In 1941, Nazi Germany launched a blitzkrieg attack against Greece to assist Mussolini’s forces, who had been unable to get past their Hellenic Army. Months later, the country would be defeated and would be occupied for over three years. The Nazi occupation nearly eliminated Greece’s Jewish population, and destroyed their economy.
Germany transferred 51% of Greece’s public and private stock to German ownership, destroyed nearly 900 villages and caused 300,000 Greeks to starve. The country received little time to recover when liberated by the Allies, as civil war broke out between the communist and nationalist resistance groups. Britain attempted to establish a coalition government between the two groups, but when the communist side refused to disband their guerrilla army, it fell apart and the communists began invading Greece. They were defeated by British forces in 1945, and an election was held where a pro-monarchy government prevailed due to the communist’s refusal to vote.
Greece wasn’t able to address the damage done by Hitler’s Germany until 1960, and they received 115 million Deustchmarks, a fraction of what they felt was owed, but agreed to not pursue any further demands. However, that was until the election of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in 2015, who last week announced that he would renew the country’s demand for reparations from Germany.
Tsipras claimed in 2015 that Germany owed $303 billion in reparations, which German politicians have scoffed at claiming that they’ve already met their obligation and that the demands were a distraction to Greece’s poor credit. Since the country is exiting its bailout for a near bankruptcy in 2010, the PM felt that “this time we must not allow the issue to lie dormant … this time we will insist.”
This situation echoes the United States with Sen. Cory Booker introducing a bill to study giving reparations to descendants of slaves. Both involve events where the perpetrators and victims have long been dead, and are extremely controversial, with many claiming to have had the debts settled.
Both of these historical events have done untold damages to their respective communities that, to a degree, are still being felt today. Supporters of reparations for American slaves claim that the Africans brought to the country created massive economic value for which they were never compensated and that there’s already a precedent for giving reparations to communities wronged by governments. Members of the Greek parliament feel likewise uncompensated, the most egregious offense being €11 billion in interest never received on a loan that the Nazis forced Greece to give.
A precedent for paying reparations has been repeatedly reinforced: the United States has given them to Japanese Americans in 1988 for their internment during World War II, and to Native American nations on at least 6 occasions from 1927-1990, while Germany has paid war reparations to 6 countries as well as unpaid labor and material services to the Allied nations. However, the longer after the atrocity, these payments become more difficult to determine and to argue for.
On the opposing side, it’s argued that paying reparations would create bigger divides and resentment between the two parties. According to Megan McArdle of the Washington Post part of the issue is that paying reparations attempts to make a personal exchange in a monetary one explaining that “Importing market logic into a longer-term, less impersonal relationship makes no sense, and in fact, it tends to sunder those relations. Which is why you don’t try to make up for all the times you punched your little sister by laying a check on the table at Thanksgiving.”
McArdle claims that this reparational transaction can work with individual nations (so Germany and Greece would be fine), but not between a government and its citizens because the nations can choose to no longer associate once the money has been paid, but citizens can’t necessarily leave the country once they receive reparations. To me, this argument is flawed as Greece and Germany will surely want to do trade or have their citizens be able to work in either country, but the division and resentment McArdle warns against can definitely still happen between nations.
From a libertarian perspective, there’s no black and white answer to whether reparations should be paid for victims of authoritarian governments. Most would agree that if someone was wronged that the criminal party should be obligated to make the victim whole in some sense, so a government compensating people for having their liberties stripped could make sense.
Then the issue becomes centered around the method that a government would distribute reparations. Unfortunately, this justice would surely be funded through taxation of the nation’s citizens, punishing people who had nothing to do with the crime, and ultimately being a less meaningful gesture; reparations receivers will essentially be giving their tax money back to themselves. Of course, these governments could borrow from another nation to fund this, but that would also mean a massive addition to their national debt, which could potentially devalue the currency and effects other nations whose debt may be in that home countries currency.
Simply put, reparations, reasonably, should occur shortly after the horrific event they are meant to repair because the longer it waits, the harder it is to justify. On the other hand, the effects of these events may not be clear until decades after the conflict. While the debate may never find a definitive answer, the fact that it exists should serve as a warning to continually fight government’s abuses of power and realize that their incentive to stop is the citizenry, for when a nation’s government gets punished, in reality it is its citizens who get punished.
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