BERLIN — In the Greek resort town of Nafplio, German tourists Ludwig Zaccaro and Nina Lange shocked the local mayor last week by walking into City Hall with a reparations check. The couple had seen a figure in the news claiming Germany owed Greece more than $74 billion for Nazi crimes during World War II — a figure they boiled down to $936 per German citizen.
“We thought, Germany should start by paying its own debts before demanding the Greeks pay theirs,” said Lange, a 55-year-old social worker.
Consider it a down payment. At odds with its creditors — led by Germany — and running out of cash, Greece is reaching a do-or-die moment in its fight to renegotiate the terms of its bailout and avoid a catastrophic exit from the euro. But even as Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras lands here Monday for critical talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel, Athens is seeking to turn the tables on its single biggest paymaster. Who, the Greeks are asking, truly owes whom?
In recent weeks, the new government in Athens led by radical nationalists has resuscitated old claims against Germany for 20th-century atrocities committed in Greece by the Nazis — damages a Greek auditing office estimated could run as high as $340 billion, coincidentally enough to wipe out Greek debt.
The demand for reparations has now become part of a bitter clash of cultures between Greece and Germany that has poisoned financial talks and raised fears of a stalemate with potentially dire consequences.
In both countries, bitter vitriol against the other is seeping into the political sphere and pop culture in a manner not seen since the early stages of the Greek debt crisis and bordering now on the tragicomic. Germany’s largest newspaper, Bild, launched a media campaign asking readers to send in selfies showing themselves with the phrase “no more billions for the greedy Greeks.” German-language Internet memes and doctored images lampooning Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis — who shoots laser beams out of his eyes in one — have gone viral.
Not to be outdone, a Greek newspaper close to Tsipras’s Syriza party published a cartoon depicting German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble in a Nazi uniform with the caption, “We want soap from your fat.” Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos threatened to open the doors of his nation’s refugee camps and unleash a swell of undocumented migrants, giving them “papers to go to Berlin.” Greek Justice Minister Nikos Paraskevopoulos pledged to seize the assets of German companies if war reparations are not made.
And yet, even as the German government dismisses fresh reparations — saying all such payments were made decades ago — Greek demands have started to find surprising support among a segment of the German public. In a country where World War II-era crimes are drilled into students from a young age, some here are warning their countrymen not to forget the hell unleashed upon Europe — including the Greeks — in the 1940s.
Those speaking up include not only ordinary Germans like Zaccaro and Lange, but powerful voices from Merkel’s own ruling coalition. They portray themselves as Germany’s conscience, a chorus of Jiminy Crickets whispering in the nation’s ear.
“Some politicians are worried about opening a Pandora’s box if we take the Greek request seriously,” said Gesine Schwan, chairwoman of the Social Democratic Party’s Fundamental Values Commission and a former German presidential candidate. “They forget that Germany opened that Pandora’s box itself when it started the war.”
Of one thing there is no dispute: Greeks — particularly Jews, but also partisans and others — suffered brutally under the Axis occupation, with tens of thousands dying from starvation and Nazi aggression. In Distomo, a tiny hamlet 86 miles northwest of Athens, for instance, the Nazis came on June 10, 1944. In what is thought to have been retribution for attacks by the Greek resistance, Nazi occupiers went door to door, rounding up locals and systematically massacring 218 victims ranging from a 90-year-old grandmother to a 1-month-old child.
Now, Tsipras has relaunched a parliamentary commission aimed at securing reparations.
“After the reunification of Germany in 1990, the legal and political conditions were created for this issue to be solved,” Tsipras said this month in Parliament. “But since then, German governments chose silence, legal tricks and delay.”
The current crusade — as vociferous as it is — marks only the latest Greek push for reparations from Germany. In the 1960s, Germany paid roughly $74 million to Greek victims of Nazi crimes. But many in Greece argue that sum fell far short and failed to settle the account. Since then, especially in the 1990s and 2000s, various Greek governments have launched commissions and legal bids for German cash.
The actual amount remains in fierce dispute, even in Greece. But it includes at least three components. The Nazis forced the Greek Central Bank into in a 1942 loan worth roughly $11.7 billion today, and potentially several times that with interest. A Greek court in 2000 also found in favor of the people of Distomo, saying they were owed $30 million for the Nazi massacre. Figures for more general war reparations start around $171.2 billion.
Some scholars say the Greeks may indeed have legal grounds for such a claim — a position fiercely refuted by the German government. They point to a number of international agreements and settlements, especially the 1990 pact signed by former East and West Germany, the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union that forfeited the post-World War II rights of those powers in Germany. The Germans view that as an end to the debate over reparations.
In Brussels late Thursday, Tsipras met with Merkel and other European leaders during a regularly scheduled summit. There was no breakthrough, raising the stakes for Monday’s talks in Berlin. Despite failing to win concessions, Tsipras described himself as “more optimistic” and pledged to heed European Union demands to come up with a list of key economic reforms in the coming days.
Yet the Greek call for war reparations, even as bailout talks continue, is being seen by many in Germany as blackmail. The single largest contributor to Greece’s series of bailouts since 2010, Germany has insisted on tough austerity in exchange for billions of euros in rescue funds. Tsipras’s government has rejected those demands, and is now seeking to force European powers, chiefly Germany, to keep offering up cash under far more flexible conditions.
“I am astonished by the Greek government’s collision course,” said Wolfgang Bosbach, a member of parliament from Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union of Germany. “The more I berate my creditors, the more I get? I really don’t know what they are thinking.”
Stephanie Kirchner contributed to this report.