Whatever else may be said of him, Greece’s Alexis Tsipras is a gambler. To stand before the highest echelons of German command, and demand reparations for a war which still casts a shadow over German national consciousness, is a risky move when that country also happens to wield the most influence with Greece’s creditors. Yet, calculated or not, this particular ploy is a desperate, last-ditch attempt on behalf of the Syriza-led coalition to win the moral high ground.
Had the troika of international creditors not subjected Greece to the humiliating austerity measures which have incrementally caused a full-scale humanitarian crisis – a crisis declared publically by NGO Medecins du Monde, among others, in 2011 – then the old wounds, no matter how badly sutured, would not conceivably have been reopened. Such collateral damage, however, matters little to a German stae hard-wired into fiscal prudency and putative political moderation. As far as political and public opinion in that country are concerned, Greece is ultimately responsible for its current travails. It borrowed too freely, spent too recklessly on a ‘bloated’ public sector, its labour productivity was dire. And so, backed into a corner, a left-wing government elected on a mandate of ameliorating the terrors that austerity has inflicted on its society has chosen to play the only card that Greece had left up its sleeve.
Stifled by an economic consensus which dictates that its people must suffer further, it has decided to raise the spectre of German responsibility for the war in Europe. One country cannot be challenged, but the other cannot be disputed.
Naturally, it may be argued that this demand could open up a veritable Pandora’s Box of other claims from countries which also endured Nazi occupation, and aggression. These demands were considered largely to have been rendered impossible by the conclusion of the Two-plus-Four agreement in 1990. Yet, with the German national economy the fourth largest in the world, reparations to countries with genuine claims is more than feasible, and can thus be used as limited form of leverage against the German government in negotiations.
Refusal to compromise on both this and the obligations of debtor countries will do nothing to promote either Germany’s image abroad, or the steadily fracturing belief in the European project. Already Merkel, Schauble and others are frequently represented in the Greek press in Nazi uniform, and there has been a certain vogue since the onset of the crisis, within the PIIGS countries, to speak of a Fourth Reich, maintained primarily through economic might.
Distasteful as all this may be, Germany would do well to fear such misrepresentation, and engage in constructive negotiations with Syriza. Otherwise the project that it holds so dear, the project of European unity, of peace, could collapse around it. If there is one thing that our collective, European, history has taught us, it is that an atmosphere of discord and mistrust entails a far higher cost to the continent than a few reasonable reparations.
The fact is that even these claims need not necessarily be addressed, as the Greeks would doubtless drop their claim if Germany consented to help absolve Greece of some of its burden, and relaxed its stance on the reforms required for fiscal assistance. That this does not look likely to happen is a tragedy of truly epic proportions. Not for the beleaguered Greek State, nor for the all-too-flexible Syriza, but for the Greek people themselves. And along with them, us all.