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.