In the March 2017 negotiations over Greece’s bailout review, Germany persisted in its two-pronged approach of rejecting international debt relief and insisting on domestic austerity. This stringent stance in the IMF and EU in the last few years has come to frame publicly German-Greek relations, accompanied by the Greek public and media demonization of Chancellor Merkel as the new Hitler. However, German-Greek ties are more complicated than this negative image suggests; a closer consideration away from the public glare reveals the foundation and aspiration for a relationship of reconciliation.
The excellent treatment of German-Greek relations since 1940 by Kateřina Králová (Das Vermächtnis der Besatzung) emphasizes that until the 1990s Germany and Greece built fruitful political, economic, and military relations based on a pragmatism that reflected the national interests of the two states during the Cold War. They also forged close societal ties based on Greek Gastarbeiter and dissidents in Germany, German tourists in Greece, and a German fascination with Greek history. Nonetheless, while close and productive, the Greek-German relationship did not meet the standards of postwar reconciliation as we have come to understand it in Germany’s relations with France and Israel.
The missing ingredient was a moral element concerning Germany’s Nazi past, expressed concretely in the German settlement of Greek reparations and compensation claims (an exception was the German payment of DM 115 million in a 1960 Global Agreement). Both sides (especially Germany as perpetrator) largely failed to pursue this moral avenue due to the predominance of Realpolitik. When Greece did raise the issue in the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, Germany maintained the question of reparations was either settled or vacated by international agreements. When Germany insisted on no debt relief and austerity in the Greek financial crisis, Greece countered with claims of $11 billion for a 1942 forced loan to the Reich and $100 billion in war reparations. Of all countries occupied by Germany during World War II, Greece has been the least compensated.
Despite the absence of a reparations and compensation settlement, in the last few years Germany has moved on other expressions of dealing with the past comparable to its other relations of reconciliation, thereby laying the foundation for deep reconciliation. In 2014, Germany created the German-Greek Future Fund to finance civil society projects that confront history, with the general aim of establishing a common remembrance culture (Erinnerungskultur) and the particular purpose of reconciliation with Greek villages and Jewish communities that were victims of German brutality. A companion initiative is a special program of the German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst) for support of academic research about German-Greek history. A second example is the 2014 visit of President Joachim Gauck to the Jewish community of Ioannina and to Lingiades, where he mourned Nazism’s victims and asked for forgiveness. An initiative of the Protestant Church in Germany (Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland) represents a third expression of ethical behavior. The church has offered solidarity with Greeks in their crisis-driven suffering, intensified relations with the Orthodox Church in Greece, and organized youth exchanges between the two countries.
The ethically-based initiatives have been matched by pragmatic governmental and civil society actions that aim to initiate, expand, and institutionalize ties: Chancellor Merkel’s naming of a Special Representative for Greece; the initiation of the Greek-German Partnership for German ministries to aid their Greek counterparts; the establishment of a German-Greek Assembly to further concrete cooperation between German and Greek municipalities, regions, and citizens (with a joint mayors’ office in Thessaloniki); the creation of the German-Greek Youth office; the pursuit of twenty joint scientific research projects; the return of German political foundations to Greece.
These post-2009 activities are the building blocks for German-Greek reconciliation, but Germany will need to consistently nurture and finance them if they are to be effective. Deep tensions will surely continue to challenge German-Greek relations, as they have in other ties of reconciliation, but the two countries have a better chance of limiting and managing assaults if the budding undergrowth of societal and political connections is robust and manifold. The development of trust, the essence of reconciliation, requires a long time, but the process has now started.
Dr. Lily Gardner Feldman is Harry & Helen Gray Senior Fellow and Director of the Society, Culture & Politics Program at AICGS.