Al Jazeera Correspondent

The Greek Resistance

Tied together by a painful history, Greece and Germany are locked into a new conflict that has reawakened old ghosts.

Last Modified: 23 Nov 2012 17:32
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Greece - it is where Europe's civilisation and the very idea of democracy began. But today the country is in crisis; a crisis that may well destroy the dream of a unified Europe.

A dream born out of the nightmare of World War II, a dream to unite different nations under one currency, has become a tragedy.

Ten years after joining the eurozone, the Greek economy has collapsed, living standards have plummeted, hundreds of thousands are out of work and thousands more have left the country to find a new future.

Many Greeks blame the European Union, and Germany in particular, for the crisis they are in. Today, almost 70 years after its military defeat in World War II, Germany is the strongest economic power in Europe and its political leadership holds the future of Greece in its hands.

Al Jazeera correspondent Barnaby Phillips travels to Greece to discover why these two countries, tied by history and culture, are now locked into a conflict. Why has the European vision, designed to heal the wounds of the past, instead brought them back to the surface? And who is to blame - the Greeks themselves, the EU or the old enemy, Germany?

Correspondent's view: Ghosts of the past

By Barnaby Phillips

Barnaby Phillips examines the historical context of Greek-German relations [Al Jazeera]

When I first moved to Greece in 2006, I read a fascinating book about the Nazi occupation of 1941 to 1944. It is called Inside Hitler's Greece and is by the historian Mark Mazower. It helped me understand the historical context to the country I was now covering.

The 1940s were bitter years in Greece. There were massacres and starvation, and the Nazi invaders were brutal. The Greek resistance was heroic, although fatally divided.

The Nazi occupation was followed by a civil war that lasted from 1946 to 1949.

The Greece of 2006 felt like a very different place, apparently prosperous and confident, basking in the glory of the recent successful Athens Olympics and able to look at the past with a degree of detachment.

Things began to change in 2010, when the Greek debt crisis erupted. As the situation worsened, I noticed that people in Athens began to talk about the past with more passion. They felt its relevance more and more. It was as if old ghosts had been reawakened. Some Greeks began to see parallels between the present and the 1940s. Once again, they felt oppression from Germany, and, once again, they saw bitter divisions emerging between right and left within their own society.

I was fascinated, but saddened, by this process, and decided to make a film about it.

I knew that this was a sensitive area, and that it would be easy to slip into exaggeration and caricature. So let me say a couple of things straight away. I do not believe that Greece is sliding towards dictatorship. I believe its robust, outspoken democracy is too strong for that. And I also believe that any attempt to draw a moral equivalence between the Nazi occupation of Europe in the 1940s and Germany's current economic dominance is absurd.

 Christian: 'A crisis is always a chance'

Nonetheless, there is a great irony to the current tensions in the European Union. This Union was born out of the catastrophe of the Second World War, an attempt to ensure that what had just occurred could never happen again. But today, the euro currency, the supposed jewel in the crown of the European project, seems to be having the opposite affect to what was intended. Tensions are growing between the eurozone countries in the poorer southern parts of the continent and the wealthier north. And in the case of Greece, the rigid conditions imposed by Germany are leading to a direct revival of resentments that have not been felt for decades.

In the film, I examine Greek attitudes towards Germany, and German attitudes towards Greece. I travel to both countries, and meet some remarkable characters caught up in the Greek tragedy. In the end, my conclusions are both optimistic and pessimistic.

Optimistic, in the sense that in both countries attitudes towards the crisis are more nuanced and reflective than we journalists have often shown in our daily news coverage. Greeks, ultimately, blame themselves for the mess they are in, even as they resent outsiders who impose misguided or counterproductive measures on their country. Meanwhile in Berlin I discovered that most Germans are far more sympathetic to the plight of ordinary Greeks than I had imagined.

But I am also pessimistic in the sense that the Greek crisis has not yet run its course. Even under the best circumstances, there are years of hardship ahead. By the end of 2014, Greek GDP will have shrunk by one quarter from its pre-crisis level. For Greeks, this is a depression, not a recession. And in this sense, my film does not have a neat conclusion.

There is a character in our film called Evangelos. He has left Greece because there are no jobs, and has just arrived in Germany with his young family, almost penniless, and with little idea of how to rebuild his life. When I ask him whether he thinks he will ever live in Greece again, he weeps, and says he does not think so. Just like Evangelos, I do not know what will happen in Greece next. I only know that the happy and optimistic country I moved to back in 2006 now seems like a distant mirage.


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