Greece: Nazi antiquities looting and austerity politics

I tend not to discuss historical cases of illicit excavation or illicit possession of antiquities because, almost by definition, they are not urgent. Also, almost inevitably, they have been severely politicised (and pushed into public consciousness through their politicisation); it can be difficult to discuss them without spreading at least part of the underlying political message. One such example is the Nazis’ theft and looting of artworks and artefacts from Greece.

Background: Greek representations of contemporary Germany as Nazi Germany

Crisis-driven, spiraling Greek nationalism’s enemies include Germany (which is a little ironic considering Greek ultranationalists’ heroes…); but, across the political spectrum, anti-austerity Greeks from street protesters to national newspapers have portrayed contemporary Germany as a Nazi state, German politicians as Nazi leaders and ‘German policy’ (memorandum-based austerity) as the Holocaust.

Apart from being universally grotesque and immediately offensive to Germans (especially specific Germans with whom Greeks need to have a civilised dialogue), this History Channel-surpassing obsession with the Nazis distracts people from unsustainable and dangerous problems within Greek society, and absolves the sheer reckless and outright criminal Greek political and business class of responsibility. (It is no surprise from the Greek media, the third corner of the country’s triangle of power and sin.)

Further background: belief in a manufactured crisis in a country that is owed money

One argument within the anti-austerity campaign is that Greece should not pay off its debts; and, whether that’s because it’s an odious debt (and part of Greece’s debt is an undemocratically-generated debt, for which the people are not responsible) or because repayment is simply impossible without turning Greeks into an indentured labour force for generations (or even if they are turned into a bonded nation), it may be reasonable. Another argument is that, not only does Greece not owe money from its odious debt, but actually Greece is owed money; specifically, Greece is owed money by Germany for the Nazi occupation.

In what may be the least surprising leak of all time, the Greek Finance Ministry’s newly-commissioned “top secret” assessment of Germany’s debts to Greece found its way into public view. Allegedly (though, bafflingly, Greece included the First World War in its calculations), Germany owes Greece 162 billion euros: €108b for infrastructural damage; €54b for occupation loans, which the Nazi state forced the vassal state to lend to fund its own occupation; including interest, Germany would owe Greece more than a trillion euros.

Seemingly this ignores the U.S. Marshall Plan’s substitution of Germany’s reparation debts to Greece; and evidently it ignores the fact that Italy should bear that debt too for the fascist regime’s role in Greece’s occupation; but at the very least the occupation loan claim may be valid and worth hundreds of billions of euros. Furthermore, some Greeks argue that Germans owe them ‘much more than the occupation loans‘.

Incalculable loss: cultural destruction and national debt

Research has documented that the occupying forces ‘destroyed 15 monasteries… and 300 churches [καταστράφηκαν 15 μοναστήρια… και 300 εκκλησίες]’; German Nazi forces destroyed 87 historic places (archaeological sites and historical buildings) and plundered 42 cultural heritage sites (archaeological sites and museums), Italian Fascist forces destroyed 39 and plundered 33, and Bulgarian Tsarist forces destroyed 3 and plundered 9.

In Illicit Trade of Greek Antiquities by Germans during Occupation (or Germans’ Antiquities Thieves in Greece during the Occupation [Αρχαιοκαπηλίες των Γερμανών στην Ελλάδα επί Κατοχής]), George Lekakis has identified 8,500 Nazi-looted antiquities and artworks, ‘the value of which amounts to more than $1 trillion‘ (or €1.5t). Since ‘very few have been returned to Greece [[ε]λάχιστες έχουν επιστραφεί στην Ελλάδα]’, Lekakis argues that, ‘besides occupation loans, Germans owe us more than 1 trillion [euros] for looted ancient items’.

Yet no Greek government has claimed compensation vigorously.

In light of the recent dramatic economic developments in our country, the common conviction is that the time has come for the stirring up of this major case, particularly since German reparations represent a very large part of current Greek debts.

Ωστόσο, ουδεμία ελληνική κυβέρνηση έχει διεκδικήσει σθεναρά τις αποζημιώσεις.

Υπό το πρίσμα των τελευταίων δραματικών οικονομικών εξελίξεων στη χώρα μας, κοινή πεποίθηση είναι ότι έχει έλθει η ώρα για ανακίνηση της μείζονος αυτής υπόθεσης. Πόσω μάλλον, αφού οι γερμανικές αποζημιώσεις αντιστοιχούν σε ένα πάρα πολύ μεγάλο μέρος του σημερινού ελληνικού χρέους.

It is undeniable that Lekakis is exploiting German guilt, and it seems like he expects or hopes for financial reparations instead of property restitution, but he does offer that choice: ‘It is a matter of objects that they are obliged to return. Otherwise, they must compensate Greece with 1.5 trillion euros. [Πρόκειται για αντικείμενα που οφείλουν να επιστρέψουν. Σε διαφορετική περίπτωση, οφείλουν να αποζημιώσουν την Ελλάδα με 1,5 τρισεκατομμύριο ευρώ.]’ Some of the most enthusiastic reporting is myopically focused on the money.

And the money itself is a questionable issue. Ignoring the constant variations in the estimates themselves, reporters appear to readily accept and relay the estimates: ‘If those items were sold today in auction houses, their value would reach €1 trillion’. If those 8,500 items sold for €1,000,000,000,000 or €1,500,000,000,000, they would be worth more than €117m or €176m each

Cultural property protection through emergency preparedness

The condition of Greek archaeology (as a material and as a profession) under Nazi occupation is important, but there are better ways for it to be taught, for example through the Buried Statues of War [τα Θαμμένα Αγάλματα του Πολέμου]. Notably, the wartime damage to and militarisation of the National Archaeological Museum was done not by the Nazis but by the British during their occupation.

