Greece's German Rage

Disgruntled Greeks are blaming Berlin for their current predicament. Such logic is unfair—and dangerous.

Graffiti of German chancellor Angela Merkel.“Greece” has become a code word for the fate that awaits a nation that does not put its economic house in order. It is used to call for cutting deficits and living within one’s means, as well as to illustrate the political turmoil and violence in the streets that result from a government’s failure to act in a timely manner. And Greece provides a rather vivid and painful example of what happens when, instead of working hard to reform and rebuild, a nation leans on outsiders to pay for its rescue.

Greece should also be studied as an illustration of what happens when people choose to blame someone else—what intellectuals call “the other”—for whatever ails them rather than facing up to their failings. Greece’s other is Germany, which is maligned for refusing to write big enough checks, fast enough, to make up for the accumulated losses of several generations of self-indulgent Greeks.

Greeks argue that the Germans are “taking control of their economy” and that their country has become a “de facto European Union protectorate,” drawing comparisons to when they lost their sovereignty under Nazi occupation more than half a century ago. Protesters have burned German flags and defaced the Bank of Greece to transform it into the “Bank of Berlin.” A major newspaper depicted German chancellor Angela Merkel in a Nazi uniform next to a headline that alluded to Auschwitz. There are similar depictions on street posters, in which a Hitler-inspired Merkel wears an armband with a swastika surrounded by the stars of the EU. Another newspaper shows modern German officials in Hitler-era garb, with Greek officials responding with Nazi salutes and following commands to tighten their belts. In the Areia region of Greece, people at a carnival burned an effigy of Merkel, who was dressed in Nazi clothes and posed in a Nazi salute.

Protesters in Athens shouted “Nazis out,” portraying Germans as bent upon occupying Greece, just as they did during WWII. Dimitris Christoulas, one of the victims of “austerity suicide” in Greece, left a note that blamed “the occupation government of Tsolakoglou for taking away any chance for my survival” (the reference to the collaborationist prime minister during Germany’s WWII occupation of Greece being an apparent dig at Germany’s current insistence on austerity measures). Christoulas’s suicide and his reference to German occupation sparked further demonstrations in Athens, where protesters held up signs saying “It was a murder, not a suicide” and “Austerity kills.” Professor William Black of the University of Missouri, Kansas City, holds that Greece has been “reoccupied” by Germans, commenting that “this time they’re even more efficient because they’re being invited in with the aid of a puppet government.” He warned that “when you give up your economic sovereignty, it’s only a short step to giving up your political sovereignty and freedom as well.” Echoing these concerns, business magnate George Soros has predicted that Europe is likely to become “a German empire.”

As a Jewish child who escaped Germany in 1935, and as someone who lost most of the members of his sizable extended family in the concentration camps, I have more reasons to resent Germans than most Greeks. However, I cannot find a moral ground on which to condemn those Germans now with us—most of whom were not even born by the time the Nazi regime ended or were children during its waning days—for the actions of their forefathers. Moreover, I respect Germans for having faced up to their past and for making very substantial efforts to ensure that they will be never again commit such atrocities through numerous educational drives and constitutional arrangements. Comparing the way Germany has learned from its past to postimperial Japan (and even Austria) helps to highlight my point.

Germany may or may not find it prudent to support and help underwrite an even larger bailout for Greece. But I fail to see the moral reasons today’s Germans owe Greece more, a nation that by grossly manipulating its data faked its way into the European Union. Surely demonizing the Germans is hardly a recommended way to win them over.

There is a lesson here for other nations that face severe austerity. They should be careful not to yield to the temptation to lay the blame on the other and seek bailouts (or “loans”) rather than engage in painful reforms. Otherwise, they truly may end up as miserable as Greece is.

Amitai Etzioni served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard and The University of California at Berkeley; and is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University.

Image: Ramiro Sánchez-Crespo