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Greece: Athens May Seize German Property To Pay For War Crimes

  • Roland Eggleston

A Greek village expects to hear this week whether it can force a compulsory auction of two buildings in Athens owned by the German government and use the money to pay compensation to the relatives of villagers executed by German soldiers during World War II. Germany fears that victory for the villagers would open the way for dozens of other law suits. It is arguing that the claims were satisfied in an overall settlement reached in 1961 and cannot be re-opened.

Munich, 17 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A Greek village looking for compensation for the Nazi slaughter of more than 200 of its residents has proposed auctioning two pieces of German property in Athens as a way of providing cash for restitution. One of the buildings that may be seized and sold this week is the Athens headquarters of the Goethe Institute, Germany's prestigious agency for promoting its culture in foreign countries. The other is the German Archaeological Institute. Both buildings are in central Athens and can be expected to sell for a high price if put up for auction.

The auction is set for 19 September, but the Greek Justice Ministry told RFE/RL today it was still uncertain whether the government would allow it to go ahead. The responsibility for that decision lies with Prime Minister Kostas Simitis and Justice Minister Michaelis Stathopoulos.

Elena Koskotas, a government spokeswoman, says Greece must take into account its good relations with Germany as well as the demands of its own citizens and the decisions of the courts. She said the officials believe a political settlement would be the best solution, but she gave no indication of how it could be achieved:

"The Justice Ministry, and also the prime minister, believe that an argument like this between two friendly countries should be resolved through a political settlement. We believe an appropriate compromise can be found if there is goodwill on both sides."

The demand for compensation comes from Distomo, a village of about 5,000 people located 100 kilometers northwest of Athens and close to Delphi. There, on 10 June 1944, a Nazi police regiment executed 218 civilians in retaliation for an attack by the Greek resistance. Among those killed were a two-month-old baby and an 86-year-old man.

The commander of the Nazi regiment was later reprimanded by the German army for faking a report claiming those executed had been involved in the attack by the Greek resistance.

The massacre at Distomo is not forgotten in Greece. Commemoration ceremonies are held on 10 June every year in towns throughout the country. In Distomo, residents and officials gather at the village mausoleum, where the bones of the dead are displayed. Since 1990, the German embassy in Athens has sent a diplomat to attend the ceremony and place a wreath in front of the mausoleum.

The villagers of Distomo, most of whom work in the local bauxite mine, have been seeking compensation since the end of the war. In 1997, a local court awarded 295 relatives of the massacre victims a total of $25.6 million.

Germany, however, refused to pay. It argued that the verdict breached the principle of state immunity provided by international law. According to the law, private individuals may not institute proceedings against a foreign state.

Germany also argued that all claims by Greek victims of the Nazis had already been satisfied in a bilateral agreement signed in 1961. At that time, Germany made a payment of roughly $52 million to satisfy all past and future claims.

But Ioannis Stamoulis, the lawyer for the Distomo residents, says the village received nothing from this settlement. He says: "The official reason given was that the killings in Distomo were part of normal war operations and not the result of Nazi persecution."

Distomo rejected Germany's refusal to pay and went back to the courts. In May of this year, an Athens high court again found in favor of the villagers and awarded the relatives 9.4 billion drachmas, or about $23.2 million, in compensation. Germany again said it would not pay.

Distomo lawyers then applied for legal permission to seize the two prestigious German properties in central Athens and put them up for auction. If sold, the money will be used to pay compensation to those in Distomo and perhaps in other villages as well.

The villagers won permission to proceed and the auction was set for 19 September. But in an emergency court hearing on 14 September, the German embassy won an appeal that puts the auction in doubt.

The court ruled that, in accordance with Greek civil procedure, the German properties cannot be forcibly auctioned without the authorization of the Greek justice minister.

The Justice Ministry today told RFE/RL that Justice Minister Sathopoulos is still weighing his options and consulting with Prime Minister Simitis about a possible political solution.

An Athens newspaper reported the government was considering granting diplomatic immunity to all German properties in Greece to protect them from being seized and sold to repay the victims of Nazi war crimes.

In Berlin today, the foreign office said Germany is worried about the ramifications if the Distomo residents win their case. The way would then be opened for other villages in which civilians were executed to seek compensation.

Distomo lawyer Stamoulis confirmed today that a large number of new cases have already been filed at the Supreme Special Court in anticipation of a Distomo victory. He said the court is expected to begin hearings in a few days to decide whether Germany can claim state immunity in these new cases.

Stamoulis says a possible solution to the problem might be found in a new financial claim made only a week ago by Simitis. The prime minister said Greece was seeking compensation for a loan of $3.5 billion which the Greek National Bank was forced to give the Nazi Reichsbank in 1942.

Discussions of the Greek demand have yet to begin. But the Greek media have suggested this money could be used to satisfy the demands of residents in Distomo and other villages. Athens has yet to comment officially on the proposal.