Germany and Greece disagree over Germany war reparations stemming from the two World Wars

Published: 26 January 2021 Author: Stefan Talmon

During the Second World War Germany occupied parts or all of mainland Greece from April 1941 to October 1944, with some Greek islands only being liberated in May 1945. During the military operations and occupation large parts of Greek infrastructure was destroyed, resources were exploited, and means of production were dismantled and transferred to Germany. The German armed forces also committed numerous war crimes and atrocities. Germany also extracted an interest-free loan of some 476 million Reichsmarks from the Greek National Bank which was used to finance the occupation and the military campaign in north Africa.

In recent years, Greece has intensified its demands for war reparations, including the repayment of the “forced loan”, and compensation to victims of war crimes and their relatives. In addition, Greece has been demanding the return of archaeological artefacts and cultural treasures illegally removed from the country during the occupation. Greece wants Germany to pay 309.5 billion euros in damages in connection with World War II and 9.2 billion euros for World War I. To these amounts must be added compensation payments to the victims and their relatives, taking the Greek demands to more than 420 billion euros. By comparison, Germany’s federal budget for 2019 amounted to 356.4 billion euros. It is thus not surprising that the German Federal Government has consistently rejected calls for reparations payments to Greece. During the government press conference on 17 April 2019, the cabinet spokesperson stated:

“We are […] conscious of our historic responsibility. We know about the great guilt, about the great suffering that Germany and Germans brought over Greece during the period of National Socialism. The lesson we learn from this is to do everything so that Germany and Greece have good relations as friends and partners and support each other for the benefit of both countries.

On the specific question of reparations, I tell you again that we have not changed our attitude. This attitude is that the question of German reparations has been conclusively settled, both legally and politically.”

In 2018 and 2019, the Federal Government restated this position more than half a dozen times.

Greece sees matters differently. On 2 September 2018, during a visit to the village of Chortiatis, where German armed forces had committed a massacre in 1944, the Greek President stated:

“It is within this context of sacred memory – and far from any logic of vengeance that is entirely foreign to us Greeks – that we also include the legitimate claims against Germany concerning the occupation loan and, generally, reparations for the German Nazi occupation. As I have repeatedly stressed, our claims have always been legally active, which means that there is no question of limitation, and judicially claimable. And our common European legal culture requires that the relevant decision be taken by a competent judicial forum based on the whole of applicable international law. This position is now literally a national position and therefore non-negotiable.”

Three days later, during a visit to the village of Kandamos on Crete, which had been razed by the German army in 1941, the Greek Prime Minister declared that “claiming reparations from Germany is a historic duty” owed to those who died and to future generations.

During a visit to Athens by Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on 11 October 2018, his Greek counterpart reiterated Greece’s demands for war reparations from Germany. At the State dinner in honour of the German guest, the Greek President stated:

“In the framework of resistance against those who […] want to return to a nightmarish past, Greece incorporates its demands regarding the occupation loan and occupation-era reparations, which we have steadfastly viewed as legally active and judicially claimable. We are not pursuing these claims unilaterally or arbitrarily. On the contrary, we view them in the framework of our common international and European legal culture. Hence, based on the rules of that culture, and of course in a competent judicial forum, each side can defend its positions.”

This was interpreted as a thinly veiled call for the war reparations question to be submitted to the International Court of Justice. The Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, also repeated to the German guest the established Greek position on war reparations and the “occupation loan”. He took the visit as a chance for a fresh start in the bilateral relations between the two countries, adding:

“Of course, this does not mean that we must forget or that we can sweep any of our differences from the distant past under the carpet, but we must jointly define the framework for their resolution on the basis of international law which we all respect.”

On 13 December 2018, the Greek President reiterated the demand for war reparations and the repayment of the occupation loan during a visit to the village of Kalavryta where, 75 years earlier German troops had killed almost the whole male population. During a commemorative event, he said:

“For one, the relevant claims are not time-barred. For another, these claims find a solid basis in specific provisions of international law, in particular in the provisions of the IVth Hague Convention of 1907.

