Debt-laden Greeks give vent to anti-German feelings
- 27 February 2012
- From the section Europe
In a smoky Athens newsroom, the popular cartoonist Stathis Stavropoulos scribbles down his latest drawing.
It is one of his typical pictures: a German soldier, a gas chamber and a caption about Greek jobs being burnt. Comic art that draws on a growing anti-German feeling, as Greeks hit out at a country seen as pushing the austerity drive and deepening the recession.
"Germany has already tried twice to make Europe German," he says. "This time it's through economic means. We have to resist that. We have no bad feelings towards the German people - only towards the government and European banks."
The rift between the two countries has grown steadily; there is increasing resentment among Germans that they are largely footing the bill for the ever-growing Greek bailouts. German media have written about Greeks as lazy and unproductive.
Last year, a front cover of the German magazine Focus carried a picture of the Venus de Milo statue swearing, wrapped in a torn Greek flag with the headline: "The frauds of the EU".
Tension reached boiling point in the days before Greece's recent bailout was approved. After Germany's Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble likened Greece to a "bottomless pit", the Greek President, Karolos Papoulias, said Mr Schauble was insulting his country.
During an anti-austerity protest this month, a German flag was burned outside parliament.
Rhetoric that would once have been deemed unacceptable is now becoming more mainstream here. A recent demonstration in Athens involved a performance with an actor dressed as Hitler and another as an SS officer pretending to rape a woman representing Greece.
A daily newspaper printed a mock photo of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a swastika armband, prompting fears that such images might tarnish Greece's reputation for hospitality and the country's vital tourism industry.
On television, too, the references are clear. Giorgos Trangas hosts a popular daily show that rails against Germany. The opening credits feature 1930s war videos: on the set around him he has photos of Nazi officers. The Greek broadcasting authorities allow the programme to remain on air, although the station that presents his radio show was recently fined 25,000 euros (£21,000) after Mr Trangas used a pejorative term for Mrs Merkel.
When I suggest he is whipping up anti-German feeling, he becomes defensive. "I'm not responsible - I follow the population", Trangas says. "Every day Berlin says 'cut'. 'Cut pensions, cut salaries.' Life in Greece is dark. Some northern countries like Germany, the Netherlands or Finland say they have solidarity with the Greek people. No! It's not solidarity - it's a barbaric situation for Greece."
In fact the relationship between the two countries has never been easy. Greece suffered greatly under the German occupation in World War II, which Athens was forced to fund. An estimated 300,000 Greeks died from hunger.
In a cramped town hall in the outskirts of the capital, a meeting is called to discuss how Germany never paid Greece full war reparations. The host is the former resistance fighter Manolis Glezos, famous for pulling down the German flag on the Acropolis in 1941.
"The way Germany is treating the Greeks is intolerable," he tells me. "We are slaves to foreigners. Young people ask me which flag should be torn down now: I say the flag of slavery. And we must fly the flag of sovereignty and freedom."
Outside the meeting, the conversation rages among those gathered. "I've always had German friends," one woman tells me. "I have no fights with German people. The politics is the problem."
"We feel like again we are under occupation," says Georgia, a teacher. "Now this is a different occupation - an economic and human occupation. We can't live like this, it's not human."
Jobs in Germany
But away from the heated emotions there is another side to the story: that as Greece's economic woes deepen, many Greeks see Germany as more attractive than ever.
Numbers learning German at the Goethe Institute - the German Cultural Centre - have soared in the past few months in Athens. And German official statistics from last year show an 80% increase in the number of Greeks moving to Germany compared to 2010.
Christos Papathenisiou is one of those emigrating to work in Europe's economic powerhouse. I catch him on the morning of his departure for Hamburg as he finishes his last-minute packing.
"I like the German people," he says, "they are friendly and kind. We can't blame Germany for what is happening now in Greece. We have to blame our politicians. They have ruined Greece. They have drunk our blood and now the Greek people are paying the price. So it's not Germany's fault - it's our fault since we knew what was happening here and mainly it's our politicians' fault."
Greece is a traditionally pro-European nation; a proud member of the EU for more than 30 years. But in tough times, those who suffer often turn their anger on the outsider. And as this country sinks further into economic and social despair, attitudes are beginning to harden in a profound and worrying way.