After the seismic victory of Greece’s leftist Syriza party in national polling Sunday, the country’s new prime minister, 40-year-old Alexis Tsipras, is leading all of Europe down an uncertain path.
Syriza has vowed to renegotiate the crippling debts saddled on the Greek economy by European lenders — a move that some fear could threaten the unity of the eurozone. Tsipras and his allies, meanwhile, see their ascension as a historic opportunity, as WorldViews discussed here.
But it's not just the future that's on Syriza's agenda. In what was virtually his first act as prime minister Monday, Tsipras journeyed to the memorial site at the Kaisariani rifle range, where in 1944 Nazi soldiers executed some 200 Greek activists in retaliation for the death of a German officer killed in a Greek ambush.
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The visit was drenched in symbolism. The past half-decade of crippling austerity in Greece is the consequence of terms dictated by the "troika" — the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Germany, Europe's largest economy, played a key role in delivering Greece's bailout and enforcing its strict conditions. Ill will toward Germany is high in Greece, where ordinary citizens blame their country's dire economic state in part on the high-handed policies of a distant European elite.
Syriza, in particular, has been outspoken about the need for Germany to atone for its past in Greece, or at least show a bit more leniency now as compensation. Tsipras has campaigned on the issue for more than a year, including in the build-up to Sunday's election. "We are going to demand debt reduction, and the money Germany owes us from World War II, including reparations," he said earlier this month.
A 2013 study carried out by the previous Greek government of defeated Prime Minister Antonis Samaras estimated that Germany owed Greece some $200 billion for damages incurred during the Nazi occupation, the cost of rebuilding destroyed infrastructure as well as loans Nazi authorities forced Greece to pay between 1942 and 1944. The Samaras government, whose critics accused of being handmaidens to Brussels' harsh mandates, did little with the report. Another advocacy group claims that the sum owed to Greece could be as much as $677 billion.
But Syriza may likely invoke this legacy in its bid to win greater debt forgiveness now. It has the sympathy, at least, of German leftists. "From a moral point of view, Germany ought to pay off these old compensations and the 'war loan' that they got during the Occupation," said Gabriele Zimmer, a leading member of Die Linke, a socialist German party that is allied with Syriza in the European parliament.
As is often the case, though, the question of reparations is a fraught one. Not many countries have received reparations from Germany, which itself was ravaged by the war and then carved up by the victorious Allies.
According to the New York Times, some experts believe that as many as 300,000 Greeks starved to death during the Nazi occupation. Brutal reprisals like that carried out at the Kaisariani site were not uncommon, given the active nature of Greece's resistance movement.
Syriza's grandstanding on the issue can also be read as a savvy move to win over nationalist voters who would perhaps otherwise not favor the leftists. The far-right Golden Dawn party, which has neo-Nazi origins, polled far behind Syriza, but still came in third among the country's many jostling parties.
"It is our duty to pay homage and not forget that the European peoples live free and have defeated the specter of intolerance, the dark ideology of fascism," Tsipras said last April, ahead of European elections. "There were thousands of those who sacrificed their lives in our country."
That battle against "fascism" may have been won once more Sunday, but Tsipras and Syriza have long a fight ahead of them to win the larger concessions they now demand.