Ancient history.

Photographer: Roger Viollet Collection/Getty Images

Dear Greece: World War II Ended 70 Years Ago

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Greece's demand for reparations from Germany for damages inflicted during World War II, aired again this week by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in an emotional speech, may or may not have legal merit, but it does raise an important question: When will Europe finally stop fighting World War II?

The claim to 162 billion euros ($172 billion) in compensation for wartime damage to Greece's infrastructure and a loan the National Bank of Greece was forced to extend to Hitler's Germany long predates Tsipras's far left government. Greece revived it in 2012, at a time when the country's government had ostensibly accepted the economic reform program imposed on it by the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. Then, as now, the Greek government was clutching at straws as it sought leverage with its lenders.

Germany has adamantly rejected the claim. It argues, first, that it already paid reparations of 115 million Deutsche Marks to Greece in 1960 and the bilateral treaty signed at the time protected it from any further claims; and, second, that the so-called Two-Plus-Four treaty signed in 1990 by the two parts of Germany and the four major anti-Hitler allies -- the U.S., the Soviet Union, the U.K. and France -- spelled out the final resolution of all the issues left over from World War II, and any residual claims should have been put forward then. 

Tsipras rejects that interpretation. According to him, the 1953 London treaty, under which more than half of West Germany's debt was written off by countries including Greece, delayed the matter of reparations until Germany's reunification. Tsipras said in his March 10 speech:

The reunification of the two Germanys has created the necessary legal and political conditions in order to resolve this issue, but the German governments since then have opted for silence, legal tricks, deferment and dilatory tactics. And I wonder, ladies and gentlemen: is this stance actually ethical?

The law in this matter is extremely murky. The 1946 Paris agreement on reparations from Germany awarded Greece a share in post-war reparations, paid mainly through the distribution of German property and equipment, and it covered all claims "against the former German Government and its Agencies, of a governmental or private nature, arising out of the war (which are not otherwise provided for), including costs of German occupation, credits acquired during occupation on clearing accounts and claims against the Reichskreditkassen." It's unclear whether the Greek claims were "otherwise provided for" -- for instance, formally put off until Germany signed a final peace treaty  -- or whether Greece's agreed share was paid out in full before 1990.

Both versions have their ardent supporters in Europe -- even in Germany itself -- and the two sides could argue about it until they're blue in the face. If Athens ever brought the matter to trial -- which it potentially could -- the argument would continue in court. The proceedings would be lengthy and the outcome uncertain -- not a safe bet for Greece, a country on the verge of financial collapse.

That's why Tsipras is talking the language of ethics, not jurisprudence. But that doesn't please his German counterparts, either. "We should concentrate on current issues and, hopefully, what will be a good future," Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said yesterday.

In his speech, Tsipras had made it clear that he disagreed: 

Some people tell us -- why do you tackle the past, look at the future. But what country, what people can have a future if it does not honor its history and its struggles? What people can move forward, erasing the collective memory and leaving historically unjustified its struggles and sacrifices? Indeed, not much time has passed since then, ladies and gentlemen. The generation of the Occupation and of the National Resistance is still living. And the pictures and sounds from the tortures and executions at Distomo and Kaisariani, at Kalavrita and at Vianno, are still fresh in the collective memory of our people.

Essentially, this is an argument about whether World War II belongs to the recent or distant past -- or whether the war ever really ended. It's not limited to the matter of Greek reparations. Much criticism of Germany's leadership in today's Europe is still based on the assumption that it has not paid for its Hitler-era crimes. The Soviet Union's victory in the "Great Patriotic War" is the basis for President Vladimir Putin's neo-imperialist ideology, and the Russian propaganda machine constantly equates the Ukrainian military to Nazis. Russian nationalist legislators have also raised the matter of German reparations, though the Soviet Union made off with much of Germany's wartime industrial capacity. 

To many contemporary Germans, the war is ancient history.  "Shouldn't Greece, which is so proud of Alexander the Great, also fear retribution for historical injustice?" Reinhard Mueller mocked in the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. 

These differences won't be resolved when the last of the World War II generation have died. After all, the people arguing it out now were born during or after the war. And it doesn't help that the international community has never agreed on a statute of limitations for war crimes. Greece, for example, has not ratified the European or United Nations conventions on the subject (and, somewhat more understandably, neither has Germany).

Europeans need to recognize that it's pointless to rehash old wrongs when they are not the root of their current problems. Wars end, and the winners and losers ultimately go their separate paths. The German post-war path has led to economic success while the Greek one has not.

"A reluctant political elite with no effective reform vision and a frail legitimacy finds itself fighting rearguard battles in a desperate attempt to boost a dispirited nation, even if it may not mean any money coming into the state coffers," Vassilios Paipais of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland wrote of the Greek reparation claim in 2013. The political elite was different then, but Paipais is still right: Tsipras and his team should come to grips with the present-day reality and stop wasting time on 70-year-old gripes.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net