Dear Greece, a tip for getting money out of Berlin: drop the Nazi jibes

February 17, 2015, 3:08 PM UTC
Greeks and German activists gather outside the German embassy in Athens on June 7, 2014 demanding immediate reparations for the victims of the Nazi massacres in Greece, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Nazi massacre in Distomo, where more than 200 civilians were murdered. The activists called the common fight against the growing Fascism in Europe. AFP PHOTO / LOUISA GOULIAMAKI (Photo credit should read LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Photograph by Louisa Gouliamaki — AFP/Getty Images

Of all the general rules that have evolved over time for those about to ask for money, one is pretty much at the top of every list: don’t gratuitously insult the guy you’re asking ahead of time.

Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the list of the new Greek government, which seems to think that the best way to get money out of Germany is to remind Germans of their criminal Nazi past at every opportunity.

Whether it’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras laying a rose at the site of a Nazi massacre in his first official act as Prime Minister, or Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis describing the bailout’s effects as a “social holocaust”, or Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias banging on about a loan forcibly exacted from Greece by the German Reichsbank during the Nazi occupation, officials have gone out of their way to try to shame their biggest creditor into cutting them some slack.

And even when the government takes a break from it, it can rely on friendly elements of the press to carry on the struggle for it. Witness the cartoon in Monday’s edition of the Syriza-friendly paper “Dawn”, depicting German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble in World War 2 uniform, saying “We insist on the soap from your fat. We’re willing to discuss the compost from your ashes.” No wonder the doughty Badenser didn’t feel much in the giving vein at Monday’s Eurogroup meeting.

German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble as Wehrmacht oppressor (hey, at least it wasn't an SS uniform)
German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble as Wehrmacht oppressor (hey, at least it wasn’t an SS uniform)


It’s a tactic that consciously seeks to deflect attention away from Greece’s own shortcomings, and will hit entirely the wrong target. Who exactly will pay for this? Around 300,000 Greeks live and pay taxes today in Germany (another million live in the countries that Tsipras is asking for debt forgiveness). By contrast, there are fewer than 400,000 German men over 90 left alive, only a minute fraction of whom could possibly be considered as even indirectly responsible for what happened in Greece between 1941 and 1945. It’s only a small exaggeration to say that, by the same logic, Iran should file for damages committed by Alexander the Great’s army.

The most likely result of Syriza’s German-baiting is the exact opposite from the one intended. German public opinion, which is by no means short on “European solidarity”, will harden even further against Greece, leaving it no option but to leave the Eurozone as its money runs out. An opinion poll published last week by the magazine Focus showed that 48% of Germans wanted Greece to leave the currency union, while only 29% wanted it to stay in.

Yes, it’s true that Germany hasn’t directly repaid 476 million Reichsmarks that it forced the Bank of Greece to lend it interest-free, a sum that some analysts estimate as translating into €10 billion at today’s exchange rates (best not to ask how they arrive at that calculation). It’s also true that some of the reparations agreed under various postwar settlements never arrived in Greece (although it would be more pertinent to ask how well that which did arrive was spent).

But Messrs. Tsipras, Kotzias et al. are guilty of missing the forest for the trees. In one of the more enlightened policy choices of modern history, Germany was spared a heavy reparations bill after WW2. Instead it entered into a tacit bargain that it would bankroll the European Union’s budget. The historian Niall Ferguson reckons that Germany has already recycled more through the European economy in this way than the whole of the reparations bill handed to it at Versailles for World War 1. Time to let it go and concentrate on today, and on Greece, rather than its creditors.

Since Greece joined the E.U. in 1981, it has benefited more than virtually any other country from that arrangement, getting the equivalent of €110 billion out of E.U. coffers, according to European Commission numbers crunched by the Munich-based Ifo think-tank. Around a third of that is ultimately attributable to Germany. In the E.U.’s last budget, Greece was still able to extract more subsidies, on a per capita basis, than all but two of the–much poorer–countries that joined the Union after the fall of Communism.

After the failure of Monday’s Eurogroup meeting, time is now fast running out for Athens to get real. The country only has 12 days before it loses access to billions of euros that its creditors–at great political cost domestically–approved for it in 2012. It needs to stop wasting time and energy whipping up old animosities that are increasingly irrelevant to modern Europe. And in any case, it costs nothing to ask nicely.