In Case of Emergency: World War II Reparations to Greece
In the pre-dawn Athenian stillness of the 28th of October, 1940 the Italian ambassador roused the Greek Prime Minister, Ioannis Metaxas with a grim ultimatum. Metaxas was to concede to the presence of Axis forces on Greek land, or face their wrath, which would pour into Greece from the rugged northern border. Whether Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was envious of the territorial advances of his German counterpart’s blitzkrieg campaignor engaged in an irredentist delusion of reincorporating Greece into “The Third Rome,” he was determined to extend the shadow of fascist influence into Greece. Metaxas, still in his pajamas, replied with a single word that would resonate into modern Greek history—“No!”
Whether the Prime Minister’s refusal was in fact articulated in such laconic terms or not, this anecdote is seen as the quintessential affirmation of Greek resistance to foreign incursion, and has been celebrated as a national holiday annually since World War II.
What came next in this episode is a historical tragedy. The invading Italian army was ill-prepared for the brave guerrilla resistance it met in the mountains of Epirus, a region that saddles the border between Albania and Greece. Repulsing this first fascist invasion, however, provoked the ire of the Nazi war machine. Assisted by Bulgarian collaborators, the Nazis overwhelmed Greek defenses, storming into the country and marking the beginning of what is considered by many to be one of the most brutal Nazi occupations.
Today, with Germany at the helm of a European economic community that many Greeks resent for its control over their fiscal policies, the demand for World War II reparations is appearing with increasing frequency.
The argument is based on the premise that during the occupation, the Greek economy experienced a brutal dismantlement that has left a protracted legacy affecting Greece even until this day. Nazi policy included the general destruction of manufacturing and agriculture, the mass requisition of raw materials and foodstuffs, and, perhaps most importantly, a massive forced ‘war loan’ to the Nazi government. As a result of these policies, approximately 300,000 Greeks starved to death at the hands of German economic strangulation, not to mention the thousands killed in the 1,500 villages targeted in reprisal massacres.
Many Greeks feel that what is seen internationally as the “self-destruction” of their economy—through tax evasion, corruption, and fiscal mismanagement—is rendered irrelevant compared to the protracted legacy of Nazi plundering and suppression, which figures in at $24 billion dollars at the most conservative estimate, $677 billion at the inverse, which factors in “stolen artifacts, damage to the economy and to infrastructure, as well as bank loan and individual claims,” with $220 billion (factoring in infrastructural damage alone) considered the most reasonable estimate.
Those arguing for reparations are not simply the grieving relatives of those killed by the Nazis nor isolated voices seeking easy solutions to what is a multi-faceted structural problem and a crushing debt. The New York Times reported this week that Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ government has sent a report on reparations to the Legal Council of State in possible preparation for a case that would oblige Germany to face its debt to Greece. Alexis Tsipras, head of SYRIZA, Greece’s left-wing majority opposition party, has also been tapping into a popular desire for reparations on his campaign around Greece.
Whether Greece will actually pursue a case for reparations from Angel Merkel’s Germany is difficult to predict, as it would mean straining relations even further with the country that is bankrolling much of their recovery. Receiving this massive sum of reparations in such a contentious political and economic climate would also pose the extremely daunting task of fair dissemination of reparation funds through a Greek bureaucracy that has proved itself incapable of handling funds for redistribution.
What would perhaps be the safest and most effective way to make the case for reparations would be to wait patiently until Greece reaches a point of relative economic, social, and political equilibrium before pressing legal action against Germany. At that point, Greece could confidently make the legal case for reparation funds with the renewed faith of the international community as well as the necessary checks and balances instated into its institutions so as to ensure that the money arrives where it is due. Laying out such a program would also accelerate the implementation of reforms essential to Greece regaining economic autonomy.
On the other hand, waiting to act may mean that witnesses of the mass murder, starvation, and enslavement of Hellas may die longing for justice.