BERLIN (Reuters) - Greek demands for billions of euros in reparations for the brutal Nazi occupation in World War Two may be falling on deaf ears in the German government, but some legal experts say Athens has grounds for a case.
The emotive issue is bound to come up when Alexis Tsipras visits Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin for the first time as prime minister on Monday, in an atmosphere poisoned by charges of broken promises and personal jibes between their ministers.
The Greek leftist leader and his ministers have invoked Nazi war crimes as part of their drive to renegotiate the terms of Athens’ 240 billion euro bailout with their euro zone partners.
Hundreds of villages were razed and more than 20,000 civilians killed in 1941-44 by German soldiers bent on crushing Greek resistance. Resentment runs deep and demands range from 3.5 billion euros to 162 billion euros.
Compounding the pressure on Merkel to make at least a symbolic gesture, some German lawmakers have said Berlin has a moral duty to consider reparations.
Yet there is scant sign that the government, fearing it could open the floodgates to future claims, will budge.
“There’s no (justified) claim. The Greeks should do their (economic) homework and not seek culprits elsewhere,” said Volker Kauder, parliamentary leader of Merkel’s conservatives.
Germany has paid about 72 billion euros in overall compensation for Nazi wrongs since the war and is widely seen as having tried to make amends for its Nazi past, a legacy that still shapes its diplomacy, from Israel to the European Union.
Central to Germany’s argument is that a 115 million deutsche mark payment to Greece in 1960 rules out individual claims. Similar deals were made with other European states.
Courts have supported this. In 2012, the International Court in the Hague ruled that Nazi victims in Italy could not sue Germany for compensation as the states had settled.
But some lawyers say the issue is not clear-cut, partly because after its unconditional surrender in 1945 Germany never agreed a universal peace deal to clear up reparations questions.
The nearest thing to it, says Berlin, is the “Two plus Four Treaty” signed by then-East Germany and West Germany and the four wartime allies before German reunification in 1990.
In this, Russia, the United States, Britain and France renounced future claims. Berlin says this also settles the issue for other states, including Greece, who raised no objections.
Yet some lawyers say Greece has not renounced its claims.
“The German government’s argument is thin and contestable,” said international law specialist Andreas Fischer-Lescano. “It’s not permissible to agree a treaty at the expense of a third party, in this case Greece.”
Several other experts agree.
“There is a lot of room for interpretation,” said Anestis Nessou, a Greek lawyer who works in Germany and has studied the issue. “Greece was not asked, so the claims have not gone away.”
A separate question is that of a 476 million reichsmark occupation loan forced on the Bank of Greece in 1942 which the Nazis used to fund their military campaign in northern Africa.
While Germany says its reparations payments cover this, some experts see it as a financial transaction in its own right.
“The view of the German government is embarrassing,” historian Hagen Fleischer told Germany’s ARD television. “The Nazi regime even calculated how high the repayments should be on the loan.”
Fischer-Lescano said Greece could take their case on the loan to an international court.
Even if the government is legally in the right, some German politicians say it should make a conciliatory gesture.
“Merkel should send a signal and make available financial help for victims who are still alive,” Greens lawmaker Renate Kuenast told Spiegel Online.
Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke; Editing by Gareth Jones