4 Comments to “Greece: Nazi antiquities looting and austerity politics”

  1. I don’t quite get what the writers view point is? It seems quite northern european, the lazy greeks kind of stuff. Which, frankly, we have heard and it’s boring – the stereo typical pro capital & dehumanising argument. It’s also not true and it’s so easy for outsiders to make this assumption. If Greece was to have austerity until it pays off it’s debt – that would go way beyond 2020 – and would totally destroy society in the process as well as giving strength to an already strong fascist core in Greece. Is that really the outcome Germany wants? Quite a contradiction if you ask me. And the historical debt that Germany owes is perfectly valid – it hasn’t been bought up before because the parities before Syriza were pro-austerity. It’s brave it’s come up now. It doesn’t mean it’s against Germany, not at all. It’s a valid point that the state of Germany should answer too. I suggest the writer of this article speaks up a bit more if he or she is to make a point. It kinda seems as though the writer has not got the confidence to say what he or she truly feels….just say it?


    • Having lived, studied and worked as well as holidayed in Greece, I know very well that Greeks are hard-working. Where on earth did you find anything that implied that I believed that they were lazy or otherwise stereotypically immoral?

      It would be pretty impossible for me to be either pro-capital or pro-austerity – I’ve spent most of the past four plus years unemployed and the rest low-waged and insecurely-employed.

      I posted this long before Syriza came to power; criticised ultranationalists and the (pro-austerity) political and business class; agreed that Greece was burdened with odious debt; condemned the triangle of power and sin (which is, as you can see from the link, a phrasing that I took from Alexis Tsipras); said that the loan claim might be valid; and argued that it was unacceptable to turn Greek citizens into indentured labourers through perpetual indebtedness. If that is an intolerably biased “northern European” attitude, I really will lose hope for “southern European” reason.

      My perfectly clearly expressed points were that it is not wise to call someone a Nazi while asking them for help; though it received some, if Greece were making a genuinely moral case instead of a political play, it would demand more reparations from Bulgaria and Italy as well as Germany; and bullshit valuations of thousands of antiquities as worth a hundred million plus each, in order to claim a trillion plus debt from Germany to Greece, are bullshit.

      The activists – and now officials – may appear patriotic to some other Greeks. But, to everyone else, they appear offensive, willing to exploit dark history to guilt-trip supposed friends and partners when it is politically convenient, and willing to make up numbers to suit their case. It may help them consolidate a narrative of victimhood that is received well by a domestic audience, but it doesn’t help them consolidate empathy from an international audience. And it feeds the ultranationalist movement, of which Yanis Varoufakis has rightly and urgently warned. So, when Greek activists – and now officials – do these things, they sabotage not only themselves but also the citizens whom they claim to be defending.


    • The point is that the sum which is demanded has nothing to do with reality, but is a political tool in order to exort money from Germany. Greece can’t just say “this was destroyed in WWII, and so many people died, and that is the interest, so that’s what Germany owes us”. They first have to consider which part of the destruction was actually done by Germany, and which happened because of Italy’s initial attack (it was, after all, not Germany who had a beef with Greece, it was Italy, Germany only attacked after Italy lost and demanded help from their allies) or during the occupation afterwards. Then they have to consider the reparations Germany already paid, as well as the money which Germany paid to the Greece government to compansate Holocaust victims and the money Germany paid on Greek Holocaust victims in addition to it. And they have to decide if the illegal zero interest loan Germany took was an act of theft (in which case it would fall under the reparations, which were already discussed multiple times), or if is was a loan (in which case it was a zero interest loan, meaning Germany would owe Greece exactly the sum they took out, not one cent more).
      And if Greece keeps insisting on Germany being responsible for this or that cathedral, the logical conclusion is not that Germany pays them money, even if the acknowledge their guilt. They can just as well simply built up said cathedral again instead of giving the Greek government money which they then spend on paying off their debt.
      In short, it is poor move to claim a fairy tale sum for something which happened 70 years ago as some desperate move to get an agreement.


  2. Swanpride, you are totally ignorant and you should never make such idiotic comments.
    Did you live in Greece during the Hitleric Occupation? Who sent the Italians to Greece?
    How much destruction and theft the so called British gentlemen acquired from Greece ?

    Swanpride you should had leaved under Hitler.

    Would you have been able to utter what you utter about Greece?

    Think and picture the beheaded Greeks being paraded by the Germans down the streets!

    Just picture the children, mothers, fathers, grandparents dying from starvation.

    Better off picture your own family go through that German brutality. Perhaps you might understand.

    Those soldiers were not only barbarians, they were hyenas and hungry lions storming into the houses
    To kill the Greeks, the uncivilized Hellenes, the Hellenes that gave them their civilization, that was the
    “Thank You.”

    I witnessed the German soldier ready to kill my mother in front of her children and thanks to the Austrian
    Doctor who had his office and lived in our house saved my mother. The barbarian was so angry being scolded by the physician that shot at another direction instead.

    The German cruelty had to be repeated even that last day before they departed. The bells rang to go to the Square. Theygave 5 minutes to go home and get whatever because the fires will start immediately. Soldiers were placed
    In all areas to start the fireworks!

    My mother placed us far away and covered us with a blanket and we watched that furious inferno destroying our lives.
    The whole town was in flames. That inferno started and never stopped. Our town was shuttered, a picture of Pompeii!
    Pompeii was naturally destroyed. Our town was Germanic destroyed!
    That was the German “Thank You.”


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