LIGIADES, Greece (AP) — A visibly emotional German president apologized profoundly Friday for a massacre by German soldiers in a northwestern Greek village during World War II, at the end of a three-day visit that combined political talks with efforts to bring closure to wounds from the wartime German occupation.
Speaking at a hillside monument in Ligiades, Joachim Gauck expressed “shame” at the 1943 atrocity when Nazi troops executed dozens of villagers, including months-old babies, in reprisal for a partisan attack. He was accompanied by Greek President Karolos Papoulias, a resistance fighter as a teenager who comes from the nearby town of Ioannina.
“I wish to articulate what the perpetrators, and those who were politically responsible for so many years in the postwar period did not want, or were not able to utter,” Gauck said. “That what happened here was a brutal injustice, and it is with feelings of shame and pain that I beg forgiveness from the families of those who were murdered.”
His apology came at a time of increased anti-German sentiment, as Berlin — the largest single contributor to Greece’s bailout — has been one of the most ardent proponents of austerity measures imposed in return for billions of euros in rescue loans.
That resentment has fuelled growing calls for Germany to pay Greece reparations for the brutal 1941-44 occupation and restitution for a forced wartime loan to Germany.
After the wreath-laying ceremony, about a dozen people at Ligiades unfurled a banner reading “reparations and justice,” and chanted “justice, justice.”
The two presidents then visited Ioannina’s synagogue where Gauck spoke with Jewish community members, including nonagenarian survivors of Nazi death camps.
In a speech in honor of Gauck Thursday night, Papoulias said he could not understand the German government’s refusal to discuss Greek reparation claims. Germany insists the issue was laid to rest in the 1960s with a repayment which it considers to have settled all claims — a position Gauck stood by.
An official assessment of what sum Greece could demand is pending. But pro-reparations activists quote the sum of 162 billion euros ($223 billion), about half the financially distressed country’s national debt. Papoulias said the issue “casts a pall” over the two countries’ relations.
Separately, Greece’s largest Jewish community, in the northern city of Thessaloniki, said last week it has taken Germany to Europe’s top human rights court seeking the return of a massive ransom paid to Nazi Germany to free thousands of Jewish slave laborers. Despite the payment, those who had been press-ganged into construction projects across Greece were sent to Nazi death camps.
Berlin has rejected that bid too.
About 96 percent of Thessaloniki’s 50,000 Jews perished in the camps.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.