What do we owe the Greeks?

Article by Maria Broadley
There is a perception among many Europeans at the moment that Greeks are a corrupt lazy people, unable to come to terms with life’s realities: and Greece is a country filled with gyros-eating, komboloi-toying, frappé-drinking time-wasters, who want nothing more than to live off someone else’s money. The upshot is that nobody wants to work to bail out the workshy. After all, what do we owe the Greek people?

It is a simple question, with a far from simple answer. And I don’t just mean an acknowledgement of the deep relationship that we all in the west have had with Greece over 4,000 years: European culture, European values and the course of European history would have been completely different without the positive contribution of the Greek spirit.

Besides this far from insignificant debt, it should also not be forgotten that during World War II as Antony Eden said in the British Parliament in 1942 ‘Greece gave Mussolini an unforgettable lesson, that she was the motive for the revolution in Yugoslavia, that she held the Germans in the mainland and in Crete for six weeks, that she upset the chronological order of all German High Command’s plans and thus brought a general reversal of the entire course of the war – and we won.’

Time moves on. Today, the country that gave the world the three most important tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, is facing a major economic tragedy. The country that gave birth to the continent is paying the price of one of the most misguided economic experiments in modern history.

As a result of the Euro crisis, and the fiscal incompetence and corruption of the previous Greek government, the leaders of the richer, more powerful European nations, especially France and Germany, have imposed a foreign bureaucrat on a broken country, and demanded cuts to public spending, the human toll of which has come to be symbolised by the life – and death –  of pensioner Dimitris Christoulas, who committed suicide in Syntagma Square in February. The crisis destroyed his livelihood and his dignity. For the rest of his countrymen pay and pensions have been debauched; taxes have risen very sharply; local industries have collapsed and legions of workers have become unemployed; savage cuts have fallen on the most vulnerable; and politicians speak of the misery to which the Greeks have been reduced by the politics of ‘austerity’. (To many poorer people this must seem an odiously sanitised euphemism for ‘brutal poverty’.)

Greece is entering its fifth consecutive year of recession. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Britain’s national output dropped around 10 per cent in total. Since 2008, Greece’s output has dropped 13 per cent. Some forecasters think it could drop 10 per cent further this year alone. Perhaps 100,000 businesses have ceased to exist. One in three Greeks live below the poverty line, and  the suicide rate is climbing, especially among retired professional people who are defenceless as their pensions are cut. Greece’s 3.8 million employed people are supporting the 4.5 million who don’t work — 1.1 million officially unemployed and 3.4 million considered financially inactive. And the monthly minimum wage has been cut by 22 percent; reducing earnings from 751 euro to 586 euro per month. For people under 25, it will be even lower, down to 511 euro, and any increase before 2016 is ruled out. In addition, further reductions to the minimum wage may take place in July. Ordinary people everywhere recognise reality, and now do not believe a thing they hear from the masters of Europe. Everyone is hunkering down for the hardships and injustices now brewing — defaults, conversions into new currencies, runs on banks, mass unemployment, protests and violence.

Christoulas left a suicide note: it refers to the government as ‘the occupation government of Tsolakoglou’ (Georgios Tsolakoglou was the Quisling prime minister under the Axis Powers in 1941) and predicts that the futureless young will one day hang the traitors upside down in Syntagma, as the Italians hanged the dictator Mussolini.

The war still figures large in folk memory across the world. For Britain, a so-called victor in that conflict, a fair assessment, according to Alan Clark, is that ‘World War II went on far too long, and when Britain emerged the country was bust. Nothing remained of assets overseas. Without immense and punitive borrowings from the US we would have starved. The old social order had gone forever. The empire was terminally damaged. The Commonwealth countries had seen their trust betrayed and their soldiers wasted’.

Albrecht Ritschl, German professor of economic history at the London School of Economics, is equally brutally honest in his assessment of the defeated: ‘After the Second World War, Germany left behind a Europe essentially damaged. If it were not for the U.S., which helped financially after the war, and countries such as Greece, which never claimed war damages, now my country would not have the economic power it has. I’ve said it before and am not afraid to repeat it: Germany is the biggest sinner in the 20th century and perhaps of modern economic history. My compatriots seem to have selective memory on this issue. If you interpret it psychologically, it’s because we always tend to remember only the good side of ourselves. (Laughter.) Nevertheless, it is right to remind my countrymen of historical events, which anyway remain vivid in the minds of people living in other European countries.’

What of Greece? Here, the historical events of World War II and their consequences that do not go away are as follows:

1.    Casualties:

•    13,676 dead in the Greek Army
•    68,000 civilians  executed in 89 Holocausts
•    190,000 civilians imprisoned
•    88,000 arrested.
•    An incalculable number of Greeks who lost their lives from starvation and hardship in the  great famine of 1941-42: an estimated 300,000 people perished in greater Athens alone
•    Between 1,700 and 1,800 villages  burned, many of them totally, and their inhabitants executed.

2.    Greek  economy:

•    23% (409,000) of buildings  destroyed
•    2000 km out if the 2769 km of Greece’s railroad system and  60% of railroad buildings  destroyed. From 7101 rail cars only 607 left.
•    70% of bridges, tunnels, and telegraphic facilities destroyed.
•    75-80% of the national road and highway network destroyed.
•    All port facilities and the Corinth Canal completely destroyed.
•    11.658 out of 17.200 vehicles either destroyed or seized.
•    70% of the telephonic and telegraphic networks  destroyed.
•    Agricultural and animal husbandry reduced by 60%.
•    The same reduction suffered by industrial production.
•    The Greek fleet reduced by 72% losing 1.407.821 tons of its total capacity.
•    Inflation so high that the price of bread rose as followed:
April 1941, 10 drachmas
January 1942, 230 drachmas
July 1943, 2,000 drachmas
January 1944, 38,000 drachmas
September 1944 153,000,000 drachmas
•    In September 28th 1941 the 3rd Reich forced the Bank of Greece to pay 25 million marks monthly for the expenses of the German Army, amounting to 45 million gold UK sovereigns or 4050 billion US dollars. On leaving Greece, the 3rd Reich emptied the remaining Greek gold reserves.

