Merkel to Be Met by Greek Anti-Austerity Protesters

Greek protesters are gearing up for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s first visit to Athens since the financial crisis began, with plans for strikes, rallies and a petition demanding reparations for the Nazi occupation.

Greece’s need for bailouts and German-led conditions attached to emergency loans have made Merkel the face of austerity for Greeks. Merkel has been depicted in the Greek media wearing jackboots and an SS uniform. While Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras called the chancellor’s visit tomorrow a “very positive development,” opposition leaders are planning a show of anger and frustration after five years of recession.

“Mr. Samaras said we should welcome Mrs. Merkel as she deserves,” said Alexis Tsipras, head of the Syriza party, which finished second in June’s national elections and has urged workers, the unemployed and young people to join the rallies. “We completely agree.”

Samaras has warned that soaring unemployment and political unrest risk the kind of upheaval that undermined the Weimar Republic in post-World War I Germany and ushered in the Nazis. His coalition is currently negotiating a new round of budget cuts with representatives of the so-called troika of Greece’s international creditors, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, to unlock the next aid payment to keep the country afloat.

Athens Walkout

GSEE and ADEDY, the umbrella organizations for private and public-sector unions, have called for a three-hour walkout tomorrow in the Athens metropolitan area and a rally in the center of the capital to protest Merkel’s visit. The two groups are also holding a protest gathering in Syntagma Square opposite parliament at 6 p.m. today.

Tsipras will participate in tomorrow’s union rally, accompanied by Bernd Riexinger, co-chairman of Germany’s Left party, and the two men will address protestors, Syriza said today.

Greek authorities today announced a ban on public gatherings and marches in most of central Athens tomorrow from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., “for reasons of public safety and to preserve the social and economic life of the capital.” The union protest is scheduled to take place outside the prohibited zone.

Tsipras in a speech Oct. 6 urged Samaras to show Merkel the real Greece: “The 40 patients for each nurse, and then see if she asks for more state employees to be sacked. I propose she visit a commercial street so she can see the padlocks on stores. And then she can propose more austerity measures.”

Biggest Contributor

As the biggest contributor to bailout commitments totaling 240 billion euros ($311 billion), Germany rejects responsibility for Greece’s hardships.

“We want to help Greece stabilize within the euro zone,” Steffen Seibert, Merkel’s chief spokesman, said Oct. 5. “We do this by contributing massively to the rescue programs Greece I and Greece II.” Merkel last visited Greece in July 2007.

Greece’s economy is set to contract for a sixth year in 2013. The government is struggling to reach agreement with the troika on austerity measures to meet deficit-reduction targets that have been consistently missed.

The economic downturn has been the worst since World War II, sparking memories of the Nazi occupation and outbursts at even the highest levels of the Greek government as German officials have pressed for more austerity measures.

Angry Presidential Response

As talks on a second bailout stalled in February, criticism by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble of Greek politicians provoked an angry response from President Karolos Papoulias, 83, a former resistance fighter.

“I don’t accept insults to my country by Mr. Schaeuble, I don’t accept it as a Greek,” Papoulias said. “We always had the pride to defend not just our own freedom, not just our own country, but the freedom of all of Europe.”

Invaded first by Mussolini’s Italy and then by Nazi Germany, Greece was forced to finance its own occupation, paying war loans to Hitler’s Reich. Hyperinflation and a famine ensued under German occupation.

More than 500,000 Greeks, or 7 percent of the population, died between October 1940 and October 1944, 260,000 of them from hunger and malnutrition. A Time magazine report in 1942 labeled Greece “the hungriest country.” Bread cost $15 a loaf.

Syriza lawmaker Manolis Glezos and the late Apostolos Santas are considered heroes for climbing the Acropolis as young men in May 1941 to tear down the swastika, considered the first resistance act in Greece under the Nazi occupation.

Reparations Demands

Independent Greeks, formed by lawmakers who broke from Samaras’s New Democracy party, made the demand that Germany pay reparations part of their election campaign in May and June.

Now the fourth-largest parliamentary group, Independent Greeks called Oct. 5 for a protest outside the German embassy in Athens during the chancellor’s visit. They planned to hand the German ambassador a petition outlining the party’s opposition to Merkel “transforming Greece into a German protectorate” and calling for war reparations and “the return of an occupation loan,” the party said.

Independent Greeks were today forced to cancel the protest due to the ban on public gatherings, a move the group called “unconstitutional” and “undemocratic.” The German embassy lies within the prohibited zone.

The Greek Finance Ministry has set up a committee to calculate for the first time the country’s World War II claims against Germany. Estimates vary, with a group of 28 lawmakers who petitioned parliament on the issue in February saying Germany should pay 54 billion euros and the Golden Dawn party demanding 510 billion euros.

German Treaty Payments

Germany paid 115 million deutsche marks to Greek victims of Nazi crimes under a 1960 treaty, in addition to funds paid to victims of forced labor under the Third Reich, German Foreign Ministry spokesman Andreas Peschke told reporters in 2010. Germany’s Constitutional Court ruled in March 2006 it didn’t have to pay compensation to individuals seeking damages for war crimes committed during World War II.

“The German reparations are a particularly complex legal issue,” Deputy Finance Minister Christos Staikouras said Sept. 4. “The case is still outstanding, and as a country we reserve the right and the possibility to manage it to a satisfactory conclusion.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Paul Tugwell in Athens at ptugwell1@bloomberg.net; Maria Petrakis in Athens at mpetrakis@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Hertling at jhertling@bloomberg.net

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.