Legal versus Moral Responsibility

By , May 30, 2014 8:59 pm

by Costas Tzanos, PhD.

On his three day visit to Greece starting March 5, 2014, the German president Joachim Gauck visited the village of Ligiades, near the town of Ioannina, where German troops massacred 92 of its 96 residents in 1943, and the Ioannina synagogue where he met the only two surviving members of the Jewish community from 1944, Esthir Cohen and Janet Sevi.

Over 90 villages and towns suffered the same fate as Ligiades during the German occupation of Greece from 1941 to 1944. Over 1 700 villages were looted and burned, many of them to the ground, as reprisals for the Greek resistance. The whole country was plundered and starved. During WWII Greece lost 13% of its population mostly from starvation and German war crimes.

Around 60 000-65 000 Greek Jews were deported to Auschwitz, most of them from Thessaloniki and Ioannina. In September 1944, only 2 469 Greek Jews were still alive in Auschwitz.

On March 25, 1944, 1 725 men, women, and children from the Jewish community of Ioannina were piled on trucks for the journey to Auschwitz – among them 17-year-old Esthir and her family. Less than 50 survived, among them Esthir and her sister.

Germany, in addition to charging Greece exorbitant sums as occupation expenses, obtained forcibly from Greece a loan (occupation loan) of $ 3.5 billion. Hitler himself had recognized the legal character of this loan and had given orders to start the process of its repayment.

War reparations awarded at the Paris Conference of 1946 were deferred by the London Agreement of 1953 “until the final settlement of the problem of reparation.” Greece has demanded payment of the war reparations, awarded by the Paris Conference of 1946, as well as of the forced occupation loan, in 1945, 1946, 1947, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1974, 1987, and 1995. Germany has steadfastly refused payment. German officials make public statements like: “there is no legal base for Greece to claim reparations from Germany. The legal reasons are complex and I would not like to elaborate..”; “as Germans we always accepted our moral responsibility for what happened in Greece”; “the question of war reparations is no longer an issue” ; “this matter has been resolved long ago” .

In an interview to the Greek newspaper Kathimerini and on the question of WWII reparations, president Gauck said: “During World War II, Greece suffered an especially violent German occupation…. Greek Jews were systematically exterminated, and Greeks were shot, hanged, killed in a brutal manner, and many Greeks died of hunger. This … burdens us with a particular responsibility…I would not like to discuss the legal issue of reparations, but allow me to say this: We do not want to deny our moral responsibility nor relativize it… However, although many Germans are aware of the crimes in other countries, events in Greece escape them to a large degree. Education on … the persecution of Greeks is, in my opinion, the most important task in the immediate future.”

The president of Greece, Karolos Papoulias, raised the pending issue of war reparations and the repayment of the occupation loan with the visiting German president. In response, president Gauck acknowledged that Germany carried a “moral debt” for massacres committed by German soldiers in anti-guerrilla reprisals, but reiterated that Germany was not willing to discuss reparations. “I believe the legal way for it is closed,” he said.

It has been reported in the Greek press that president Papoulias responded to president Gauck that it was “a paradox” that Greeks are saddled with painful austerity measures and commitments while Germany refuses to discuss “responsibilities” arising from WWII. “Your position that ‘there is no issue’ is something that you claim. It cannot be unilaterally projected as a final conclusion.”

On the issue of reparations to Greece and on the repayment of the occupation loan, as president Gauck said, the Germans are accepting “moral responsibility” and their “moral debt”. What do “moral responsibility” and “moral debt” mean here?

Accepting moral responsibility, as opposed to legal responsibility, means acceptance of blame or praise for taking or failing to take a moral action while there was no legal obligation to take this action. “For example, one who encounters a car accident may be regarded as worthy of praise for having saved a child from inside the burning car, or alternatively, one may be regarded as worthy of blame for not having used one’s mobile phone to call for help.”(… )

The Germans are accepting the moral blame (moral responsibility) for the war crimes committed during WWII in Greece, for the destruction of the country, and for the loan that they forcibly extracted. But payment of the reparations and of the occupation loan is a legal obligation dictated by the Agreement of the Paris Conference of 1946 and the London Agreement of 1953, as well as by the contractual provisions of the forced loan. This is not a moral obligations that can be satisfied by acceptance of moral blame.

The London Agreement of 1953 dealt not only with the WWII reparations, but also with reparations due from WWI, which had been cancelled by Hitler. Germany made its last payment to American claimants of WWI reparations on October 3, 2010, nearly 92 years after the end of this war (… ).

In 2010, Greece signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that specifies in detail the criteria to be met for the release of bailout funds. Since then German officials are consistently reminding to the Greeks their obligations arising from the MoU, which as Peer Steinbrueck, the last Social Democratic Challenger of Angela Merkel, said has imposed on Greece a “deadly dose of austerity”( since 2009 Greece’s GDP has dropped by 27 percent and unemployment has grown to 28%).

One of the fundamental principles of justice is that of symmetry. As president Papoulias alluded to president Gauck, while Germany demands from Greece to fulfill its debt obligations, does not justice also require Germany to fulfill her legal obligations arising from the war reparations and the forced occupation loan?

Source: Posted in Daily Kos, April 22, 2014.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.