Letters from Athens 1: Nikos Dimou

Greece – Germany: A Romance Turned Sour

It started with admiration and adulation. Eighteenth century Germans – with Winckelmann in the forefront – re-discovered ancient Greece. They visualized Hellas as the epitome of perfection in art, philosophy, and ethics. Their idealized model influenced all of Europe in the beginning of the romantic nineteenth century and was the reason why public opinion backed the Greeks in their war of independence against the Turks (1821-1829) and induced the great powers to help the liberation of Greece.

After the war, the first King of the Greeks was a German. Otto of Bavaria the son of Ludwig, was a Greek-crazy monarch that had rebuilt his capital, Munich, in the Neo-classical style. Otto came with a large retinue of experts and practically created the Greek state. Greek law was a copy of the German Code and all institutions were modeled on their German counterparts.  Otto loved Greece, but Greeks did not reciprocate. To them he remained a foreign body and was finally exiled.

In the next 80 years the mutual admiration persisted: Germans studied and excavated the remains of Ancient Greece (they were our best archeologists and scholars) while Greeks admired the quality of German products. “Made in Germany” was – and still is – the utmost mark of perfection.

Next chapter: the Second World War. After some unsuccessful attempts from the Italians, Hitler’s Wehrmacht subjugated Greece. These were very dark times: people died of famine in the streets and whole villages were exterminated as countermeasures for Greek resistance fighting. Greece was never duly compensated for the cruelty and the pillage.

After the war, relations slowly ameliorated. In the sixties impoverished Greeks emigrated in tens of thousands to help build the German “Wirtschaftswunder” (economic miracle).  Some of them never came back to their country and subsist as a major minority represented in Parliament and important government posts.

Starting in the seventies till today, Germans fell again in love with Greece. Not as an antique ideal, but as an ideal vacation destination. Instead of “seeking with the soul, the land of the Greeks”, as their great poet Goethe admonished, they seeked it with their body. They bronzed their skin on Greek beaches, swam in our seas, and relished the Greek food. Moussaka, greek salata and souvlaki, rhymed with syrtaki – the dance of “Zorba the Greek”.

They loved this type Zorba (created by the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis and immortalized in film by Anthony Quinn) for his carefree demeanor, his loose epicureanism, his “joie de vivre”. They tried to emulate him, while in Greece, getting out of their stiff northern, protestant skin.

Millions of Germans visited Greece during the last four decades. They outnumbered every other nation and were our main source of tourist income. The idyll was in full march and the romance flourished.

And then came the Greek financial crisis. Germans discovered that their friend Zorba was a small time crook, indebted up to his ears. He had used all the European Union subsidies not for the restructuring of his farming business but for his pleasure. A splendid Porsche Cayenne stood in his ramshackle garage. He had the largest national debt and balance deficit in Europe and the biggest trade deficit in the world! He had stopped producing and creating, and imported everything with loaned money. Thousands of Greeks received pensions in their fifties, for no specific reasons.

The Germans were aghast. Their “protestant work ethic” (analyzed by their eminent sociologist Max Weber) had no place for such a behavior. Their media, catering to the small shopkeeper in Wuppertal, (whose taxes and savings are used to support Greeks) became aggressive, choleric and sarcastic. A magazine, Focus, portrayed in its cover the goddess Aphrodite (aka Venus) giving “the finger” to the world. Many have been chanting: throw the Greeks out of the Union! As the biggest financial power within the E. U. (also the major contributor to loans and subsidies) they had a say.

Of course Greeks reacted in their turn. The domineering manner of the Germans brought back remembrances of the German Occupation. Since more than a thousand years (when the Eastern Church split from the Western) Greeks have been distrustful of western nations (although they may be very hospitable to their citizens). They also tend to export the causes for their problems to “power centers abroad” (conspiracy theories). Up to now the Americans were mainly to blame for our woes. Now, it is the Germans.

I wrote this on Valentine ’s Day. No Valentine for Greeks and Germans – at least not for the foreseeable future.

Nikos Dimou. February 2012, Athens.

Photo: Munich. Nikos Dimou, 2004.

Nikos Dimou was born in Athens in 1935. He studied English and French literature in Athens and Philosophy in Munich and has published 61 books: among them essays, short prose, satire, philosophy, poetry, and political theory. His book, On the Unhappiness of Being Greek (1975), -currently in its 30th edition with over 110,00 copies sold-, has been published in Germany (Verlag Antje Kunstmann, 2012) and France (Editions Payot & Rivages, 2012).

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