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Recalling a Nazi massacre: 'A burly German soldier killed my little brother and two women'

A town in Greece is still looking for justice.

Women standing In the graveyard of Distomo, Greece, where victims of a 1944 Nazi massacre are buried
Women standing In the graveyard of Distomo, Greece, where victims of a 1944 Nazi massacre are buried
Image: AP/Press Association Images

LOUKAS SEHREMELIS WAS just 12 years old when Nazi troops burst into his house in the Greek village of Distomo, shooting and killing indiscriminately.

“A burly German soldier launched himself through the window and fired a shot in the air from his pistol,” said Sehremelis, now 83, sitting in the tiny living room where his family was massacred on 10 June 1944.

“He then emptied the clip of his automatic rifle, killing my little brother and two women,” he told AFP, his eyes gleaming with tears.

A small town in central Greece still inhabited today, Distomo has become the symbol of atrocities committed by Nazi troops as they pulled back to Germany in the wake of the Allied Normandy landings in the summer of 1944.

On the same day, 650 people including women and children were killed in Ouradour-sur-Glane, a French town that is today twinned with Distomo.

Greece Germany Nazi Victims The names of victims on a memorial. Source: AP/Press Association Images

A quarter of Distomo’s population died – 218 people including infants and pregnant women who were disemboweled, says the town’s deputy mayor Loukas Zissis, who lost his grandfather and uncle in the massacre.

“This is a crime against humanity,” Zissis said.

Legal dead end

Germany’s occupying forces used the pretext that they had come under attack by Greek guerrillas.

The atrocity was committed by troops of the Edelweiss division of the Waffen SS under the command of Fritz Lautenbach and Hans Zampel.

Lautenbach was never arrested and Zampel was acquitted after being extradited by Greece to Germany.

Like other Nazi atrocities in Greece, the massacre of Distomo is considered a legal dead end.

Many experts say the dispute has effectively reached a judicial stalemate after a related adjudication between Germany and Italy by the International Court of Justice in 2012.

At the time, the UN’s highest court ruled that Italy had broken international law by allowing its courts to hear civil compensation claims against Germany.

Berlin argues that the issue of reparations to Greece has already been settled, and points to payments made in 1960 as part of an agreement with several European governments.

And Berlin maintains that a treaty signed by the two former Germanys with the Allies in 1990 to formally end World War II effectively drew a line under possible future claims for war reparations.

In 2014, German President Joachim Gauck asked Greece to forgive Germany, but insisted that “the legal path is closed”.

A question of politics

But the issue has been revived under the Greek radical left government headed by the Syriza party that came to power in January.

Greece’s parliament has reactivated a special committee to look into war reparations, reimbursement of a forced war loan and the return of archaeological relics seized by German occupation forces.

This week, junior finance minister Dimitris Mardas said the state accounting office had calculated the amount owed to Greece and Greek atrocity victims at nearly €280 billion.

“According to our calculations, the debt linked to German reparations is €278.7 billion, including €10.3 billion for the so-called ‘forced loan’,” he told parliament.

A German Bundestag lower house of parliament report in 2012 put the value of the loan at $8.25 billion.

The Greek radicals are already on a collision course with Germany which opposes efforts by cash-strapped Athens to end five years of gruelling austerity cuts.

“This is a political issue and up to the government to demand it,” said Distomo deputy mayor Zissis.

“Whoever has committed a crime must pay.”

In March, amid an ongoing war of words between Athens and Berlin, the new justice minister said he was “ready to approve” a 15-year-old Greek Supreme Court ruling that authorised the seizure of German property as  compensation for the Distomo massacre.

Several members of the German Green Party have sided with Greece and called for the creation of a fund for Greek victims of Nazi crimes.

But German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel said the reparation references were a tactic by the new government to gain “wiggle room” in talks with its European creditors over loan relief.

“Honestly, I find it dumb,” he said this week.

‘A moral obligation’ 

“The Germans must pay. It’s a moral obligation… the present generation in Germany must learn what their grandparents did,” insisted 80-year-old Angelos Kastritis, whose own grandparents and mother were gunned down that day.

Another resident, 54-year-old Yorgos Balagouras, said the German chancellor should visit the mausoleum above the town that houses the skulls of the victims.

Many still bear the holes of German bullets.

Merkel “should give an apology in the mausoleum,” said Balagouras, accusing Germany of “hypocrisy”.

He said that successive Greek governments have used the Distomo massacre as a political tool to little avail.

“We feel let down,” Balagouras said.

“After all these years, what can they give us?” added Sehremelis. “What’s important is to never have such barbarism again.”

- © AFP 2015

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