ATHENS, Greece (AP) — A long-standing debate over whether Germany still owes Greece war reparations stemming from the Nazi occupation erupted anew Thursday in a spat between Greece's foreign minister and Germany's finance minister.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble was quoted by German media as suggesting that Greece should focus on reforming its economy and that the issue of war reparations was definitively closed years ago.
"I consider such comments irresponsible. Much more important than misleading people with such stories would be to explain and spell out the reform path," the Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung quoted him as saying in its Thursday edition. "Greece has already accomplished a lot but also still has a longer way ahead of it. One should not divert attention from that."
In a riposte, Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos said the reparations issue was one for international law to determine, stressing it was completely unrelated to Greece's international financial bailout.
Debt-strapped Greece has been dependent on billions of euros in rescue loans from other European countries and the International Monetary Fund since 2010. Germany, the single largest contributor to the bailout, has been the most vocal in pressing Greece to take increasingly tough austerity measures during the financial crisis, and German official comments have often rankled in Greece.
"There is no relation, nor can there be, between the (financial) reforms being carried out in Greece and the issue of German reparations," Avramopoulos said in a statement. "Besides, German reparations are an issue that the Greek state brought up many years ago. Whether or not this case is closed is determined by international justice."
The issue of war reparations has been a contentious and legally complicated one for decades. Nazi Germany, which occupied Greece from 1941-44, forced Athens to extend it loans and give up gold reserves. There was also the question of the destruction of infrastructure and compensation claims filed by individuals who survived Nazi atrocities.
In 1960, Germany paid Greece 115 million German marks (about $330 million at today's value) and soundly rejects any further calls for reparations, insisting that payment definitively settled all claims.
"Under different agreements, Germany has made reparation and damage payments on a high level. On that backdrop, the government therefore assumes that the question has lost its relevance," Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said Wednesday.
Athens has disputed that German stance for decades but has been reluctant to pursue the matter further in recent years, with Greece dependent largely on Germany and bailout policies leading to increasingly polarized public opinion on both sides.
In early 2010, as Greece slid further into its debt morass, then-Prime Minister George Papandreou, a socialist, said while the issue of German World War II reparations had not been definitively resolved, Athens would not raise it during talks to tackle the country's debt crisis.
Late last year, however, Greece's government, now a three-party coalition led by conservative Antonis Samaras, ordered a special committee at the state accounting office to investigate whether Germany still owes war reparations. The committee finished the secret report last month, sending it to the Foreign Ministry and the state's Legal Council to determine what, if any, action should be taken.
No time frame has been given for the Legal Council's determination.
The weekly newspaper To Vima reported on Sunday that the committee had gone through 190,000 pages of documents to compile the 80-page report.
In mid-2011, Greek hopes for compensation were dealt a blow when the European Court of Human Rights dismissed a lawsuit brought by four Greeks who, as children, had survived one of the worst single atrocities in occupied Greece, the killing of 218 people in the village of Distomo.
The court in Strasbourg said it dismissed the case because German courts, which had previously rejected the claim, had properly taken into account national and international law. Germany had argued that postwar agreements had settled reparation cases and that it was entitled to immunity as a state from individual claims.
Juergen Baetz in Brussels and David Rising in Berlin contributed.