Greece's Debt Crisis: Blaming Nazi Germany

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Yves Herman / Reuters

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, Greece's Prime Minister George Papandreou and France's President Nicolas Sarkozy leave the EU Council building after a meeting before an informal summit of European Union heads of state and government in Brussels February 11, 2010.

It's not quite World War III, but tension over Greece's debt crisis has ignited a battle of words between Athens and Berlin, reopening old wounds and raising the specter of Nazism. As Greece struggles to avoid default, and Germans debate whether to bail out their spendthrift neighbor, the question of what, if anything, Germany owes Greece for the past has become a topic of bitter debate and angry mutterings in the southern European nation. The row began with a tongue-in-cheek magazine cover in the German magazine Focus. The Venus de Milo — known by Greeks as the Aphrodite for Milos (and considered by some to be part of the country's looted heritage) — was depicted making a rude gesture, with the caption: "Cheats in the euro Family."

The response in Athens was widespread outrage. A daily newspaper, Eleftheros Typos, retaliated with its own doctored photograph depicting the golden statue atop Berlin's Column of Victory holding up a swastika. On Friday, Greece's oldest consumer group called for a boycott of German products.

Politicians have thundered their outrage too. Greece's deputy prime minister, socialist stalwart Theodoros Pangalos, told the BBC that Germany still owed Greece for stealing its gold during World War II. Parliamentary speaker Filippos Petsalnikos summoned the Germany ambassador to discuss the "offensive" coverage of the crisis in the German press.

But it was Athens' oft-intemperate mayor, Nikitas Kaklamanis, who upped the ante by invoking the ghosts of Greece's war dead: "Ms Merkel, you owe us for Kalavryta, you owe us for Distomo, you owe us 70 billion ($95 billion) for the ruins you left us," he said, referring to two World War II incidents in which hundreds of Greeks were massacred in reprisal attacks by German soldiers.

Germans, for their part, feel they've already paid enough. "A discussion about the past is not helpful at all to solve the problems facing us in Europe today," German Foreign Ministry spokesman Andreas Peschke told Reuters, pointing out that Germany has already paid billions to Greece in the form of official reparations for World War II as well as bilateral and European Union assistance.

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