February 22, 2010 / 1:11 PM / 8 years ago

Greek debt crisis stirs old grievances with Germans

ATHENS (Reuters) - “Dear Greeks,” the open letter began. “Over the years, we Germans have given some 9,000 euros (7,918 pounds) for each of you Greeks.”

“You are by far our most expensive friend,” wrote German journalist Walter Wullenweber in the weekly AthensPlus, published by leading conservative Greek daily Kathimerini.

The crisis over Greece’s debt mountain, and the potential threat it poses to the single European currency, has revived old resentments and stereotypes between Greeks and Germans.

Opinion polls show an overwhelming majority of Germans are hostile to the idea of bailing out Greece if Athens needs financial support from its European Union partners.

That helps explain why Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose coalition is divided on the issue, has sought to avoid turning her pledge of political support for Greece into offering money.

The mass-circulation Bild daily, a dependable barometer of ordinary Germans’ gut reactions, said this month “the proud, cheating, profligate Greeks” ought to be “thrown out of the euro on their ear” because of their finances.

To that list of epithets, Wullenweber added charges of tax evasion, corruption and laziness.

Now Greeks are starting to get outraged at German outrage.

“How does Germany have the cheek to denounce us over our finances when it has still not paid compensation for Greece’s war victims?” Margaritis Tzimas, of the main opposition New Democracy party, asked in parliament last week.

The conservative lawmaker reflected a belief among many Greeks that post-war West Germany paid too little to too few in compensation for the brutal 1941-44 Nazi occupation of Greece.

On the streets of Athens, a joke is doing the rounds about the government’s attempt to make citizens collect receipts to flush tradesmen out of the black market: “For every VAT receipt not collected, the Germans will shoot 10 patriots.”

PUBLIC CONTRITION, PRIVATE ANGER

The Socialist government that took office last October is publicly contrite about Greece’s responsibility for its own fiscal mess, due to years of uncontrolled spending, poor revenue collection and dodgy statistics.

But privately, some senior officials bristle at alarmist comments by German politicians and central bankers which they say have amplified market pressure on Greek debt.

German Economics Minister Rainer Bruederle, for example, told parliament in Berlin last month that some euro zone states were showing dangerous weakness that may have “fatal effects” on all states in the currency area.

Greeks recall that Greek “Gastarbeiter” (guest workers) were among migrants who contributed to Germany’s economic miracle in the 1960s and 1970s while their homeland was ruled by a military dictatorship backed by NATO, of which West Germany was a member.

They also note that Greece has been and remains a bumper export market for German goods, including tanks, since it joined the EU in 1981, as well as a playground for German tourists. Berlin profits from a large trade imbalance with Athens.

Six deputies from the small Left Coalition party last week urged the government to press Berlin over the reparations issue and blamed German banks and politicians for Greece’s crisis.

“By their statements, German politicians and German financial institutions play a leading role in a wretched game of profiteering at the expense of the Greek people,” they said in a written question to the government.

FOREIGN TUTELAGE

Beneath these resentments lie Greek fears, rooted in history, of once again falling under foreign tutelage.

After the first modern Greek state won independence from Ottoman Turkey in 1821, the great European powers imposed a German-speaking Bavarian, Otto, as king of Greece from 1832 until he was overthrown in a revolution in 1864.

In 1850, Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston sent gunboats to blockade the port of Piraeus to exact compensation for a Briton whose property had been damaged in riots in Athens.

Greece defaulted four times on its debt between 1827 and 1932, but the most humiliating economic experience, seared into the national consciousness, was the imposition of International Financial Control by six great powers led by Britain in 1898.

In return for a loan, which Greece finally paid off some 80 years later, the six powers took direct control over most revenues, helping themselves to the proceeds of tax on tobacco, matchboxes, salt, oil, playing cards, stamps and customs duties.

That is one reason why talk in Brussels and Berlin of the idea of appointing an EU overseer for Greece’s public finances strikes a raw nerve.

Joining the EU, with its cornucopia of agricultural and regional subsidies worth up to 4 percent of gross domestic product in the peak years, gave Greeks a feeling that they were at last on equal terms with the European great powers.

The debt crisis has suddenly thrown that into doubt.

“We are furious at the Germans,” said Mahi Konstantinidou, 55, a civil servant. “We don’t like their attitude — telling a fellow European state what we have to do.

“What is Europe for? We are partners,” she said.

editing by Dominic Evans

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