Saturday, April 13, 2013


Mention the word «Γερμανός,» these days on the streets of Athens and more likely than not, the aforementioned word will be followed by a particularly long and varied array of expletives, most of which have as their subject matter, the National Socialist German Workers Party, its fuhrer, Adolf Hitler and his apparent successor, at least in the populace's eyes, German chancellor Angela Merkel. Greece's crisis and has reawakened old ghosts - in particular, the ghost of German mastery in Europe. In Athens, anti-German feelings have been running high for some time and it is not only protesters who reach back to the era of the Nazi occupation for analogies with the present. European Union officials in Greece are likened to the Gestapo, while Greek ministers who attempt to institute the reforms demanded by the 'troika' are lampooned as collaborators. In the meantime, almost all Greeks link Germany's demands on the Greek state with supposed "unfinished business of World War II," that is, a lack of restitution, compensation and remorse. Are we, at this critical juncture in Greece's history witnessing a final break between two hostile nations?

The connection between Greece and Germany is a chequered but quite close one, stemming much further back than the Second World War. German liberals, oppressed by restrictive governments at home, flocked to the Greek cause when the Greek revolution broke out in 1821, and fought and died there. Greece's first king, Otto, was a Bavarian and his administration, with its imported German technocrats and policemen, proved to be unpopular and unsuited to governing the restive Greek people. While we may view his unpopularity and ultimate replacement by the Danish Glucksburg royal family as evidence of the unsuitability of German political and cultural structures for Greece, let us not forget that Otto's imposition upon the Greek people was purely as a result of the murder of the Greek Prime Minister Kapodistrias. Nonetheless, Germany continued its close relationship with Greece, the fluent Greek-speaking Bavarian empress of Austria Sisi and German Kaiser Wilhelm holidaying in their Corfu palace of Achilleion. Furthermore, the German connection was so close that King Constantine I, who married the Kaiser's sister, was accused of being a 'germanophile' and skewing Greek foreign policy in Germany's favour and ultimately splitting the nation.

The unpopularity of pre-first World War I Germany is long forgotten. Indeed, when a German, Otto Rehhagel, led Greece's football team to victory in the 2004 European Championship, he was affectionately dubbed "King Otto" in the national press. Before the Second World War, Germany was seen very positively as a cultural and intellectual magnet and many of Greece's most illustrious painters, photographers, archaeologists, doctors, lawyers and bankers were educated there. Germany also provided inspiration to the fascists of Metaxas who where more inspired by and idolised German efficiency and discipline rather than Hitler.

As in so many places, Nazism and the Second World War broke this rich web of ties and connections and replaced the varied memories of the past with the violence and trauma of the occupation. No crisis in Greece's history compare in terms of a death toll or arbitrary brutality on an unprecedented scale. Memories of entire villages being wiped out, of women and children mercilessly being massacred, and of a complete absence of humanity displayed by an occupying force that made it clear that the native population was in their eyes sub-human and expendable, are enduring and when scratched, readily come to the surface. While the modern crisis may well constitute one of these "scratching," for decades, German responsibility for its wrongs was a matter not actively pursued by successive Greek governments.

After the war, and in the context of the looming Cold War, the issue of reparations took a back seat as ideological conformity with NATO was deemed to be of greater priority. Thus, negotiations between West Germany and Greece which had stalled because Greece demanded the inclusion of civilian victims of German reprisals in the category of the compensated, whereas West Germany wanted this to be limited solely to citizens that fell victim to racial persecution, broke down under the pretext that full reparations could only be provided after the signing of a final peace treaty, something that could not take place until Germany re-united . East Germany for obvious reasons, offered Greece full reparations but these were rejected by Greece under the pressure of the West, which saw an acceptance of such reparations as tantamount to recognition of East Germany itself. So far as West Germany itself was concerned, for decades, it rarely made the headlines except as a destination for Greek men looking for work. Greece was the second country after Italy to sign a labour recruitment agreement with Bonn, in 1960, and perhaps as many as a million Greeks emigrated there for various periods of time. This labour recruitment agreement was "tied" to the final reparations treaty between Greece and Germany, signed in March 1960 and ratified by law 4178/14 1961. There is then some truth to the claim that the issue of reparations has been "settled," though there are recent reports that Greece did not obtain the full compensation it should have received. Would the nice people in the Bundestag deduct it from the bailout? Fat chance.

Evidently, a consequence of the German economic miracle was that it allowed the war to be forgotten, often in some fairly deliberate ways. At the end of the 1950s, a notorious war criminal, Max Merten, who had run the Nazi administration of Thessaloniki, was arrested on a trip to Greece, to defend a colleague. This event rapidly escalated into a diplomatic embarrassment not only for the Adenauer government but for the Greek conservative prime minister Konstantinos Karamanlis. Karamanlis was in the middle of negotiating Greece's first association agreement with the common market. He was placed under immense pressure by Konrad Adenauer not to prosecute but to free Merten, who had subsequently obtained an important position within the West German bureaucracy. Merten, responsible for hundreds of deaths of civilians and the persecution of Thessaloniki's Jews was tried, sentenced to twenty five years jail and a little while later, in violation of all principles of the separation of powers, was secretly freed upon Karamanlis' intervention and sent back to West Germany. This is because the freeing of a murderer and war criminal was the price of securing Germany's backing for Greece's entry into the common market. Merten, unlike his victims, received compensation from the West German government for the time he spent in prison and later re-surfaced to give evidence in the trial of Adolf Eichmann.

This revealing episode was quickly forgotten and remains unknown to most people today. They are much more likely to be familiar with the so far unsuccessful legal battle to get German compensation for survivors of the massacres that took place in several Greek villages during the war, an issue that has been separated from that of overall reparations to the Greek state.

Tell any German that they are behaving today as they did in the war and they will be outraged. There is, after all, some difference between the early 1940s, when the occupation simply bled Greece dry and plundered it of its resource, and the crisis today, in which Germany is providing large sums to Greece and being asked for more. Even if these sums are mostly going straight into the European banks to help them stave off bankruptcy, the fact remains that the aim of this policy is not to reduce Greece to penury and starvation but to keep it within the euro. Nonetheless, Chancellor Angela Merkel's insistence on continued austerity may indeed be reducing Greece to penury.

The consequence, as leading historian and analyst of Greek affairs Mark Mazower states, is that memories of the war still influence national responses to the economic crisis. Greek demonstrators turn themselves retrospectively into resistance fighters and thereby craft a moral counter-narrative to the north European charges of profligacy and corruption. What is more, many of them believe it. German lenders on the other hand see themselves as cooperative, restrained and helping to uphold commonly agreed principles and policies, thereby shaping their own morality tale of economic virtue, which contrasts comfortingly both with the less self-disciplined behaviour of the southern Europeans and with the exploitativeness of the Nazis.

Both parties are therefore labouring under their own illusions of comfort. Europe's troubles, in which Greece plays a small but significant part, are caused by an addiction to cheap credit that was fed by the demands of consumers, voters and politicians and enabled by the greed of bankers and the methodical corruption of Greek democracy into a clientilist state over the past three decades. If grappling with the ghosts of the past may offer a kind of false comfort, it will certainly not help understand the mess Greece is in now.

Let us therefore forebear to vilify the Γερμαναρά του κερατά, even though the appellation is often well deserved. Instead, let the focus be on rebuilding, slowly, and without shortcuts, a viable, mature state that will look to the past for lessons, not recrimination and the future with optimism, not fear.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 13 April 2013