The great recession of 2007-08 tore the Greek economy apart. But is that the fault of the Germans or the bankers?

by on 23 April 2019

Greek politicians’ cynical blame game over reparations for Nazi war crimes isn’t really about WWII

Nearly three-quarters of a century on from the end of the Second World War, the issue of reparations has reared its head again, with Greek members of parliament having voted in favour of seeking new payments from Germany.

At present, no figure has been set by the Greek government, although a parliamentary enquiry in 2016 argued that the cost of the Nazi occupation between 1941 and 1944 was more than €300bn.

It is beyond dispute that Greece suffered horrifically at the hands of Hitler’s forces. Estimates of total Greek deaths vary: from half a million at the conservative end, to around 800,000 at the upper end of the scale. Whichever way you look at it, that is a hefty proportion of the total population of 7.2 million. The majority died as a result of starvation; there were numerous instances too of civilians being murdered en masse in revenge for attacks by resistance fighters against the Nazis.

Economically, too, the country was left devastated. Demands for compensation from Germany have therefore, perhaps unsurprisingly, cropped up periodically ever since the Nazis’ defeat. Given the destruction wrought during those grim wartime years, it is hard to be wholly unsympathetic to the reparation claims.

Yet there are various factors against the renewed campaign. For one thing, Greece has already received reparations: from Italy, $105m in goods and services (and the transfer of the Dodecanese islands) under the 1947 Treaty of Peace; and from Germany, 115m Deutschmarks under a 1960 deal which was predicated on there being no further claims. Greece maintains that figure did not cover various key demands.

More broadly, while the United Nations is clear that reparations due as a result of war and other gross human rights abuses are not subject to a statute of limitations, compensation claims of the sort envisaged by Greek parliamentarians beg significant questions about what other losses might be open to recovery.

In the Greek situation, for example, what about the belligerents who plunged the country into a civil war just as the Second World War was drawing to a close? Nearly a million people were forced to relocate during that conflict, in which the rival factions were backed by the US and UK on the one hand, and Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Albania on the other.

Or how about the role of the Greek military in stunting the country’s economic growth in the period after the coup d’etat of 1967? After all, Greece’s economy had developed substantially during the Fifties and Sixties – thanks in part to Marshall Plan grants and loans; seven years of military junta rule saw many of those gains undone.

And then of course there is the great recession of 2007-08, which is arguably what this latest claim by the Greek government is all about.

More than anywhere else, Greece felt the full force of the economic disaster which spread around the world a decade ago. Forced to enact crippling austerity measures in return for bailouts from the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the Eurogroup, the Greek population suffered considerable hardship. Young Greeks emigrated in large numbers; many of those who remained faced unemployment or impoverishment as incomes fell and taxes rose.

Germany, as a key creditor, and the driving force of the eurozone, became an enemy once again: popular protests even depicted Angela Merkel in Nazi garb. Never mind that Greece had long suffered from comparatively high tax avoidance, or that misreporting of deficit figures by the Greek government had led to a decline in confidence among the country’s eurozone partners. Never mind, too, that the endemic banking failures which triggered the 2007 global recession were not of Germany’s making.

Indeed, if the world could seek reparations for the often appalling consequences of the 2007-08 crash, then bankers would be in hock to us all for decades. And might that not be more righteous than seeking to wring more money out of a nation that has come to terms with its own difficult past, and sought to move on successfully from it?

Immediately after Greek parliamentarians had voted to pursue a diplomatic campaign for wartime reparations, the MP in charge of Poland’s ongoing compensation claim indicated that the Polish government would renew its own efforts.

While those attempts may in the long run be doomed to fail, they will continue to offer an opportunity for politicians in Greece and Poland to make domestic political capital out of a historical conflict. And they will give succour to the many people – including in the UK – who wish to see Europe divided once more. It is time to leave the Second World War in the past. – Will Gore