Athens, Greece – On June 10, 1944, three Wehrmacht units converged on the village of Distomo in Nazi-occupied central Greece. They had received reports of black market activity in the area – a hanging offence under the Nazis, who stockpiled food to supply their armies overseas, leaving the local population strictly rationed. Instead of smugglers they found a dozen resistance fighters and rounded them up.
“A representative ran off and warned the resistance that was encamped three or four kilometres from the village,” says Thanos Bouras, who was then 20 years old. “The resistance attacked, and they mortally wounded the German commander. A woman brought him some water. He thanked her, and said: ‘The entire village [is] kaput, but don’t harm this woman.'”
What followed was one of the worst Nazi atrocities in Greece during their three-and-a-half-year occupation. Angelos Kastritis, who was eight, remembers the Germans going house to house, bashing down doors and spraying interiors with machine-gun fire.
Kastritis’ mother had told him and his father to make themselves scarce while she stayed home with her in-laws, believing that women and the elderly would not be harmed.
“When I returned I first saw my grandfather. The back of his head was gone and his brains had been splattered against a staircase. My grandmother was seated next to him [dead]. Inside the house I saw my mother… They had killed her execution-style, from behind.”
Sture Linner, the Swedish head of the Red Cross in Greece, arrived in Distomo three days later. He described what he saw in his autobiography, My Odyssey, “For hundreds of yards along the road, human bodies were hanging from every tree, pierced with bayonets – some were still alive. In the village… hundreds of dead bodies of people of all ages, from elderly to newborns, were strewn around on the dirt. Several women were slaughtered with bayonets, their wombs torn apart and their breasts severed …”
Seven percent of the Greek population at the time of the war – over half a million people – was wiped out. Four-fifths of those were civilians and were killed in mass executions and punitive massacres like that at Distomo. But the single biggest killer was starvation, stemming from Germany’s disastrous management of the Greek economy. Greece lost 97 percent of its exports. Agricultural production fell; infrastructure was systematically destroyed. A year into the occupation, Germany was so worried about a collapse of civil society that it let Britain and the Red Cross distribute food and aid.
For decades, Greece’s official position, that reparations for this disaster remain an open question, has contradicted Germany’s – that the matter is closed.
But that may now be changing. On March 6, Greece’s President Karolos Papoulias aired the subject during a visit from his German counterpart. “Greece never gave up its claims and a solution is needed through the opening of negotiations as quickly as possible,” he said.
A Greek foreign ministry source says that negotiations were given the go-ahead during Chancellor Angela Merkel’s last visit to Athens, on April 11.
“The [Greek] government has sent the entire dossier to the Court of Audit for a legal opinion,” said the source, on condition of anonymity. “As soon as that is delivered, talks will begin between foreign ministers.”
Are German governments avenging themselves upon us because we demolished the myth of the indefatigable Axis in 1940?
But it isn’t clear how much Greece will ask for. The Allies disagreed on the amount that Germany should pay in reparations after World War II and set up the Inter-Allied Reparations Agency to distribute movable German assets among themselves – entire factories and blast furnaces were sawed to pieces and shipped.
Greece was awarded 2.7 percent of the fixed assets and 4.35 percent of the movable assets, says Hagen Fleischer, professor emeritus at Athens University, one of the world’s leading experts on World War II reparations. “Some of this got to Greece and some didn’t.”
Fleischer’s estimates will be detailed in a forthcoming book on the subject: “We might estimate that it was between 25 and 80 million dollars’ worth [in 1938 dollars],” – roughly equivalent to the 2.7 percent share Greece was awarded.
Also unclear is the legal basis Greece has for its reparations demands. When Distomo survivors raised a class action lawsuit at the European Court of Human Rights in 2001, it was defeated as judges at The Hague court accepted that non-German courts weren’t fit to put the German state on trial.
International treaties offer no clear indication, either. Greek hopes may hang on a 1953 agreement between Germany and the allies, stating that reparations issues would be examined at a future date, says Fleischer: “But even here, in the final declaration, things are unclear.”
Germany holds that reparations issues were settled in September 1990, a month after German reunification, when Russia, the US, Britain and France signed a settlement of outstanding issues with Germany. “All European countries hailed it, and Germany has since seen it as a final settlement of the reparations issue,” says Fleischer.
All this is difficult to hear for Greeks, who witnessed the devastation Germany wrought. “Are German governments avenging themselves upon us because we demolished the myth of the indefatigable Axis in 1940?” asks Manolis Glezos, president of the National Council for the Reclamation of Germany’s Debts to Greece which was formed in 1996.
Greece scored the first Axis defeat when, in 1940, it pushed Mussolini’s invading army through southern Albania. This morale boost from the Albanian front was plastered across British and American newspapers for weeks. Hitler postponed his invasion of Russia to deal with the rebellious Greeks.
“Is it because… we helped end the war sooner?” asks Glezos. “I want the German government to answer these questions. Are they taking revenge?”
‘We don’t owe you, you owe us’
To many Greeks, the current economic crisis has felt like a vengeful new occupation. Germany effectively took the helm of the Greek economy in 2010, when it led the EU imposition of austerity policies on the country. German officials frequently emphasised the need to cut spending, including welfare programmes. As unemployment hit 27 percent, comparisons with 1941 inevitably surfaced, as Greeks felt their sovereignty drain away with their wealth.
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Last week, EU statistics provider Eurostat confirmed that Greece succeeded in producing a primary surplus of 0.8 percent of GDP last year, but this came at a cost of more than a quarter of its economy and a 30 percent decline in average incomes.
“That reinforced the view that ‘we don’t owe you, you owe us,'” says Fleisher, who is of German extraction but speaks of Greece in the first person plural. He notes that Greek indignation during the crisis may have led to inflated expectations. The National Council for the Reclamation of Germany’s Debts to Greece sticks to Greece’s 1945 reparations request from Germany which, inflation-adjusted, runs into hundreds of billions of dollars. “The more we ask for, the less seriously the matter is taken in Europe,” Fleischer says.
While Greece’s conservative-led coalition is careful not to put a figure on reparations, it has pursued the matter since it came to power in 2012. This may be about more than popular pressure: Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is a self-proclaimed nationalist; his great aunt, one of Greece’s most celebrated fiction writers, famously ended her life in May 1941, a few days after the Nazis rolled into Athens.
Any settlement now would likely have to be a political rather than a legal decision. Greece’s strongest suit is to demand repayment of two wartime loans Germany forcibly extracted from the Bank of Greece in 1943, worth an estimated $238m at the time.
Unlike reparations, these unpaid loans are not covered by international treaties. Former Finance Minister Nikos Christodoulakis, last year estimated that they could now be worth as much as $21bn.
“I think today Greece has a valid claim with this occupation loan,” Christodoulakis told Al Jazeera. “In current terms the value is more or less similar to the loan that has been given by Germany to Greece three years ago in the framework of the bailout agreement. A very fair compensation and settlement of the issue would be to count one for the other.”
If any of this money is one day awarded, it will likely go to the Greek government, not to individuals. It might be earmarked for specific use, such as education or development – a subject that has been discussed among Distomo residents.
“They’re nice ideas, I don’t deny it,” says Kastritis. “But then again, some of us suffered by losing loved ones. I never went to school; my life would have been different if my mother had lived. I’d like to be the recipient of the money, and I would like to be the one to give it away.”