Earlier this week, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras assigned a committee in his national parliament to address the issue of making fresh demands for billions World War II reparations payments from Germany. The issue between the two countries is highly sensitive and has angered many in Berlin as international negotiations over Greece's debt continue. SPIEGEL interviewed Frank Schorkopf, 44, a professor for international law at the Universtiy of Göttingen, about Athens' calls for justice.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Schorkopf, the German government doesn't want to pay any reparations to Greece, claiming that the issue has been "legally and politically concluded." Do you agree?
Schorkopf: In my opinion, the German government is correct about this. The problem, however, is that this reference to the formal legal position no longer mollifies the discussion with Greece. One should argue in broader terms.
SPIEGEL: In what sense?
Schorkopf: Reparations demands are about transfer payments, be they between two states because of the general costs of war, or between private individuals, particularly because of war crimes. In addition to the legal components, these questions also have a moral one. And at the moment, we are experiencing a strong moralizing in government relations between Greece and Germany. In a situation like that, you don't get far with just formal legal arguments.
SPIEGEL: Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has complained that the Germans are being silent and tricky …
Schorkopf: … but he is twisting the context. At the very latest, Greece was required to register claims for reparations at the end of the so-called Two-Plus-Four Treaty negotiations in 1990. In any case, the Greeks did not do so in time. There are good reasons to interpret this silence as acceptance, as a relinquishment of reparations. Yet the more important thought is that there is an obvious reason for the silence.
SPIEGEL: Which is?
Schorkopf: In the past decades, Germany has provided enormous transfer payments, to Greece as well -- not as reparations, but as a part of European integration. We are talking about a figure in the high double-digit billions, a sum that easily reached the level of possible reparations payments. Greece could always count on support. When the country was accepted as a member of the European Community in 1981, it was a tottering candidate. In in 2001, when Greece was admitted into the economic and currency union, people didn't look very closely when the Greeks falsified their accounts.
SPIEGEL: That sounds like a deal: Eschewing reparations in exchange for acceptance into the currency union?
Schorkopf: Perhaps not so direct. But in unspoken terms, these associated transfers of wealth were the implicit way in which Germany sought to do justice to its responsibility for World War II. The so-called Economic Miracle (in Germany) was also made possible by the fact that the question of reparations was put aside in the London Debt Agreement, explicitly so that Germany could prosper. As a part of European integration, other countries rightly profited from that -- especially the Greeks. It was a smart and modern form of addressing the issue of reparations. With that, in my opinion, demands for reparations should not only be rejected for formal legal reasons, they should also be viewed as having been fulfilled economically, politically and morally.
SPIEGEL: Why is it that the German government never called on the Greeks to formally renounce reparations?
Schorkopf: Some things were settled and finalized, like damages to civilian victim groups. The Greek government received money for that. And for a long time, both sides seemed happy not picking at old wounds.
SPIEGEL: What about the forced Greek central bank loan of 1942 that is being so widely discussed?
Schorkopf: It was not a standard loan contract, particularly because there was no interest payments attached to it. In my view, it thus falls into the category of reparations and, as such, the issue is already finalized. If you take a different view, the Greeks would only be able to demand a repayment of the loan, but no interest.
SPIEGEL: If the Greeks continue to consider their demands to be justified, are they allowed to seize German government property on Greek soil, like the Goethe Institute, for example?
Schorkopf: Not according to international law. If they did so anyway, Germany could take them to the International Court of Justice.
SPIEGEL: Could Greece also challenge Germany at the court over the issue of reparations?
Schorkopf: Only if Germany agreed to submit itself to such proceedings, because this deals with legal issues from the past. But I don't believe the Greek government has an interest in doing that. Proceedings like that would take many years and they wouldn't help Greece.
SPIEGEL: But perhaps later.
Schorkopf: This may sound tough, but even if Greece were one day to win on the question of reparations, in addition to the aforementioned wealth transfers, there's an even more precarious counterparty relationship. Greece owes Germany about €60 billion. Before even a euro flowed to Greece in further reparations, the German government could offset the claims.