From an immensely rarefied height, the eurozone crisis apparently seems a minor impediment on the way to a United States of Europe. According to a recent double act in Der Spiegel involving Helmut Schmidt and Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, "The euro is the currency of a region that has less debt than the dollar zone, a huge trade surplus and a well-managed central bank . . . We are victims of a smear campaign that has its origins in the American banking system." For as Gideon Rachman recently wrote in the Financial Times, if you don't blame the eurozone crisis on a German plan to devastate and dominate, or on the spendthrift PIIGS, then that leaves Anglo-Saxon "speculators".
Giscard did concede limited liability for allowing the eurozone to grow too large: "To be perfectly frank, it was a mistake to accept Greece. Greece simply wasn't ready. Greece is basically an Oriental country . . . Helmut, you were wiser than me." Back in 2000, when Giscard won an Alexander S. Onassis Foundation award, he had argued: "A Europe without Greece would be like a child without a birth certificate." It was "inconceivable" that the land of Plato and Aristotle should not be part of Europe.
What a difference 12 years make in redefining Europe. When I visited Greece recently, my young Athens taxi driver grimly described third world conditions in some of the city's suburbs. Tourism is down about 30 per cent this year, as you can sense from the desperation of restaurant and shop owners in the historic Plaka neighbourhood.
Although the splendid new Acropolis Museum is testimony enough to what our civilisation owes the ancients and their city on the rock, I was equally taken with the more old-fashioned Museum of National History. It occupies a fine building once used by the Greek parliament. Commencing with the fall of Constantinople and the Battle of Lepanto, its exhibits move swiftly to the Phanariot mercantile diaspora and Philiki Etaireia (Society of Friends) — secret societies that rose in revolt against the Ottomans. Room after room is filled with sacral flags bearing the legend "Victory or Death", the texts of secret oaths, and portraits of fierce men with moustaches above displays of their pistols and swords. There is much emphasis on sentimental philhellenism and portraits of Greek nationalist heroes printed on Hungarian playing cards.