'Strong Moralizing' A Legal Look at Greek Reparations Demands

Athens has demanded that Germany pay Greece billions in World War II reparations. Berlin, though, has ignored the requests. International law professor Frank Schorkopf says that Germany has already fulfilled its obligations through wealth transfers.

Immediately after his election in Janaury, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras laid flowers at a monument at the site in Athens where hundreds of members of the Greek resistance were shot and killed by the Nazis.

Immediately after his election in Janaury, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras laid flowers at a monument at the site in Athens where hundreds of members of the Greek resistance were shot and killed by the Nazis.

Interview by

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.

Professor Frank 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 high figure in the double-digit billions, a sum that easily reached the level of possible reparations payments."

Professor Frank 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 high figure in the double-digit billions, a sum that easily reached the level of possible reparations payments."

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trustattny 03/14/2015
1. good grief
As a Jew, I think the Germans have done a remarkable job of reparations - visiting Israel in 1973 it was full of Mercedes - reparation payments, yet. As an attorney - a contract is a contract. The Germans paid reparations with a provision that that was it - no further claims. The Greeks are grasping at straws.
Euroclydon 03/14/2015
2. Apple with oranges....
The so called European integration "billions" came from the European Union, (with German funds likely). These billion, were the cost of integrating Greece into the failed dream of the EU; the same transfer of wealth happened with Spain and Portugal. The interviewee and the interviewer are conveniently, and cynically, mixing apples with oranges in their analysis. By the way, the Spanish (and more specifically the descendants of the Spanish republic) should demand war reparations for the German intervention during Spanish Civil war.
cusrun4 03/14/2015
3. German war reparations
While you're on the subject of reparations and the so-called transfers of cash for EU integration, why don't you include the money spent by German tourists, or remittances of Greek workers. This ridiculous mumbo-jumbo is what makes people dislike lawyers. The fact of the matter is that the German invaders attacked Greece for no reason, killed and burnt their way for 3 and a half years, appropriated the agricultural production and caused untold number of slow. horrible deaths from starvation, stole all the gold and antiquities, blew up infrastructure that was left standing and threw Greece back to the stone age. Immigration was a big factor in the so-called brain drain, that has continued to bedevil Greece and drain her of her human capital. Germany has a chance to do the right thing and be on the right side of history for a change, instead of confusing people with nonsense and feeling that guilt has ended. Would she do that? I highly doubt it
kajamix 03/15/2015
4. German reparations to Greece
The political atmosphere is charged. The left and right wing ultras relish in it. I will tell you however what people in Greece always believed about it. First the moderates. What the moderates have been saying before 1990 was this: West Germany is helping Greece in informal ways but because of international complications the issue of reparations has been put to sleep. The right wingers: Nothing because we did not have such. The hate group Golden Dawn practically emerged after 2010. The junta was another type of situation. The left wingers: Long live Lenin-Stalin and the DDR. For obvious reasons nobody should take seriously the two extreme groups, whatever they may say. But the issue of reparations and the loan were always considered real, by all governments of the past, from the ultra-conservative among parliamentarians Pipinelis down to the present mr. Tsipras. So it really looks like what we have infront of us is a problem of logistics and can be solved only by experts in the field of economics. What is the difference between < reparations > and < post war BDR assistance programs >. Positive or negative ? The problem cannot be solved by statements made by politicians and I bet no one knows the exact answer. I object to anyone who may suggest this is a cover up to the present deb crisis of Greece. We have an issue since 1st of May 1945, so how can it be a cover up for later things ?? But what I 'm getting at is becoming clear to you, I think: Let the UN solve this problem, with a team of independent experts and deliver a verdict. Otherwise we are re-enacting world war II or the cold war, which is a great pity. It's a pity because the Greek people and the German people were always close together after the war. The great statesman Konrad Adenauer was thought of as a true friend of Greece. Adenauer died on the 20/4/1967, one day before the infamous coup d' etat of George Papadopoulos. In one of his last statements Konrad Adenauer said "I hope democracy wins in Greece".
stevej8 03/15/2015
5. A settled issue
Professor Schorkopf is essentially correct, yet the analysis presented is not complete. Not only has the reparations issue been settled via past payments in different stages (late 40's, early 60's, and subsequent payments via the EU transfers and other ultimately voluntary contributions), but Greece has accepted this fact by its entry to the EU and Euro (allowed by Germany) along with no lodgement of further claims, and the same goes for its acceptance of the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, ie the 2+4 Treaty, and indeed any other pertinent settlements and associations in the postwar era. Had Greece raised such claims earlier then Germany could have acted differently with respect to Greece's EU and EZ entry and accompanying subsidies from Germany, as well as the bailouts and debt-writeoff of recent years, in which Greece received enormous financial support from Germany and a German-led writeoff of some 100 billion Euros worth of debt. To raise further claims against Germany now is merely a form of retrospective and invalid attempted blackmail. It is also unfair and illegitimate in that the occupation of Greece and associated damages at issue were a joint undertaking between Germany, Italy and Bulgaria, with (Fascist) Italy being responsible for the initial aggression, and a significant part of the losses inflicted, and Bulgaria very much also as to the latter. Even Britain had a share, in the famine via the blockade, and the following civil war troubles under the British occupation. So to attempt to pin all blame and responsibility on Germany, the only nation to have actually paid reparations, is simply false. And as for the alleged "forced loan", it was clearly not a normal loan but a cover for occupation costs to make it more palatable for the collaborationist Hellenic State regime, and depended at the very least on an Axis victory. The extinguishing of both party regimes to the 'arrangement' rendered it null and void as a debt, and Greece received later an Allied-assessed share of the (non-cash) reparations exactions levied on occupied Germany, along with subsequent German payments. That, along with the aforementioned factors, settled the issue for good, and to continue to push it now in light of all these long-available facts is simply nonsense, as well as undiplomatic in the extreme, and quite counterproductive. Nor can Germany possibly afford to yield to such an attempt, for the impossible precedent it would set, calling into serious question the entire postwar European settlement, which was enacted in many stages with considerable costs for Germany also, now no longer re-negotiable in this different century and era, nor desired to be so, by the other key European partners with much invested in that settlement.
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