The political symbolism behind Alexis Tsipras' speech on reparations is explored by Kevin Ovenden in his latest dispatch from Athens
It is worth reading in full yesterday's speech by Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras on the incendiary issue of German war reparations to Greece. The issue was not resolved upon the unification of the German state in 1990 and is growing in salience now, for obvious reasons.
It is becoming more combustible too. Tsipras has already said he will mark the 9 May Victory in Europe Day in Moscow. He will be joined by defence minister and leader of the nationalist anti-memorandum (and anti-German) Independent Greeks, Panos Kammenos.
The sacrifice on the Eastern Front in halting and then reversing the Nazi behemoth stands without parallel. It should be beyond question. But as George Orwell put it in '1984': "He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past."
There is now a battle to control the past with all eyes on the future. So 9 May will also be an occasion for contemporary Great Power rivalry. Vladimir Putin will engage in his own land grab on the field of historiography in Moscow. He will merely be acting in counterpoint to Washington, London and Paris (Berlin will have to take a backseat on the day - or rather, Wolfgang Schaeuble and Co would do well to be advised not to come across like Dr Strangelove for at least one day).
We on the internationalist left should enter the lists too. But under our own colours.
The horror of Auschwitz-Birkenau should - and we must insist on it - refute all attempts to relativise the barbarism of fascism through the sleight of hand, ubiquitous in the last 20 years, of equating the Death Camps with the Gulag Archipelago or averring to other crimes of the Stalin period.
It was the likes of Nazi court philosopher Martin Heidegger (at the high intellectual end of the spectrum) who tried first to diminish through inadmissible proportionality the enormity of the Third Reich's depravity.
He likened the forced movement of millions of Germans at the end of the war - and 12 million were uprooted; hundreds of thousands of women were raped - to the bureaucratically-rational and industrialised attempt to wipe out the entire Jewish population of Europe and to liquidate other "Untermenschen" and "racially-impure stock" from the "Leistungsvolksgemeinschaft", the high-performing ethnic community of "Aryans".
The war of "Sein oder nicht Sein" launched against the Soviet Union was an ideological war of extermination - of the "Jewish-Bolshevik bacillus". (Note to Ukrainian prime minister and assorted Eastern European, *mainstream* riffraff: it was Germany which invaded the USSR, not the other way around.)
Nazism was a particularly virulent form of fascism. It is its fascist-ness and genocidal racism (rooted respectively in the experience of Italian anti-Communism and European colonial policy) combined with control gifted it over a modern capitalist state which seeded its barbarity. It was not its German-ness (which is as rooted as much as in anything else in the poetry of Heinrich Heine or Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the revolutions of 1848 and 1918, or the Mother Party of European socialism: the SPD).
German-ness may be thrown onto a particular geographical and cultural terrain. Fascism, eliminationist racism, capitalist crisis, state terror and the amorality of bourgeois Realpolitik float above blood and soil, and are, unfortunately, not out of historical time but firmly of ours.
We on the left should be entirely mindful of the pressing need intelligently to gather the forces to shatter the keystone of permanent austerity (and with it an ever radicalising racism, chauvinism and xenophobia) which is manifest in today's German capitalist class and its chosen political formation, the (less-than-centre) right.
But we have a different history to tell and future to strive for than any of the big capitalist power centres struggling for mastery in today's Europe mired again in crisis - economic, social and state.
Our indictment is of the capitalist system as a whole. We charge it with Auschwitz *and* the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and much else before and since.
In recalling the ravaging of Greece under Italian, German and Bulgarian occupation, we remember also that - thanks to British and US intervention - there was no other country in Europe in which the collaborators with Nazism were so transparently hoisted back into power upon liberation and over the bodies of the national liberation forces who freed the country. (With the partial exception of Austria, where they were never out of power and there was no war of liberation.)
Largesse was heaped upon West Germany during the Cold War. The Greek people were squeezed despite the long boom. The debts owed them by the predecessor to the Bonn-state were set aside. But the US State Department also maintained subventions of billions throughout the 1950s and 1960s to the Greek state and its quisling civil and military corps to bolster its violent potential against the left at home and the pro-Moscow states of the Balkans abroad. Its support continued under the Junta of 1967-74.