Thus, for us not to forget and to defend, under these conditions, the rights of the victims of the German occupying army is a mission which serves not only the national rights of the Greeks, but also the legal order and culture of the European Union.”

The war reparations and the occupation loan were, once again, raised during Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Athens on 10-11 January 2019.

On 17 April 2019, the Hellenic Parliament debated a 348-page report of a 21-member cross-party committee which had been established in 2015 to examine the question of German war reparations. At the end of a nearly 12-hour long debate, the Parliament voted by a large majority to call on the Hellenic Government:

“to take all the appropriate diplomatic and legal action in order to claim the [German] debts and to fully satisfy all the demands of the Greek State from the First and Second World War.”

During the debate it was made clear that the Greek claims remained legally active. In particular, they had neither been forfeited nor renounced. There was also no question of limitation. During the debate, Greek Prime Minister Tsipras told MPs:

“The Greek Government intends to address a note verbale to the Federal Republic of Germany, in which it will repeat its inalienable claims arising from the Nazi invasion and occupation, as well as the war crimes of Nazi Germany. The demand for war reparations is a historic and moral duty for us. It will help us build a better future in our relations with Germany. Today, therefore, we have a duty to give our two peoples the opportunity to close this chapter.”

Speaking during an interview on 22 April 2019, the Greek Alternate Minister of Foreign Affairs Sia Anagnostopoulou, said that the Greek Government would take one step at a time. She continued:

“The first step is the note verbale, to address the German side in the most official manner. The second step is for the country to use the international law as a weapon. We will wait and see what Germany’s response will be, because when a note verbale is sent, the other side is obliged to answer one way or another. The answer will be of significance.”

On 4 June 2019, the Greek Ambassador to Berlin delivered a note verbale to the Federal Foreign Office, in which Greece called on Germany to enter into negotiations to resolve the pending issue of Greece’s claims against Germany for the payment of war reparations and compensation for the First and Second World Wars. The Greek Government underlined that the matter was of “great moral and material significance to the Greek people.” Asked about the note verbale, a spokesperson for the Federal Foreign Office stated on 5 June 2019 that, according to the Federal Government’s opinion,

“over 70 years after the end of the war and more than 25 years after the Two-Plus-Four Treaty, the question of reparations has been legally and politically closed.”

In response to a parliamentary question, the Federal Government set out its position in greater detail. The Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office, Niels Annen, explained:

“The Federal Government has repeatedly made it clear that the “Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany’ of 12 September 1990, the so-called Two-Plus-Four Treaty, contains the final settlement of the legal issues arising from the war. There can therefore be no further settlements of legal issues in connection with the Two-Plus-Four Treaty in peace treaties.

The CSCE Foreign Ministers were informed of the Treaty on 1 October 1990, and Greece, as a CSCE participating State, approved this Treaty in the Charta of Paris in November 1990. Neither side intends to refer the matter of the Greek reparation claims to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).”

The Federal Government’s view, however, was not shared by the Scientific Research Services (SRS) of Germany’s Federal Parliament. In an overview report on “Greek and Polish demands for reparations from Germany”, the SRS concluded:

“Whilst for Polish reparation claims […] no compelling legal lines of argumentation are recognisable, the situation in relation to Greek claims is less clear. The Federal Government’s stance is one that can be defended from the perspective of international law but is by no means imperative.”

When the new Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, visited Berlin on 29 August 2019, he said he looked forward to a “positive response” by Germany to the Greek note verbale and that he was convinced that “a final settlement of the issue would be exceptionally useful for the further strengthening of relations between the two peoples.”

Greek hopes for a positive response, however, were dashed when Germany rejected the Greek request for negotiations on war reparations. On 18 October 2019, the Federal Foreign Office handed a terse note verbale to the Greek Ambassador in Berlin, in which it reiterated Germany’s firm position that the issue of compensation had been legally settled by the 1990 Treaty on the Final Settlement with respect to Germany.

