The Beast Behind the Classical Mask: The German Occupation of Greece, 1941-1944

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Greek officials return the Greek flag to the Acropolis after the departure of Nazi German troops from the country in October 1944. Wikipedia


Greek economists and Greek government documents show that German atrocities and violence in World War II occupied Greece exceed 1 trillion dollars.[1] Yet try searching the Internet about the German debt to Greece and you ger the Greek debt to the Germany dominated European Union and America’s International Monetary Fund. The entire historical experience is mixed up in favor of killer Germany. This bloodbath started in April 1941 with the occupation of Greece by Nazi troops.

The debt of the West to Greece

Few people could have foreseen the beast behind the classical mask of the West. The British scholar W.R. Inge wrote in 1921 that there was no way the Europeans could do without the Greeks. “Without what we call our debt to Greece,” he says, “we should have neither our religion nor our philosophy nor our science nor our literature nor our education nor our politics. We should be mere barbarians. Our civilization is a tree which has its roots in Greece…[our civilization] is a river…but its head waters are Greek.”[2]

A few years later, in 1935, on the eve of World War II, the scholar E. M. Butler spoke about the “tyranny” and “devastating glory of the Greeks.” She explained: “Greece has profoundly modified the whole trend of modern civilization, imposing her thought, her standards, her literary forms, her imagery, her visions, and dreams wherever she is known. But Germany is the supreme example of her triumphant spiritual tyranny. The Germans have imitated the Greeks more slavishly; they have been obsessed by them more utterly, and they have assimilated them less than any other race. The extent of the Greek influence is incalculable throughout Europe; its intensity is at its highest in Germany.”[3]

No doubt, Butler mirrored the conventional wisdom of the interwar period, that Europe was recovering from its first slaughterhouse war fought in the trenches and in the deleterious fumes of chemical weapons. And what a better and soothing idea than Greek influence debarbarizing the people of the West, including Germans. But the unexplainable in Butler’s assessment is the making of Germans Philhellenes of unmatched passion. Yet, Butler warned that all this German obsession with things Greek was superficial. The Germans, she said, “have assimilated them less than any other race.”

The barbarian ferocity of the Germans in Greece

The Germans proved how fake was their Greek obsession. They invaded Greece in April 1941 in order to assist their defeated ally Benito Mussolini. But once in charge in Greece, their barbarian ferocity took over. They resented seeing alive Greeks whose ancient civilization was shining in every educated person, including them. They also resented that, of all Europeans, the Greeks had won the first victory of WWII. The Greeks defeated the Italian allies of the Germans. The Germans decided to depopulate Greece. They smashed the country, hanging, shooting, and starving its people. To make starvation more effective, they killed most of the domesticate animals in the Greek countryside. Moreover, the Germans looted Greek archaeological treasures and even forced the Greek government to give the occupying force a loan.

Germany has been getting away with murder

More than 80 years after the German holocaust in Greece, nothing has been settled. America embraced Nazi Germany for its scientists and primarily because of the fear of communist Soviet Union. The American shield dramatically reduced the German debt to the rest of Europe its troops had devastated. Small but wrecked Greece was left out in the cold. And how convenient that its victim, Greece, suddenly, in early twenty-first century, becoming the debt pariah of Europe and America, all the world talking about those lazy Greeks who had become the beggars of Europe. At the same time, Europeans and others had accepted German propaganda and lies that Germany had no obligations towards the country they had almost driven to extinction. For example, in April 2012, we hear that “German officials said Germany had already paid reparations [to Greece] as part of a 1946 agreement and that the matter was closed.” In addition, in February 2012, the International Court of Justice, in The Hague, declared no WWII victim had the right to sue Germany.

The anti-Greek propaganda was so successful that it confused Niki Kitsantonis, a Greek reporter writing for the New York Times. In April 2012, she questioned the legitimacy of the Greek government to demand reparations from its German torturers. She suggested that the Greek claims were for “domestic consumption.” And given that Greece in 2012 was a debt prisoner, asking Germany for reparations might be a “risky gamble.” After all, Greece was “more dependent than ever on the goodwill of its European partners.”

Talking of the “goodwill” of the European partners of Greece was wrong and verging on grave misunderstanding of rising barbarism in the West. What goodwill among “partners” colonizing Greece? Their secret excuse for such hateful behavior was selfishness. They were serving the interests of German and French and American banks.

The waterboarding of Greece

The EU-IMF partners did more than divert Greek EU-IMF loans to their banks. They imitated the Nazi tyranny of Greece. They subverted the country’s sovereignty, sold Greek state assets to foreigners as if Greece had been defeated in a colonial war. They almost starved the Greek people. Talk of reparations from Germany while Germany headed EU sounded extraterrestrial. It “has elicited an emotional outpouring in Greece, where six years of brutal recession and harsh austerity measures have left many Greeks hostile toward Germany…. It is not hard to see why the issue is so attractive to many Greeks. It offers, if nothing else, a chance to take Germany down a peg. The last six years have hit Greek pride hard. Some here feel that the country’s officials are merely puppets these days, imposing whatever solutions the country’s creditors — the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, and the European Central Bank — come up with.”

