CounterPunchWEEKEND EDITION MARCH 20-22, 2015
Syriza’s Call for German Reparations
Developments are happening faster than the speed of light both in Greece and around the world. It is not often that people are happy to be quickly proven wrong, but luckily the opportunity arrived. Following the Eurogroup agreement and the way it was presented to the public as an end of austerity and as a victory, indicated that the Syriza government is a captive to the Institutions. I expressed the possibility that unless public opposition mounts, Syriza will end up bending to pressure. Recent events, however, suggest that this is untrue. A public mobilization was not necessary, Germany’s humiliating dictates while the Greek public is suffering under the yoke of austerity have already turned the tide and the Syriza Government is resisting Germany’s patronizing and suffocating actions. As argued earlier, Syriza is pursuing a policy of uniting the nation by demanding justice. What goal may it have in mind? What caused this turn? and where may it lead to?
In his speech to the Hellenic Parliament, Prime Minister Tsipras touched on the issue which both some Anglo-Saxon socialists and Conservative Germans would wish would have avoided. Tsipras brought to public view the issue of reparations of World War II, and the fact Germany did not pay back the interest-free forced loan made on the Greek bank by the German occupation forces until today. While some reparations were paid in the 1950s, these were quite small considering the damage and did not include the forced loan. Tsipras demanded reparations from Germany for the immense damage and killing caused during the brutal German occupation as a necessary act to restore historical justice. The parliament decided on the establishment of a committee led by economists and historians who will pursue the issue of reparations. The Greek Justice Minister said that if necessary, he would consider seizing German assets in Greece, including, for example, the Goethe Institutes in Athens and Thessaloniki and even homes of German citizens.
Alexis Tsipras has come under attack by various international socialist groups due to his perceived ultra-nationalism. Some international socialists are uncomfortable with nationalism, due to their hope that working class around the world will unite regardless of national boundaries and due perhaps to Western countries own bitter legacy with nationalism, fascism and colonialism. Others argued that by its appeal to nationalism, “Syriza ignores the class dimensions of the economic crisis” while letting the oligarchs off the hook. However, it is undeniable that the entire Greek people are captive to dictates of the Institutions and that the territory of Greece has come under a German occupation in the past. Furthermore, Syriza pledged to crack down on the oligarchs and has publicly addressed on various occasions the need to provide social justice. What Syriza did not do, however, was to pretend that questions of historical justice are no longer relevant.
The speech given by Tsipras was seen by the World Socialist Website as “the clearest indication of the right-wing and bourgeois character of his government.” However, international socialists often fail to understand that countries that undergo colonization as in the case of many Latin American countries, or a fascist occupation, as was in the case of Greece, have every right to protect their sovereignty. This disagreement is not new. While the Trotsky school objects to “socialism in one country” waiting for a world revolution, Marxism as interpreted by Lenin draws a distinction between revolutionary nationalism of an oppressed nation and reactionary nationalism of a colonialist state. Indeed, the revolutionary governments of Cuba and Venezuela did not shy from appealing to nationalism and to protect their sovereignty. Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro not only spoke using nationalist terms which are bad music for some Western socialists ears, but took actions against imperial and colonial powers operating on their land. Chavez famously said that “we are the Sons of Bolivar”, referring to Simon Bolivar, the revolutionary leader who fought against Spanish colonization. Fidel frequently mentioned Jose Marti, a Cuban nationalist who opposed American colonization of the island. The desire to have a “ a homeland free and sovereign”, as Tsipras said in the parliament, is a legitimate one. It is absurd to presume that oppressed countries or occupied territories cannot appeal to nationalism due to the argument that this may make it more difficult to garner international support.
Tsipras made it clear in his speech in parliament that his vision is a transnational one. Tsipras said that he wishes to “honor the male and female fighters from all over the world who gave their lives for the freedom of their homelands, who gave their lives in order to defeat Nazism”. In so doing, he expressed his solidarity with the Communist and other resistance groups across Europe and with the fighters of the Red Army, who achieved the victory. (Indeed, Tsipras plans to attendthe May 9 victory celebration of the Red Army in Moscow). He therefore clarified that he supports international solidarity against fascism and is not a xenophobic nationalist.
