At a time of tension between Germany and Greece, young people from both countries are looking forward to working together. Under the scheme, Germany will help train youths from places destroyed by the Nazis.
Last February, the International Court in The Hague ruled that Germany can no longer be sued for compensation for Nazi war crimes. That seemed to be the end of the story for victims of the German occupation of Greece – at least legally. But the Nazi era is still a vivid collective memory for the Greeks, as can be seen in Greek coverage of the country’s debt crisis. Greeks feel that much of the German criticism of Greece is unjust – and some people have been demanding in return that Germany pay reparations for damage done in the war, while the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has been depicted in an SS uniform.
It hasn’t helped that, over the last fifteen years, even while German diplomats took part in commemorations for the victims of the German occupation, they’ve always rejected the idea of reparations, pointing out the war ended “long ago.”
Remembrance and youth cooperation
At a German-Greek conference in Paramythia, Greece, the German political education organization, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, asked whether young Germans and Greeks could draw lessons from the past for the future. Paramythia is one of nearly 100 Greek communities that were destroyed during the Second World War and where civilians were massacred by German troops. A memorial in the community recounts the details.
About 350 kilometers (200 miles) east of Paramythia, near Kilkis, there are only ruins where three villages once stood. That is set to change. An initiative by entrepreneurs and Greeks from the area now living in Germany wants to turn a former hostel building into a European youth and meeting center. Private donations from Germany and Greece should only go towards the building material, not for the work, said travel company owner Anestis Ossipidis, who initiated the project.
“The idea is to form groups of youth volunteers from Germany and Greece who will renovate the building during their stay, which will last between three and six weeks,” he said.
Educating the young through history
But that’s not all. The youth will also go on excursions together to explore the area and its history – with discussions about the villages that were destroyed and the people who were killed.
Young locals have also started an initiative to build of youth recreation center in Paramythia. The building is already there, but there are no funds because the council has only enough money to meet its most urgent needs. But now, the center could become a reality, according to Klaus Amoneit who heads the Germany-based non-profit organization “Aktuelles Forum” (“Current Forum”).
“We can see this as a multi-year project for young tradesmen from Germany and Greece,” he said.
Aktuelles Forum, which promotes civic education, is active in ten European countries that were occupied by Germany during World War II. Young German apprentices from poor families travel to the countries with their instructors to assist in construction projects. The organization believes that such trips help educate the young people and make them less vulnerable to right-wing extremist propaganda.
Practical training for young people
Similarly, young people from Paramythia were invited to Germany to talk about further joint projects. Most of the young Greeks are concerned about job prospects in their region. High school graduate Christina Lioliou believes that the future lies in agriculture because, with more and more unemployed university graduates, there’s increasing interest in it.
Of course, there has been no run on agriculture,” she said, “but that’s only because no appropriate conditions have been created. If there were an opportunity for practical training in agriculture, many would do it.”
Children in Paramythia grow up helping with the work on the family farms there. This helps them acquire the agricultural skills they want to build on. Greek youths want their German partners to support them in their training as agricultural experts – either in their country or in Germany. To finance such projects, they can apply for funds from Germany or the European Social Fund (ESF).
In early 2000, on a visit to the village of Kalavryta, which had been destroyed by the German army, then-German president Johannes Rau had the idea of establishing German-Greek youth projects in those places in which atrocities had been committed during the war. Based on the successful model of the Franco-German Youth Office, several programs were to be set up – youth meeting places, student exchange programs and training scholarships in Germany for Greek teenagers. But that did not come about. Now, a somewhat stripped-down model is being tried – an important sign of solidarity in a time of crisis.