Professor Ritsl has essentially argued that the attitude of Germany towards the financial problem in Greece is unacceptable. Indeed, in an interview in the magazine this summer he is quoted as saying, ‘if Greece….. claims the compensations (owed from the Second World War) and Germany is forced to pay, then they’d even get our … shirts.’ According to the professor, the German postwar ‘miracle’ is due to a large extent on the fact that Greece has never claimed reparations from Germany, as others did. ‘That,’ he concludes, ‘ Germany should not forget.’.

He estimates that at a modest rate of interest, the amount that Germany owes to Greece is estimated to be one trillion euro. In the debate about the possible bankruptcy of the Greek state, the argument that compensation for the widespread damage inflicted by the Nazi regime during World War II is due has resurfaced with increasing frequency. Many people believe that it has been revised by the Greek people  because of their antipathy for Germans after  offensive articles in the German media. But the truth is that Greece  never gave up her legitimate rights to these reparations and legally, it is Greece’s right to claim them.

At the Paris Conference on Reparations after the war, Greece was  accorded 4.5% in material German reparation and 2.7% in other forms of reparations. However, the stipulations made  were all but irrelevant given that the U.S. opposed heavy economic penalties. U.S. leaders recalled what happened after World War I, when Germany’s first democracy, the Weimar Republic, was massively weakened economically by having to pay off reparations: indeed, one of the consequences of this policy had been the rise of Hitler. For this reason reparation payments were held over. In 1953 the Agreement on German Debt was signed in London: according to this, if a reunification of divided  Germany took place, the new state created would become the legal successor of the German Empire and  would have to pay outstanding war reparations.  Greece accepted the treaty, though clearly she had little choice.

The Berlin Wall came down in 1989. In September 1990, The Treaty for the final regulation of the relations with Germany was signed in Moscow between the USA, USSR, Britain, and France, and the united Germany. Among other things, the treaty stated that the unified Germany was now a sovereign and independent nation able to decide  its own internal and external affairs.

Many Greeks believe that their call for compensation is legitimate: as a sovereign nation, Germany is obliged to honour its obligations. If German media and German politicians demand that Greeks pay for their ‘laziness’, Greeks think it is also time Germans paid retribution. They do not think that ‘Arbeit macht frei’.

Germany’s view on the other hand, is that the united Germany is not the legal successor of the German Empire, and therefore not liable for any damages. And in any case, many ordinary Germans believe their pockets are being emptied to prop up a ruin. As the statement displayed in an  advertisement in  the British ‘Spectator’ magazine says:

“Most Germans own a second property. It is called Greece.”

However, the real issue is not whether Germany owes war reparations to Greece, but how the western world should  deal with this difficult economic nightmare of a situation. There are many who say that Germans should stand by Greeks (and many do), not only because it is a legitimate demand but because of  the moral issues of the case for both countries. The point is that Germany must understand that it has its own share of responsibility and must leave off the arrogant rhetoric: the politicians must not forget that two generations ago Germany was only able to stand on its feet thanks to the generous attitude of Western powers, including Greece.  At the moment, the Greeks’ preference to eat, and Berlin’s insistence that they starve is producing the  inevitable seismic results. A more effective and efficient approach to the problem  must be found that deals not only with numbers, but  with a more effective and wider political view.

The Greek nation is facing default for all kinds of reasons that range from insane lending policies by French and German banks to clever schemes worked out by Goldman Sachs to help the Greek Establishment lie to Brussels. But it is also in the mire because of many  cases of official greed and German profiteers controlling the dominant involvement in ‘black funds’ of Siemens bribes and weapons from Berlin. Perhaps,  the next time German tabloids start shrieking about ‘lazy Greeks’, they should bear this in mind.

The wider responsibility of the rest of the world must also be taken into account:  not only Germany owes a debt to Greece. Southern Europe, Britain and America used the country as a crucial bulwark against Soviet communism, and it might similarly be seen as a gatekeeper of extremism today. If Greece fell out of the Eurozone, as the markets now deem far more likely than not, the contagion could swallow up Spain and Portugal, and then Italy. The ramifications of three states with fascistic recent histories suffering the privations that drove so many Greek voters to the more alarming ends of the political spectrum in the last election are unknowable. But one may guess that that the consequences of leaving the euro – the national humiliation as well as hardship and chaos – would unloose resentments powerful enough to rock the democratic system of the  Eurozone itself.

One thing is certain: the years during which Greece was living with borrowed money are gone. From now on, the country faces a painful period to adjust to new, arguably more realistic, economic realities. Unfortunately, this period will probably last far into the future.

The Greeks invented the concepts not only of chaos, anarchy and democracy, but of irony. The term has many definitions, most of them wrong, but situational irony is rightly defined as actions causing precisely the reverse outcome to the one intended. What is now the European Union was built not just as a free trade association, but upon the dream of forever shackling the forces of violent extremism from the ashes of which it arose. If the EU and its addiction to austerity is releasing those very forces, it will cheer Greece even less to be playing such a central part in one of the greatest ironies of all time.

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