Tsipras then went on to pay tribute to the “fighters of the Greek national resistance, who gave their lives in order to rid the country from the Nazi atrocities and occupation.” Here Tsipras accomplished a double goal. First, providing a quick history lesson to many Greeks who under the formal education system have not always learned about the fascist resistance considering the fact that the UK supported the Greek Nazi collaborators and reactionaries in 1944 and placed them in power. Secondly, incorporating the history of Communist resistance into formal national history even for those who familiar with the past.
Tsipras also highlighted in his speech the fact that the Eurogroup has failed to live up to basic decency. He said that he does not preach to others and would not want to be preached to either, while the country has been patronized by northern Europe that sought to rob it of dignity. “Often lately, when listening to provocative statements from abroad, I am reminded of the famous passage from the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus says: “They see the spike in their brother’s eye, but not the pole in their own,” said Tsipras. It appears that Tsipras realizes full well that the Eurogroup has no plans to accommodate Greece’s demands on debt restructuring and an easing of austerity. Indeed, despite the desperate attempt of Finance Minister Vaourfakis to meet the demands of the Eurogroup, Jeroen Dijsselbloem said that Greece’s reform proposals were insufficient. This led Greece to suggest that a referendum may be introduced in which the public will decide on whether to remain in the Euro. What is clear is that a significant period of time did not need to pass before the contradictions in the Eurogroup agreement came to light and before it became increasingly obvious that the government cannot please both the Institutions and the public.
It appears therefore, that Tsipras’ patience is starting to wear thin and rather than being on the defensive he chose to take the intiative. The question remains, however, whether the demand for reparations is merely an attempt to secure more finances for the country, and achieve a better bargaining position, or whether it is a genuine attempt to mobilize the public behind him so that the population will undergo a process of radicalization and will be ripe for a Grexit. The latter appears to be more likely in light of Greece’s dire economic state, yet only time will dispel the fog on this issue.
Tsipras demands for reparations, however, and the possibility of taking over German assets in Greece, echo other eras of oppressed countries resisting colonization. The grabbing of assets can be seen as a first step towards securing national sovereignty and restoring dignity, before more ambitious social programs are pursued. Cuban President Fidel Castro famously took control of US property in Cuba following aggression taken by the United States following the Revolution. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez seized assets of foreign oil contractors in Venezuela drawing the wrath of the United States, in 2009. Yet Chavez also seized national oil contractors while Tsipras has not attempted to nationalize the banks at home, leaving his long term plans unclear.
Chavez did not shy from nationalist statements against the US, much as Tsipras is seeking to mobilize the nation against a German financial occupation. “Go to hell, Yankee sh*ts”, Chavez said, “here stands a dignified people. Go to hell a hundred times, we are the sons of Bolivar.” Tsipras rallying call against Germany, along with his visit to the memorial in Kaisariani, where 200 Greek partisans were executed, in his first day as prime minister, can be seen as following Chavez steps, even while using softer language.
International socialists have traditionally shied away from nationalism. Their belief was that nationalism serves as a boundary and a barrier for international workers and oppressed groups beyond national borders. And yet for a country to assert its sovereignty, is not narrow nationalism but basic dignity. The concern expressed, however, that a nationalist appeal will dispel international solidarity, is not rooted in history. “Hands-off Venezuela” and “Hands-off Cuba” campaigns have been taking place in Western Europe and the United States, although these respective countries asserted their national sovereignty and revoked a historical examples of patriotism. One must be aware, however, of the danger of a general anti-German sentiment and to this end, it would be wise of Tsipras to mobilize members of the German Leftist party die Linke to his cause.
The question remains to what degree will Tsipras continue to confront Germany despite the risks involved, whether he is doing so in order to prepare the people for a Plan B, and whether he will be willing to compromise after receiving compensation, assuming this is granted, rather than demanding an entire restructuring of the debt conditions. Germany has already ruled out reparations, however. Yet the issue is sure to heighten tensions and nationalist sentiments in Greece.
While it is too early to say where this will lead, Tsipras, at least for now, is pursuing the same line led out by Marti, Bolivar, Fidel and Chavez. Indeed, privately-owned television channels in Greece have already began their demonization campaign of Tsipras, reminding one of the Venezuelan corporate media campaign against Chavez.
Joshua Tartakovsky is an independent journalist in Athens.