So let's not be light-minded or accepting of a subaltern, dependent position in the big arguments which will open up if the reparation question continues to be pushed to the centre of the European political conflict, which is - excepting Ukraine - thus far a war minus the shooting.
And it is likely to become more central. There is an extant legal case which has been judged in the highest court in Greece granting restitution to the victims of a particularly grizzly massacre by the Waffen SS in the village of Distomo.
There is a morass of actions, claim and counter claim surrounding the case involving Italy, Germany and Greece in the international courts and tribunals. But domestically the Greek courts have given a ruling in favour of the victims. It allows for the seizure of German state property in Greece to the value set in the judgement. Naturally, Greek law prefers on the Athens government the right to exercise that seizure or not, as it directly involves relations with other states. Those are the prerogative of the executive, not the courts.
The new Justice Minister, the widely respected jurist Nikos Paraskevopoulos, recently said that he would look at exercising his powers to do so "according to how negotiations progress" with the troika of loan sharks which is leeching the Greek people on account of debt run up by the oligarchs and, not least over the years, the bloated military-security caste.
Tsipras in the Greek parliament yesterday questioned the "morality as well as legality" of the current German federal state hiding behind the Cold War arguments that it could not be held responsible for the actions of the Third Reich because 9 May 1945 and 3 October 1990 together represented a break between two different polities rather than a continuation of one into the other.
He also pointedly rehearsed the commonplace that the iniquitous humiliation of Germany after 1918 led to the rise of Nazism and the return of European-wide war two decades later.
The big themes of European history of the last century, which were meant to have been exorcised by the end of history following 1989, are returning. In those circumstances it would be an admission of impotence for the left to abandon the field by simply cheerleading the attempt, albeit justifiable, by Athens to exert leverage in the fiscal battle over Greece's "national debt".
It's tempting to latch on to the figure of 11 billion euros, which is both the mooted amount owed Greece on account of German seizure of the country's gold reserves in 1943-44 and the shortfall on the coming quarter's current account of the Greek state. We can do better than throwing that out as a cheap line or debating point.
First, is the historic destruction of Jewish Salonika, for example, to be reckoned in euros and cents? So central was the 500 year presence of the Sephardic Jewish population to the jewel of the Aegean, dating from the expulsion of Jew and Muslim alike from Andalusia in 1492, that the city of Thessaloniki was called the Mother of Israel. By that was meant the Mother of the Jewish people, not a parent of the Zionist entity in Palestine.
In fact, before the First World War, in November 1911, the pioneer Zionist David Ben Gurion visited Salonika and called it "a Jewish city that has no equal in the world". He quickly confided to Theodore Herzl and in his diary that unfortunately, for him and for the Zionist project, the Jewish population of the city showed no sympathy at all for uprooting and occupying Palestine.
Indeed, the Greek labour and Communist movement was born in the agitation of Jewish dock and other workers in Salonika, which became part of the Greek state only a year later in 1912. The Salonika bourgeoisie saw in the liquidation of the 55,000-strong Jewish community in 1943 (all but a few thousand were deported to their deaths en route or in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau within a matter of weeks) the elimination of the socialist menace. The anti-Semitism of the Greek radical right is deeply rooted and was an instrument in the violent suppression of the Communist movement in the civil war of 1946-49.
Second, if the great existential questions of the old European continent are to be opened up - whether coexistence and, indeed, the very existence of peoples can be entrusted to the capitalist class and its states - then is the left to absent itself and trivialise the issues to the matter of new concordats between those states in order to throw a patched up blanket over the past?
Third, German capital may be the leading force in Europe. But it is a node in wider alliances. Its allies have their own culpabilities. Should the France of the massacre of 17 October 1961 - when scores of Arab corpses floated down the river of a European capital city without even public demurral - or of today's imposition of a dress code on a European ethno-religious minority be given a carte blanche? As for Britain… where should be begin?
Fourth, do we as a left set our sights so low that we think that all that is possible in escaping the labyrinth of the great crisis of the last few years is to return to something like the earlier period, which incubated it in the first place?
