Why Greece's Call for WWII Reparations From Germany Is a Very Bad Idea

02/10/2015 02:52 pm ET | Updated Apr 12, 2015
Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-164-0389-23A / Scheerer /

PARIS -- Having had the experience, at the very beginning of my career, to participate in the negotiations which resulted in the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, signed in Moscow on September 12, 1990, I believe it is important to warn about the truly bad consequences that the new Greek demand for "reparations" from Germany could have.

Europe is founded on moral choices, which, although often forgotten, are nonetheless essential: cooperation rather than vengeance, respect for the law and solidarity.

This is why one must immediately denounce an idea that is currently being discussed both in Greece and elsewhere: that Greek debt could be cancelled because of the debt owed to the Hellenic Republic from the Third Reich. Prime Minister Tsipras has indeed proclaimed that there is "a moral obligation to our people, to history, to all Europeans who fought and gave their blood against Nazism."

First, this call ignores an important historical choice made after 1945: the refusal to impose reparations -- the willingness to cooperate with the former enemy.

After 1945, the American and European authorities learned from the lessons of the period following World War I. They wanted to avoid repeating the mistakes of 1919 when the Treaty of Versailles imposed crushing reparations on defeated Germany. The result would have been to once again create resentment and to pave the way for a new conflict.

The 1947 American Marshall Plan, just like Robert Schuman's declaration on May 9th, 1950, followed a radically different logic: to draw a line under the past, to build a common future.

Although apparently idealistic, this solution has proven itself to be infinitely more effective than the previous cycles of war, reprisals and reparations.

We must fairly value the foresight of those men who had survived two world wars. They had just fought against Nazism and had often lost loved ones in that battle. The temptation to look for vengeance could have been the overriding emotion. Instead they managed to master these feelings and to build a peaceful Europe.

Second, this call forgets the international agreements of 1953 and 1990. Legally speaking "Germany" no longer existed after 1945. The four victorious powers (the United States, the USSR, the United Kingdom and France) had, in the name of all the belligerent parties involved, "reserved rights" on the former Reich which had surrendered.

The East-West confrontation, however, meant that a "classic" peace treaty could not be signed, which would have resolved all questions concerning German sovereignty, decided the limits of its borders and organized its economic relations with its former enemies. All these questions were instead put aside. They remained frozen for the duration of the Cold War.

The Western powers did, however, decide to group their three zones of occupation together, promoting the emergence of the Federal Republic of Germany, whose leaders claimed to be the only legitimate representatives of "Germany as a whole."

For the Americans, the priority was anchoring the FRG to the West. An agreement concerning German foreign debt was signed (by many countries, including Greece) on 27th February 1953 in London which partially wrote off some German debts, while ensuring that "consideration of claims arising out of the second World War by countries which were at war with or were occupied by Germany during that war... shall be deferred until the final settlement of the problem of reparation" (Article 5.2).

After the failure of the European Defence Community, Germany was allowed to rearm itself and joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. A founding member of the European Coal and Steel Community, it was also part of the Common Market established by the Treaty of Rome in 1957.

On 12th September 1990, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and after months of negotiations, the 2 + 4 Treaty "on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany" (concluded between the FRG and the German Democratic Republic as well as the four 1945 allies, the United States, the USSR, the United Kingdom and France) was signed in Moscow. It returned full and complete sovereignty to Germany.

The 2 + 4 Treaty fixes Germany's eastern borders along the "Oder-Neisse line," resulting in a loss of territory compared to the Germany of 1938. It lays down the conditions for the withdrawal of Soviet troops and arms from the former GDR. It is true that there is no reference to reparations, but this is deliberate, as the summary note prepared by the French negotiators confirms:

The Moscow Treaty [The 2 + 4 Treaty] does not contain all the clauses of a peace treaty; and it does not bear the name. In particular it does not mention the problem of reparations. However, beyond these differences, the document of 12th September contains certain essential elements of a peace treaty, first and foremost the establishment of the borders of the defeated country (...). The consensus was to keep up appearances but it is clear that the Moscow Treaty corresponds to the peace treaty that was mentioned in a number of international acts since the Second World War. This omission, present in everyone's minds, means that the agreement of 12th September decidedly concludes the period opened in 1945.

This interpretation is supported by the preamble of the agreement.

It would be very dangerous to reopen Pandora's Box from the past. Those who negotiated the Moscow Treaty have assumed their responsibilities. They negotiated decades after the surrender of the Reich, with a FRG, which is a solid democracy and a member of multinational fora (NATO, EEC, the Council of Europe) at the time when the USSR finally accepted the thaw in relations. They obtained guarantees concerning Germany's borders and its membership to NATO.

If the legitimacy of this agreement was to be questioned, could Germany not withdraw from its commitments, just as Russia and all the other signatories could? Where do we draw the line?

The waiver concerning reparations cannot be interpreted as being complacent towards the Nazi regime. It is precisely because the German authorities and the German people have undertaken exceptional efforts and constantly condemned the Nazis' crimes that it is possible to work constructively with unified Germany. The page has been definitively turned.

Third, a strong solidarity has replaced war reparations. Greece has not recovered the money stolen from it by the Nazis but it has largely benefitted, notably in terms of its security, from the existence of NATO. It has also received significant sums from European funds. These funds were financed by contributions from European citizens in other Member States, first and foremost the FRG, both before and after 1990.

Finally, since 2010 Greece has benefitted from loans at either reduced interest rates or interest free amounting to 240 billion euros, while its private debt has already been largely written off.

It is too simple to try to ease one's conscience by suggesting that the "rich" (Northerners) pay rather that the "poor" (Southerners). There are large differences between European countries, linked to the disparity between levels of wealth both between Member States and within them. These calculations are always delicate but it cannot be denied that in Greece some better off households, certain business sectors (shipowners) or institutions (the Orthodox Church) escape taxes completely, or to a large extent.

Fairness requires that the most wealthy contribute, wherever they are.

In the European Union, which is democratic, everyone is allowed to contest the decisions taken during the sovereign debt crisis or even to criticize the German federal government. There are a sufficient number of pertinent arguments, drawn from the social situation in Greece and from the errors committed by previous Greek governments, and the European institutions, to construct solid arguments grounded in today's dire realities.

The Eurozone needs more ambitious policies in order to fight against inequalities, poverty and tax dumping. Enabling the EU to undertake common macroeconomic policies is also crucial. The question to ascertain if the current debt is sustainable, and under what conditions, must also not be taboo. In the current context, the Greek government can advocate for debt relief, even if it would be difficult to implement.

But no responsible leader worthy of the title should take the risk of threatening the peace which has reigned since the end of the Second World War.

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