Mediterranean Melodrachma

'Conditions in Greece are grim, as one can see from the elderly ladies silently begging for their family's next meal'

Michael Burleigh


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. 

Then in 1832 they got the Germans, in the shape of a Bavarian princeling Otto, become Othon, with a team of advisers known as the “bavarocracy”. By 1862 the Orthodox Greeks had enough of the Catholic Othon and deposed him, choosing instead a gentler Dane, George I. More wars ensued as the fledgling Greek state backed ethnic Greek uprisings against the Ottomans from Crete to Macedonia. The Germans returned in 1941 to bail out their Italian ally whose forces had invaded Greece and been defeated the year before.  Unpaid reparations for the havoc the Nazis caused during their occupation clearly rankle still. 

Conditions in contemporary Greece are very grim, as one can see from the numbers of elderly ladies silently begging for their family’s next meal. Indeed, the unsung heroism of the elderly has become a pan-European phenomenon. In Spain, care homes report record numbers of vacancies as their aged occupants are retrieved so that three generations can subsist from a single pension. It’s bad too at the bottom end of the age scale, with Greek children falling asleep at school because of lack of food. 

The Greeks are fully aware of their own responsibility for their predicament, much of it attributable to a corrupt political class.Interestingly, several Greeks acknowledged that Margaret Thatcher had been right all along in rejecting the rigidities of a euro whose main beneficiaries have been German exporters selling expensive products to southerners flooded with cheap money. Which companies, they asked, had most benefited from the huge infrastructural improvements you can see all around you? 

I was also surprised that ordinary Greeks had heard enough of David Cameron to hope that he would take the lead in busting this German racket, by reversing the onward rush to fiscal federation that seems to be the Giscard-Schmidt way of dealing with the crisis. In that I fear they will be further disappointed. 

Giscard and Schmidt fear a regression to “selfish national interests”, apparently unaware that it is precisely the appearance of a latter-day bavarocracy that is outraging a people whose ancestors gave the world democracy. Meanwhile, German tourists crack jokes about paying for the railway connecting Athens to its new airport, not realising that it might be they, rather than the Greeks, who are Europe’s problem.

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