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Greece: Villages Seek Compensation For Nazi Atrocities

  • Roland Eggleston

Two Greek villages are seeking millions of dollars from Germany for the massacre of relatives by German troops in 1943 and 1944 during the Nazi Occupation. Germany argues that it settled all war claims from Greece 30 years ago. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston reports from Munich.

Munich, 6 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Residents of the two Greek villages have taken dramatic steps to publicize their claims for compensation. The most spectacular was an attempt to take over the Athens headquarters of the Goethe Institute, Germany's chief agency for promoting its culture abroad.

One villager also sought to seize the German Archaeological Institute and German school in Athens. Ioannis Stamoulis, a lawyer for one of the villages, said in Athens today the intention was to auction the properties and use the money to settle the villagers' compensation claims.

In July, Germany won an order stopping any seizures of its property while an Athens judge considers its appeal against earlier court decisions supporting the villagers' claims. Athens legal authorities say it may be a year before the judge is ready to hear the complex case. But lawyers for the villagers were back in an Athens court today pressing their claims to seize the German buildings and auction them.

A spokeswoman at the German Foreign Ministry, Gerlinde Jacobs, told RFE/RL today that the Berlin government does not contest the fact that the Nazis carried out massacres in the two villages. But Germany argues that all claims by Greek victims of the Nazis were settled in a bilateral agreement signed 40 years ago. Therefore, it says, Greeks have no legal right to launch new claims now.

"Germany's position is that all claims against it because of the war were settled in 1960. There is certainly no justification for seizing the Goethe Institute or other German property."

One of the two claims involves the village of Distomo, in central Greece about 100 kilometers northwest of Athens. Records show that 218 people were shot there in June 1944 in retaliation for Greek attacks on German occupation forces. The second claim comes from Kalavrita in the Peloponnese islands, where 650 local people were shot in December 1943, also in retaliation for attacks on German forces. In Kalavrita, the 650 dead are remembered in a village shrine. At the local church, one of the clocks in the tower is permanently fixed at 2:34 pm -- the time of the massacre.

The legal processes have been underway since 1997, when a local court awarded 295 relatives of the Distomo dead a total of $25.6 million to be paid by the German government. Germany immediately appealed, arguing that the verdict breached the principle of state immunity enshrined in international law. According to this principle, private individuals may not institute proceedings against a foreign state.

But in April of this year, Greece's highest court -- the Aeropag -- upheld the local court ruling. Fifteen of its 20 judges held that Germany could not claim immunity for acts of barbarity, such as that committed in Distomo.

The German government, however, says it does not recognize this ruling and has refused to pay compensation for the massacres. In Berlin today, a Foreign Ministry official -- who wished to remain anonymous -- said a victory by the Greek villagers could open the way to claims by private individuals in other countries.

The German government also argues that it has done its duty to Greece through the bilateral compensation agreement signed in 1960. Under this agreement, some $52.5 million was made available to Greek citizens who had been persecuted by the Nazis "because of their race, beliefs, or ideology."

But even in Germany, experts on international law disagree on whether the 1960 settlement excludes subsequent claims by individuals who could be classified as victims of crimes against humanity. One legal expert, Fritz Kohler, said today the Greek case could lead to a landmark decision. He said: "A ruling allowing the claims because the killings were a crime against humanity could encourage new claims by hundreds and perhaps thousands of individuals."