This article has been widely copied in the blogosphere, so who are we to be different? We're not sure what we think about it, but it certainly presents a new angle on the Greek financial crisis, and one that many of us may not have been aware of ...
Festering anger, Nazi war crimes and the £60bn the Greeks believe the Germans owe them
by David Thomas
By the time Hitler's men had left the Greek village of Distomo near the ancient town of Delphi on that bloody day in June 1944, 218 men, women and children were dead. The SS indulged their bloodlust on men, women and children alike. While homes and shops blazed around them like some hellish inferno, women were violated and those who were pregnant were stabbed in the guts. Small babies were bayoneted in their cribs. The village priest was beheaded.
The Waffen-SS was pleased with its work: the local partisans who had dared to attack a German unit had been taught a bitter lesson in revenge.
The slaughter at Distomo was such an outrage that, in 2003, even a German Federal Court judge described it as ‘one of the most despicable crimes of World War II’. But he refused to grant the families of the victims any compensation for their suffering, and not a single German soldier was ever punished for what he and his comrades had done.
The Distomo massacre is just one example of the terrible suffering endured by the people of Greece during World War II and, some would say, of the German government’s reluctance to pay for the crimes committed against the Greeks in their nation’s name.
Countless other villages could tell of similar atrocities. Some 60,000 Greek Jews — more than three-quarters of the nation’s Jewish population — were rounded up and sent to their deaths in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Treblinka. Yet, neither the massacres of villagers nor the ethnic cleansing of the Jews was the deadliest of torments inflicted on Greece. For the worst Nazi war crimes of all were essentially economic. Hitler’s troops helped themselves to everything, stealing goods and food to such a degree that hundreds of thousands of Greeks were left destitute and starving. At least 300,000 Greeks died as a result.
Hitler’s men even raided the Greeks’ central bank, forcing them to give Germany a massive ‘war loan’ — one that has never been paid back, more of which later. Economists estimate that if it were repaid today, it could cost the German government £60billion. The memory of that travesty has been reignited this week by Greeks angry at the austerity measures being imposed on them — primarily by Germany as it seeks to stop the euro crisis spinning out of control. Greeks are now comparing the current German government to the Nazis who once occupied them.
A year into World War II, the Greeks had managed to stay clear of the conflict that had engulfed the rest of Europe. Hitler was not interested in Greece: he had bigger fish to fry. But one man was spoiling for a fight. Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator of Italy, was desperate to show Hitler that he, too, could launch a blitzkrieg. And so, in October 1940 the Italians attacked Greece. They made some gains at first, but were soon driven back to where they had started. In March 1941, the Italians mounted another attack, but this was a total failure.
It was at this point that Hitler lost patience with his incompetent ally and intervened. He ordered the all-conquering German forces to sweep down through Yugoslavia and then overrun Greece. By early May 1941, Greece was under German control.
The Nazis set about treating Greece the same way they did their other conquests: as a fiefdom to be abused and exploited. As historian Roger Moorhouse, author of Berlin At War and an expert on wartime Germany, explains: ‘The Nazis systematically stripped Occupied Europe of everything it had. They were desperate to keep the Home Front onside. The spectre of starvation in Germany, and the loss of support for the war that had caused it, loomed large in their minds and it was something they wanted to avoid. So they took honey from Greece, wheat from the Ukraine, wine and Cognac from France, bacon from Denmark and so forth. Whether you got compensated depended on your race.
In France, whose people were considered civilised, the chances were you might get paid for your produce, albeit at a very disadvantageous rate. If you were a Ukrainian, and thus a subhuman Slav, it would simply be confiscated. The Greeks were southern nobodies in Nazi eyes.’
As a result, Greek businesses, property and goods, including olive oil, leather, tobacco and cotton, were either seized outright or bought with a new, near-worthless currency called ‘Occupation Marks’. To make matters worse, the Royal Navy mounted a blockade of Greece, resulting in a terrible shortage of food, especially in the big cities. By the end of 1941, the Red Cross estimated that 400 people a day were dying from starvation in Athens alone.
The Germans responded to this gathering humanitarian disaster with indifference. Hitler’s henchman Hermann Goering, whose love of fine food had left him morbidly obese, told the leaders of Germany’s occupied territories: ‘I could not care less when you say that people under your administration are dying of hunger. Let them perish, so long as no German starves.’
The Greeks have not forgotten what they call The Great Famine. Nor has what one might call The Great Theft slipped their minds either. Because the Germans didn’t just wreck the Greek economy, seize its products and starve its people. They took its money, too. In February last year, the Greek Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos fumed: ‘The Germans took away Greek money and never gave it back.’
It was Nazi policy to make the people they conquered pay for their own oppression. At its most obscene, the Jews had to pay for their tickets on the cattle trucks that took them to the gas chambers. In Greece, the procedure was marginally more civilised. On March 14, 1942, a team of German and Italian lawyers, in the absence of any Greeks, signed an agreement obliging the Bank of Greece to provide Germany with a ‘war loan’ of 476 million Reichsmarks (a currency which preceded the Deutschmark). And 70 years later not one penny of it, let alone any interest, has been repaid.
Economists (German ones, as it happens) have calculated that, allowing purely for inflation, Greece’s 1942 loan to Germany would today be worth £9bn. But if one adds even a modest rate of interest of 3 per cent, then that debt increases to a staggering £60bn. That would be enough to cover Greece’s fiscal deficit for the next five years, giving the country time to restructure its economy and put government finances on a more sustainable footing.
And it’s not as if Germany couldn’t afford to pay up. The Bundesbank has more than 3,500 tons of gold in its vaults, worth over £200bn. But does it owe any of that to Greece?
Neither the German Embassy nor the German government are willing to comment on the issue. But the Greeks have no doubt where the truth lies. In the words of a spokesman at the Greek Embassy in London: ‘There was a loan, and we have still not got anything back from Germany. The Germans deny it. They say: “We have helped you with reparations.” But those were nothing compared with this sum. There have been reparations to individuals, but not to Greece itself. Every other country in Europe had reparations apart from Greece. It’s not fair to say Greeks should die for free.’
In Greek eyes, the Germans are lucky that the sum at issue is only £60bn. They point to a finding made at the 1945 Paris Conference on Reparations that Greece should receive compensation from Germany equivalent to more than £90bn today. The Greek government, however, has never raised this issue when negotiating with the EU over the Greek debt crisis. Prime Minister George Papandreou says: ‘It would be easy for people with bad faith to interpret this as a sign of weakness, that we are looking for an alibi to shirk our responsibilities.’
So could the Greeks take the German government to court to get their money back? According to City lawyer Graham Defries : ‘In principle, there’s no reason why one can’t pursue an action of this kind. Debt doesn’t just get extinguished. In international finance, the concept of an interest-free loan doesn’t exist, and it can’t legitimately be described as a loan if the money was obtained by coercion. So it’s a crime, and therefore not covered by previous reparations.’
In other words, the German government may have a moral duty to give the Greeks their money back. It might even have an economic interest in doing so — since a Greek default would cost the German economy far more than £60bn.
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