Anti-German sentiment that has been simmering in Greece for the past few years has boiled over in recent weeks in response to the conditions Germany has imposed on the country in return for financial bail outs. This was most clearly demonstrated by the hashtag #BoycottGermany that sprung up in response to the conditions of the deal.
Perhaps inevitably, Greek newspapers have long drawn on Germany’s unsavoury past with photomontages of Angela Merkel sporting a swastika armband, and depictions of the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, as a leading Nazi, threatening to make soap from Greeks’ fat.
Newspapers are also quick to remind Germans how they (or rather West Germans) were helped to get back on their feet by other countries during the early 1950s when they were in dire need following defeat in the World War II.
Anti-Greek sentiment in Germany
Meanwhile, exasperation with Greece, and the single currency in general, has grown within Germany in recent years, demonstrated by electoral success for the anti-euro (though not anti-EU) party, the Alternative For Germany (AfD), which only just failed to reach the 5% threshold required to gain seats in the Bundestag at the last federal election in 2013.
This suggests while pro-Europeanism was for decades compulsory in the Federal Republic, many Germans finally feel that the time has come to break the taboo surrounding euroscepticism and to express sentiments that are common in many other European countries, most notably Britain. After all, Germans gave up the trusty Deutschmark on condition, or at least on the assumption, that they would not later be asked to bail out other countries within the eurozone. Many western Germans also feel that they have already had to bail out eastern Germany.
But anecdotal evidence suggests that on both sides, and particularly among Greeks, animosity is directed more at politicians than at ordinary citizens. Greece is a popular holiday destination for Germans, and Western German cities are home to thousands of people of Greek descent whose parents or grandparents came to the country as guestworkers during the 1950s and 1960s.
Does Germany deserve the criticism? It certainly is hard to deny that Berlin calls the shots in the EU today, but this is arguably more by accident than design. People forget that the very first European community, the European Coal and Steel Community, founded with the Treaty of Paris in 1951, was designed to constrain West Germany and to prevent it ever dominating Europe militarily again.
At the heart of the European project was the Franco-German relationship which over the decades has been reminiscent of a seesaw, with France originally the heavyweight, followed by many years with a more balanced relationship.
France, like other European countries, particularly Britain and Poland, was concerned about the prospect of German reunification, fearing that reunited Germany would become too dominant and that Germany would become the more weighty partner on the seesaw between Paris and Berlin, perhaps with good reason – indeed their relationship has famously been described as designed “to hide the strength of Germany and the weakness of France”. But at the time, leading German politicians sought to allay such fears, stating that they were striving for a “European Germany” and not “a German Europe”.
The Maastricht Treaty of 1992, which paved the way to the single currency, aimed to link reunited Germany irrevocably to the EU, and was an attempt by Kohl and then French president François Mitterrand to bind their successors to the European project.
Greeks in particular should also bear in mind the enormous contributions Germany has made to the EU budget over the years, in spite of the economic difficulties of incorporating the former East Germany into the Federal Republic, especially during the 1990s. Germany has also played a key humanitarian role in accepting large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers from various trouble spots, not least from former Yugoslavia.
At present, the volume of asylum seekers and refugees arriving in Germany has become politically difficult to manage, and Merkel recently hit the headlines for telling a tearful young refugee that Germany cannot accept everyone.
Damned if they do …
In many ways Germany cannot win. It gets criticised for being too proactive, and also for not doing enough. This is most noticeable in defence and security matters at an international level, especially in NATO. The country has been criticised, particularly by the US, for not contributing enough in terms of military intervention and peacekeeping in countries such as Afghanistan, and pacifism is widespread among the German population. But if Germany were to be overtly keen on military intervention one can be sure that this would also be seized upon by critics who would quickly resort to tired old allusions to Germany’s past.
Whether or not Angela Merkel can win the battle to save Greece and even the euro as a whole, not to mention her own reputation and legacy, remains to be seen. So far she has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the future of the single currency and the European project, inherited from her mentor during the 1990s, Helmut Kohl. Her domestic personal ratings remain largely undamaged by the eurocrisis, with most Germans still regarding her as a “safe pair of hands”, a theme which helped her earn re-election in 2013.
There are clearly grounds for criticising the current package offered to Greece, in particular, the absence of debt relief, and the proposed sale and privatisation of Greek assets will remind many people of the measures imposed on eastern Germany in the early 1990s, which led to mass unemployment.
But maybe there would be less animosity all round if the Greek government and media could bring themselves to adopt that old British adage: “Don’t mention the war.”