944 Distomo massacre in which 214 Greeks were murdered.
2015Athens, locked in eurozone financial rescue talks, revives wartime claims, saying they total €160bn. Justice minister threatens to enforce Distomo judgment by property seizures.

Letter in response to this report:

Greece has experience of a troubled currency union / From G Jason Goddard

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