Cyprus Mail
Opinion

Reparations and the legacies of empires

By Timothy Spyrou

GREECE’S new Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras declared that his coalition government has “a moral obligation to our people, to history, to all European peoples who fought and gave their blood against Nazism,” when it comes to filing reparations claims against Germany for Hitler’s brutal occupation of Greece.

It appears to be fair enough. However, when one thinks of the consequences of an actual reparations suit being filed at the courts, it is downright lunacy. Greece also did itself no favours later in the week when a cartoon in a newspaper close to Tsipras depicted the German finance minister as a Nazi boiling down Greeks for their fat and threatening to make fertiliser from their ashes.

There are times when however righteous a cause may sound, it should be abandoned because championing it puts other causes in jeopardy. Sometimes there has to be a pragmatic sacrifice for the greater good.

True, the German banks that loaned crazy sums of money to Greece and certain other eurozone members were as capricious and stupid as successive Greek governments in presiding over a corrupt, clientelist, dysfunctional and oligarchic state rather than reforming it.

True, it is unfair that the bulk of the bailout funds have gone towards those same European financial institutions that, who, by loaning the Greek government and economy crazy sums of money, were complicit in creating the eurocrisis while the Greek people are suffering greatly.

However, to equate Germany’s policies to a “social Holocaust” or to draw swastikas on the German flags or depicting German leaders with Hitler moustaches is cynical. People who shoot off their mouth like this are insulting every man, woman and child who perished as a result of the Holocaust or any of the other heinous crimes perpetrated by the Nazis.

Tsipras should have flown to the Holocaust Memorial event at Auschwitz in the previous week and he would have learned what a policy of genocide really looks like.

Hurling the Nazi card at Germany is also an insult to those Germans who gave their lives in resistance to the Nazis. Sophie Scholl, a devout Lutheran and deeply intelligent young woman, led a resistance organisation called the White Rose that tried to educate the German people to the fundamentally evil barbarism that was in power.

For her bravery, she was arrested, along with her brother and several of her fellow students at the University of Munich, and tortured by the Gestapo. She was then guillotined, with her brother and friends forced to watch the proceedings. There were other Germans who met terrible ends for opposing Nazism.

Some of them are well known, many others are not.

Do Greek political leaders honestly believe that the German government of today is anything like the monsters of the 1930’s and 40’s? Do they honestly believe that the [albeit destructive] austerity, which was largely brought about by Greece’s dysfunctional politics, is the moral equivalent of the wartime atrocities? Do they honestly believe that the German people are unaware of the crimes Hitler, Goebbels, et al committed in their name?

German taxpayers, workers and voters, feel that they have made considerable sacrifices in the years before the financial crisis to pay for reunification and to adapt to the demands placed on the German economy because of globalisation and EU enlargement.

They viewed the continuous transfer of billions of euros worth of funds from first West Germany, and then the united Federal Republic, to new, economically weaker EU states over successive enlargements as their European duty and as a way to make amends for the past.

They honestly believe that by consenting to bailout loans to Greece and other eurozone countries, they have saved these countries from certain financial destruction and instead of gratitude, they get the word ‘Nazi’ thrown at them.
This sort of emotional blackmail is counterproductive.

Trying to persuade German leaders and German public opinion to forgive Greece of the loans that they can’t possibly repay by making loud noises about taking Germany to court for reparations is cynical, crass and stupid. It will not work. It will put Greece on a one way ticket out of Europe.

Almost every country, in Europe had been invaded and occupied by the Nazis. Virtually every country suffered great losses that could not be imagined. Even Nazi allies like Italy weren’t spared-after Mussolini was overthrown and arrested in Rome in response to the Allied invasion of Sicily, Hitler sprung him out of jail and placed him at the head of a puppet regime in Northern Italy.

If Greece’s government takes Germany to court for reparations, what’s stopping people from Norway to Serbia and from France to Lithuania from doing the same thing? What’s stopping the Russians from saying that Germany hasn’t fully paid for Operation Barbarossa and the ensuing occupation of a good chunk of the Soviet Union?

What’s stopping British citizens who lost family members in the German Luftwaffe’s bombardment of Britain from claiming compensation, or the descendants of Spaniards who died fighting Franco, who received crucial military backing from Hitler in the Spanish Civil War?

Germany could also get into the claims for reparations business as well. They would have to, if they were to have any chance of finding the money to pay those suing them.

The Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and inflicted a hell-like suffering upon the people, but did that give the Red Army the right to rape possibly millions of German women and girls as they closed in on Berlin? The Germans have a right to sue for reparations for that, even if it was their government that started the cycle of horrors.

What about the virtual Russian occupation of East Germany for almost fifty years? Couldn’t families divided by the Berlin Wall sue the Russians? Furthermore, what is stopping German citizens from suing Britain and America for the strategic bombardment of German cities?

The goal was to cripple the German war economy and demolish morale, but hundreds of thousands of German civilians died. Today, some mainstream historians argue that the bombing strategy was a “costly, brutal failure”.

The possibilities for Greece’s possible reparations suit to spiral out of control move beyond Germany. The situation in Asia is also potentially catastrophic.

Nobody really forgives the Japanese for the brutal crimes that Imperial Japan committed against the populations of occupied China, Korea, Vietnam, Burma, The Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and others, with the suffering of the Koreans and Chinese predating WWII by several decades in some cases.

Some of the crimes, such as the “The Rape of Nanking,” in which the Imperial Japanese military murdered between 50,000 and 300,000 people are as bad as the atrocities committed by Hitler’s and Stalin’s forces.

What makes matters worse, is that the Japanese government, unlike Germany, never really sought to atone for their predecessors’ crimes, possibly because the Japanese themselves are scarred by Hiroshima.

Citizens of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon could one day sue the British and the French for the way they carved up the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of WWI, leaving ethnic and sectarian groups with little affinity for each other within artificially constructed states that the European powers could dominate. After all, maybe these countries wouldn’t be in a state of chaos today if it wasn’t for that particular blunder.

People think slavery and the persecution of the Native Americans are the only original sins there. Everybody forgets that a good portion of American land was taken from Mexico in a war of conquest in the 1840’s.

Cyprus was successful in suing Turkey last year when the European Court of Human Rights found it liable for €90m in damages but Turkey has vowed never to pay up. Neither would Germany when it came to Greece.

The legacies of empire and slavery around the world provide a lot of justification for different countries to sue their former rulers and oppressors for reparations. What could possibly be the end result of all this? Half the world suing the other half?

Where would it end?

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