ATHENS (Reuters) - Germany is footing much of the bill for Greece’s 237 billion euro bailout but Athens-trained dentist Aristomenis Syngelakis feels no gratitude; Berlin owes his country billions in reparations for Nazi crimes during World War Two, he says.
“They’re wagging the finger at us while they are themselves the biggest cheats,” says Syngelakis, stung by headlines in popular German newspapers calling Greeks lazy swindlers.
Syngelakis is one of the leaders of a campaign, backed by opposition parties, to make Berlin pay as much as 162 billion euros ($223 billion) for the hundreds of villages destroyed, thousands of civilians executed and huge sums looted from the Greek central bank by the Nazis in 1941-1944.
But this campaign is about more than recovering money; it also aims to heal a deeply wounded national pride.
Many Greeks feel the bailout financed by the European Union and International Monetary Fund is just the latest in a series of humiliations inflicted by foreign powers on their fiercely proud nation at the weakest moments of its modern history.
Evoking past injustices - some dating from long before the Nazi occupation and blamed on a number of other countries - has become an outlet for Greeks’ anger and frustration during six years of economic crisis.
In contrast to Syngelakis, historians say Athens could at most ask Germany for a few billion euros, but public frustration over Greece’s foreign dependency is still directed at Berlin.
The Greek government hasn’t officially quantified its reparation claims, and Berlin has long said that it has already honored all its war obligations, including a payment of 115 million deutsche marks (59 million euros) to Greece in 1960.
While this sum had a far greater value more than half a century ago, it still fell far short of what the campaign of Syngelakis is seeking. It is also a very small part of the reparations of about 70 billion euros that Germany has paid worldwide since the war, according to Finance Ministry figures.
Berlin says the Greek demand has been considered, and rejected. “This question has been thoroughly examined and answered negatively,” government spokesman Steffen Seibert said last month after President Joachim Gauck apologized for Nazi war crimes on a visit to Greece.
The campaign for war damages has been waged for decades, by both former Greek governments and private citizens. But it has gained momentum due to crippling austerity measures imposed on Greece under the bailout deal four years ago.
As the biggest euro zone economy, Germany is contributing the largest share of rescue - and has also been among the most insistent on the tough conditions which have deepened mass unemployment and a wave of corporate bankruptcies in Greece.
German media have also leapt on stories alleging waste, corruption and idleness in Greece which have deeply hurt a country where suicides are up a third from pre-crisis levels.
The government officially raised the reparations issue with Berlin in January, and the main opposition party, Syriza, has declared it as one of its top priorities.
“Years ago political parties wouldn’t even agree to see us. Now we’re suddenly in fashion,” 86-year-old actor Stefanos Linnaios told a meeting of the National Committee to Claim German Debt, of which he and Syngelakis are members.
However, some believe that the sense of national despair is being exploited. “Reparations are more a political than a historical claim,” said Katerina Kralova, a historian specializing in contemporary Greece at the Charles University in Prague. “Emotions have been hijacked by the crisis.”
Syngelakis, a 43-year-old health economics specialist, has criss-crossed Greece for the past 13 years, encouraging mayors to form a “network of martyr villages and towns”, a pressure group that now counts 91 municipalities.
“I will not give up the fight. I owe it to my father who saw his father, grandfather and three brothers killed by the Germans,” said Syngelakis, as he recounted his efforts at an Athens cafe one afternoon recently.
Syngelakis and Manolis Glezos, a 94-year-old resistance hero who is leading the campaign, say that they have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get their cause on the Greek and international political agenda.
“We have a unique opportunity we mustn’t miss,” Glezos told a packed campaign meeting last month attended by the Dean of Athens University and by the President of the Athens Bar Association.
To many Greeks, the bailout is just another shameful episode at the hands of foreigners.
Greece was overloaded with debt from its early days as a modern state in 1832. Some historians say powerful nations of the time, including Britain, used the young country’s debt to hold sway over its foreign policy in the 19th century.
Foreign intervention split Greece into two rival states in World War One while a 1946-49 civil war between a pro-Western government and Communist insurgents divided Greek society for decades. Memories of the U.S.-backed military junta which ruled from 1967-74 also remain fresh for many.
During World War Two, about a thousand villages were razed and more than 20,000 civilians were killed in reprisals by German troops trying to crush the Greek resistance, which had liberated large areas of the country.
Nazi troops forced Greece to make an “occupation loan”, a credit line at the Bank of Greece which Germany used to help finance its campaign in north Africa. Runaway inflation and thousands of deaths from hunger in Athens followed.
Compensation Greece got after the war fell far short of the $7.2 billion it claimed. Greece got about $13 million from an Allied Commission in addition to the German funds in 1960.
Over the years, several Greek governments asked Germany to top up the payments. Separately, private citizens won temporary court rulings to seize German property in Athens and in Italy, but the International Court of Justice in The Hague said in 2012 they had no right to do that. Germany has said it would not make additional payments.
According to experts studying the issue, Greece’s only realistic chance for reparations 70 years after the war would be to call in the occupation loan, which the Bank of Greece has tentatively valued at 6 billion euros.
Historian Thanos Veremis, vice president of the ELIAMEP think-tank, says Greeks forget that foreign intervention often worked in their favor.
Greece would never have shaken off Turkish Ottoman rule without the military assistance of Britain, France and Russia, historians say. International economic control imposed in 1893 helped the country to fix its finances and double its territory in a 1912-1913 war.
Greece has also obtained tens of billions of euros in EU funds since joining the bloc in 1981, much of it contributed by Germany. “In many ways, we are the spoilt children of Europe,” said Veremis.
Since the 2010 bailout, several other national causes have regained strength. These include a set of ancient Greek sculptures known - depending which side you take - as the Parthenon or Elgin Marbles.
The marbles are on display in London after being removed from the Acropolis by British Lord Elgin while Athens was under Ottoman control in the 19th century. Greece has sought their return from the British Museum for decades, to no avail.
However, its cause got an unexpected boost last month when Hollywood star George Clooney appeared to back the Greeks. “I think you have a very good case to make about these artifacts and I think it wouldn’t be a bad thing if they returned,” Clooney told a Greek reporter at the premiere of a movie about art looted by the Nazis.
The casual remark catapulted him to the top of news analysis and discussion in Greece and earned him an official invitation to Athens by Greek Culture Minister Panos Panagiotopoulos.
“The Marbles are just another example of raw imperialism imposed on this country,” said Syngelakis.
Still, even Syngelakis admits his campaign primarily serves the purpose of restoring Greek pride. A sincere apology on the part of Germany - combined with a well-endowed reconciliation fund for infrastructure projects - would go a long way towards assuaging Greeks, he said.
“The campaign is necessary even if it fails to produce any financial benefits,” he said. “It bolsters our confidence and boosts our morale”.
Editing by Alessandra Galloni and David Stamp