The German legal position with regard to Greek war reparations claims is not without difficulties. The Agreement on German External Debts of 1953 expressly provided that the consideration of claims arising out of the Second World War by countries which were occupied by Germany, and by nationals of such countries, against Germany “shall be deferred until the final settlement of the problem of reparation.” This agreement thus established a moratorium until such a “final settlement” was reached. Until that date, there could therefore be no question of a tacit renunciation or prescription of Greek reparation claims. Germany’s argument that no such claims can be made “over 70 years after the end of the war” is thus not to the point, as the relevant date is not the end of the war but the date of any final settlement. Germany argued that the so-called Two-Plus-Four Treaty of 12 September 1990 between the two Germanys and the Four Powers which occupied Germany at the end World War II “contains the final settlement of the legal issues arising from the war.” However, there are two problems with this assertion. First, the Treaty does not mention the question of reparations or refer to countries other than the six signatories and Poland. In fact, the signatories recognise that “the rights and responsibilities of the Four Powers relating to Berlin and to Germany as a whole lose their function.” Second, the Treaty is binding only on the parties and can have no effect on Greece without its consent. No such consent was expressed by Greece in the Charter of Paris for a New Europe of 21 November 1990. There is no basis for the German assertion that “Greece, as a CSCE participating State, approved this Treaty in the Charta of Paris”. The Charter of Paris referred to the Treaty under the heading of “Unity” as follows:

“We note with great satisfaction the Treaty on the Final Settlement with respect to Germany signed in Moscow on 12 September 1990 and sincerely welcome the fact that the German people have united to become one State in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe and in full accord with their neighbours. The establishment of the national unity of Germany is an important contribution to a just and lasting order of peace for a united, democratic Europe aware of its responsibility for stability, peace and co-operation.”

Again, there was no reference to the question of war reparations, and there was no question of formal “approval” of the Treaty or its content. In any case, the Charter of Paris is not a binding treaty under international law, but a political commitment of the signatories.

Germany’s assertion that Greece approved a final settlement of the war reparations issue is also disproved by the fact that only weeks after the unification of Germany on 3 October 1990, Greece raised the question of war reparations, not just for World War II but also for World War I. On 2 November 1990, Greek Foreign Minister Andonis Samaras told the Hellenic Parliament that since German unification, “there is no legal obstacle and the issue of German reparations [for World Wars I and II] remains open in the direction of safeguarding Greece’s interests.” On 14 November 1995, the Greek Ambassador to Germany formally presented a first note verbale to the State Secretary at the German Federal Foreign Office requesting talks on compensation for damages stemming from World War II, including the repayment of the forced loan. In the note it reportedly said: “Greece has not renounced its claims to compensation and reparations for the damages suffered during the second world war.” Germany, however, rejected the advance, saying that “fifty years after the end of the war and after decades of peaceful, trusting and fruitful co-operation between Germany and the international community, the reparation issue has lost its validity.”

The question of war reparations will not disappear. It will not suffice for Germany to say that the issue is legally and politically “settled” if Greece does not agree. As former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt rightly pointed out, the issue had “in fact been settled without the participation of the Greeks.” However, with Germany denying that there is an open question, there is little prospect of the dispute being submitted to the ICJ or arbitration. In this respect, the German position is reminiscent of the island disputes in South East Asia where the States exercising control over the disputed islands usually claim that there is no dispute with regard to the sovereignty over the islands as they had a clear and longstanding title to the islands in question.

Category: State responsibility

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  • Stefan Talmon is Professor of Public Law, Public International Law and European Union Law, and Director at the Institute of Public International Law at the University of Bonn. He is also a Supernumerary Fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and practices as a Barrister from Twenty Essex, London. He is the editor of GPIL.

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