It is relatively easy for the government of Athens, should it choose to, to open up a big confrontation over the reparations question. Looking out on Syntagma Square I can envisage easily the streets packed with hundreds of thousands of people calling for Germany to pay up: "Mrs Merkel, pay your debts!"
It would not have the character of the monstrous anti-Macedonian rallies of the early 1990s - an orgy of chauvinism which of the parliamentary parties only the Communist KKE refrained from joining and the internationalist left rightly and flatly opposed. But it would not either simply be a reenactment of the great demonstration in December 1944 where under the cover of recently arrived British forces the Greek royalist police opened fire on 100,000 demonstrators called out by the left, killing 28 people.
It would open up an intensely contested political field across Europe. It's one the left could be in a position take advantage of, to be sure. But only if we fix ourselves on an internationalist and anti-capitalist course.
That perhaps gives an answer to those friends who were a little puzzled why I and others were so pleased that three comrades in the parliamentary fraction of Die Linke in the German parliament broke ranks last month to vote on internationalist and anti-capitalist lines against the deal imposed on Athens - a deal which turns out to be only showing the Syriza government the instruments of future torture rather than salving any suffering here in Athens. It was and is so important to hear a loud German "Nein" in harmony with an aspirated Greek "Oxi" - "No" to neoliberal austerity.
January brought the historic victory of the left in Greece with Syriza's triumph. It also brought us the grotesque spectacle of the "Nous Sommes Charlatans" parade of the European leaders, plus the ever gatecrashing Binyamin Netanyahu, in Paris. Two contesting trends which will vie across Europe this year were visible.
They clashed - in Germany, of all places - a few weeks later when the fascist-led Pegida racist mobilisations were outnumbered by counter-protests from the left. Angela Merkel, in the time-honoured German conservative tradition dating from Bismarck, feigned aloofness from the Pegida rabble, while continuing to concede to their anti-Muslim crusade.
The project of unifying Europe through capitalist institutions and along neoliberal lines has reheated the nationalist divides and north-south, east-west schisms which we were assured had been banished with the stroke of a pen on the Maastricht, Lisbon and other treaties. It has also deepened the class and social antagonisms within European states, *all* European states.
It is folly in those circumstances to play by the rules of their game, even if it is by way of sympathising with the national underdogs. To do so reduces the left to being a pawn. We should seek to play a different game, by different rules.
It's only a peculiar and unattractive English narrow mindedness that sees in 1945 a great advance. It was rather a great lost opportunity. It is encouraging that, for whatever reasons, sections of the wider left - particularly in Greece - are reassessing the politics of what was possible then when another old order collapsed.
We should raise our sights again from the vantage point of struggle of the exploited and oppressed across the continent as a whole - indeed beyond it.
Reducing that struggle to verbal fusillades at Berlin, therefore, is not a clever manoeuvre to widen the forces on our side. It narrows them. And it risks obscuring with demagogic rhetoric actual disorganised of retreat for the popular masses.
This isn't an ironic plea not to "be beastly to the Germans". It is instead, with so much at stake and also possible, to paraphrase the great German socialist August Bebel and to recognise that in 2015 "anti-Germanism is the anti-austerity politics of fools."
Days of Hope
For an internationalist day packed with reflection on the liberation of Europe in 1945, the hope represented by the Syriza breakthrough and the prospects for progressive politics (following sure to be dismal British general election) then get along if you can to the events organised by Philosophy Football at London's Rich Mix.
Kevin Ovenden's reportage from Greece for radical online media is funded as an act of practical solidarity by the selfstyled 'sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction' aka Philosophy Football.
Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.
More articles from this author
- Corbynism from Below – book review
- The devil and the deep blue sea: Labour and Johnson’s deal
- Israel's electoral stalemate shows Palestine is still the issue
- Corbyn can't win if Labour won't bring down the government
- Greece elections: the right is back in government
- Equating fascism with Brexit is disastrous, irresponsible and gives a hand up to Tommy Robinson
- Students protest in Albania: internationalist alternatives in the Balkans