By 2015, the Greeks wanted much more than taking Germany down a peg. An explosive mixture of misinformation, refusal of the lenders to reduce the debt, and European and international humiliation of Greece exploded. The new Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras followed the dictate of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and denied the referendum decision to exit the toxic EU. At the same time the wild guesses of the International Monetary Fund came under question. Its “analysis of the Greek economic potential… verged on fantasy.” The IMF was saying Greece could magically grow its economy, no matter the crushing burden of debt. Reality in Greece was invisible to IMF: That “more than a quarter of the work force is unemployed, some three-quarters of bank loans are nonperforming, tax payments are routinely postponed or avoided and the government finances itself by not paying its bills…. the Greek economy has shrunk by a quarter. Its pensioners have been impoverished. Its banks are closed. That counts as suffering consequences… Germany, in fact, understands moral hazard backward. The standard definition refers to lenders; covering their losses will encourage them to make bad loans again. And that is, let us not forget, exactly what Europe’s creditors have done.”

Yanis Varoufakis, the minister of finance in the Tsipras administration, resigned after six months in office. He admitted Germany did Greece in. He said in 2015, “my conviction is that the German finance minister [Wolfgang Schäuble] wants Greece to be pushed out of the single currency to put the fear of God into the French and have them accept his model of a disciplinarian eurozone.”

The German holocaust of Greece

By 2019, the waterboarding of Greece heightened the Greek demands for “Germany to cough up billions of euros in damages for the Nazi occupation of the country in World War Two, an issue Berlin says was settled long ago. Greece suffered hugely under Nazi German rule and a parliamentary commission in 2016 put the cost at more than 300 billion euros.”

The costs of Nazi German brutality in Greece are incalculable. Athanasios Sbarounes, Greek representative to the Paris Convention for Reparations, November 4, 1945, said that Germany, Italy, and Bulgaria looted and vandalized Greece so much they precipitated massive famine, disease, and death. They nearly wiped out the country. Half-a-million Greeks died, 75 percent of the children suffered from serious illness; thousands of villages were burned, and several cities were depopulated; 23 percent of houses and buildings wrecked; all railroads and other forms of public transport completely destroyed; harbors blown up; industry, machinery, and merchant ships looted or destroyed; domesticated animals eaten or shot. The occupiers, but especially the Germans, destroyed the economy and life of Greece.[4]

Leonidas Chrysanthopoulos, former senior Greek government diplomat, agrees Germany intentionally wrecked Greece. He spoke twice to the Forum of the International Hellenic Association in 2023. He put the total price of German looting and destruction of occupied Greece at more than a trillion euros. In addition, Germans in Greece looted archaeological treasures. In 1946, the Greek government described 8,500 looted antiquities and 460 plaques the Germans shipped to Germany. None of these treasures have returned to Greece. The material damages in looting antiquities, Chrysanthopoulos said, was about 15.8 billion euros.

Chrysanthopoulos says that Greece received from Germany 0.3 percent of the estimated costs of the damage it caused in Greece during its occupation of the country for 3-and-a-half years, from April 1941 to October 1944. He is convinced Germany will not pay its debts to Greece. “Germany’s overall attitude to the payment of reparations to Greece,” he says, “boils down to refusal to pay or paying the minimum where refusal to pay is impossible because of political pressure like it happened with the reparations it paid for World War I crimes. Germany refuses to admit the money that it has to pay is compensation or reparation. Rather it presents the reparations as voluntary contributions. Germany describes its payments to the EU budget or NATO as compensation for war debts.”

Chrysanthopoulos is urging the Greek government to go international with its demands that Germany has a moral and political obligations to repay its debt and offer reparations for its heinous behavior in Greece during World War II. Send summaries of its case against Germany to the United Nations, the EU, US, China, and other members of the international community. If international pressure fails, Chrysanthopoulos says, confiscate German property in Greece. I would add, shut down the German archaeological school in Athens and terminate diplomatic relations with Germany.

Enough is enough. Germans must realize that, despite their efforts, they cannot get away with murder. Reparations are basically a warning to the future generations, that crime does not pay. More than 3,500 years ago, Homer recognized that those causing damages must pay a fine in order to protect future generations (Iliad 3.455-461).

American support for Germany and American power behind the scenes, is probably encouraging the hubris of Germany. That is bad news for the future. If Germany really gets away with murder, future generations of Germans are certain to repeat that murder.

1. The most recent published collection of Greek diplomatic documents about Germany’s barbarism in Greece during World War II appeared in 2019. The 800-page book came from 100,000 pages of documents in the archives of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The book certainly illuminate the dark times of the German occupation of Greece. The editor, Ares Radiopoulos, is a diplomat stationed in the Greek embassy in Berlin. His hopes, and those of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, include broader understanding of the history of the crucial years, 1941-1944, when Germany occupied Greece and looted or used whatever resources the country had for its racist and imperial war: Ares Radiopoulos, ed., The Claim of the German Debt and Reparations Towards Greece (Athens: Nephele, 2019, in Greek).

2. W.R. Inge, “Religion” in The Legacy of Greece, ed. Richard Livingstone (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969) 28.

3. E.M. Butler, The Tyranny of Greece over Germany (first published 1935; Boston: Beacon Press, 1958) 6.

4. Ares Radiopoulos, ed.,The Claim of German Debt and Reparation Towards Greece (Athens: Nephele, 2019) 406-409 (in Greek).

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.