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?
By Barnaby Phillips
We made our film The Greek Resistance in Athens and Berlin in the summer of 2012. It looks at the troubled 20th century history that haunts Greece and Germany, and the way in which many of the resentments of the past had bubbled up to the surface as the Greek economy went into crisis from late 2009 onwards.
The film is still painfully relevant today – perhaps more so than ever – and I hope it provides some valuable context with which to understand current unfolding events.
The Greek election in January 2015 resulted in a victory for the left-wing Syriza party, which won a mandate with an explicit promise to the Greek people that it would overturn the austerity policies that have had a devastating impact on millions of people. But in the weeks since the election, the new Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and charismatic Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, have been caught in an increasingly bitter tussle with Germany, which is prepared to carry on backing Greece with financial assistance, but only with strict conditions attached.
Syriza is a relatively new party (in fact a coalition of various parties), but it traces its roots to the traumatic events of Greek history in the middle of the 20th century – the Nazi occupation, the Civil War of the 1940s, and the Junta years of the 1960s and 70s.
The German government has been surprised, and irritated, by the fact that once in office Syriza immediately raised the issue of Germany paying reparations, or at least repaying extorted loans, dating from the war years. For Germany the matter is closed, but for many Greeks it is extremely emotional, a sentiment only exaggerated by their current sense of humiliation and powerlessness relative to German economic might.
In an article accompanying the film in 2012, I wrote:
‘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.
Nonetheless, there is a great irony to the current tensions in the European Union. This Union was born out of the catastrophe of World War II, 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.’
All of which holds today. Greece and Germany are facing their moment of truth. And the future of Europe depends on the outcome.