On January 26, 2015, Alexis Tsipras’ first act as Greece’s newly elected Prime Minister was to visit the memorial site at the Kaisariani rifle range, where 200 Greek communists were executed in 1944 by Nazi occupiers, in retaliation for the killing of a German general by Greek resistance forces. War memorials and commemorations are always politically charged; Tsipras’ visit was immediately interpreted as a defiant message to Germany, the lead European Union member-state that is imposing austerity measures to Greece as part of a billion-euro bailout plan. A few weeks later, on March 10, Tsipras gave a strong speech on “war reparations owed by Germany to Greece.” He started by paying “tribute to the victims of World War II, … the fighters from all over the world, … the fighters of the Greek national resistance.” Two weeks later, on an official visit to Berlin, he took a quick tour of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and wrote the following in the guest book: “Knowledge of history can strengthen us, even if it hurts, so that we work together to ensure that humanity never experiences such pain again.”
Mr. Tsipras makes selective uses of history for economic and political purposes. Defying Germany and demanding monetary compensations seventy years after the war, at a time when his country lies in deep financial crisis, is bold, if not daring. But what his acts, speeches and messages highlight is his silence over another essential aspect of World War II, namely the Holocaust, and how it affected his country.
Missing Memory Work
Greece’s Jewish population numbered 72,000 before World War II, 95 percent of which was swiftly deported and exterminated in Auschwitz and other camps. The Nazi occupiers, under Adolf Eichmann’s leadership, implemented the Final Solution in Greece with the help of greedy local collaborators. While many clergy members of the Greek Orthodox Church can be commended for their acts of bravery and solidarity towards their Jewish brethren, the successive governments – on the left and on the right – did not engage in soul-searching memory work, what the Germans call “Vergangenheitsbewältigung”. They turned their back to the destruction of a Jewish community that had existed for over 2,000 years in Greece and contributed to much of its cultural, economic, political and social development.
Take Aristotle University in Thessaloniki: it was built on the grounds of the vast Jewish cemetery that had been razed by the Nazis and their Greek helpers. Marble headstones with Hebrew characters were used as construction materials. Only in 2014 did the University acknowledge its morbid foundation, and reopened the Jewish Studies Department that had been shut down in 1935. However, the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki will support the operational cost of the department during the first year. Greek authorities have consistently neglected their country’s Jewish heritage, are slow in condemning Anti-Semitism at a time of resurging Nazi sympathies (the Golden Dawn party and other neo-Nazi groups) and conspiracy theories blaming Jews for Greece’s ills.
If Mr. Tsipras wants to sound less opportunistic by trying to use the past to please his constituency, and act more like a leader who remembers the past in order to fix the present and build the future, he should have left a more explicit message at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, with a clear mention of the decimated Jewish community in Greece; he should justify his choice of Panos Kammenos as Defense Minister – a man who has claimed that Jews “don’t pay taxes.” He should respond to the repeated calls from the dwindling Jewish community to protect Jewish sites and prosecute perpetrators of Anti-Semitic acts. He should also take some significant steps (symbolic and concrete) to straighten the historical bill of his country’s past before requesting Germany to pay so-called reparations.
In other words, “coming to terms with the past” and “atoning for past crimes” begins in one’s own backyard. On this topic, clearly, Greece can learn a lot from Germany.