Greece has been governed these many years with recklessness and incompetence. Its politicians sought votes by creating a welfare state that the country could not afford. The introduction of the euro in place of the drachma, the national currency, seemed an unsolicited gift from heaven. Greece could spend what it liked and the bill would go to others, first of all Germany, the economic power of the euro zone. Dispensing with the strong deutschmark, its national currency, Germany was able to export more in the weak euro. For a few years, everyone pretended that this was the best of all possible arrangements for all concerned. Critics who pointed out that the euro has an insuperable design fault were dismissed with scorn as xenophobes and fuddy-duddies who couldn’t keep up with the times. As though lightning struck, at last it became obvious that Greece could never earn enough money to repay the incredible debt it had so genially built up. More dire still, other euro zone countries have been almost as profligate.
Germany’s hour had come. Today’s Germans, it must be stressed, are not in any respect like their forebears under Hitler. Of course it is hard for them to accept responsibility for other peoples’ foolish desire to have a higher standard of living than they can afford. For understandable reasons, they have balked at standing guarantor for others in the euro zone, and they search for some way around the obligation when there is no other way. What this amounts to is an exercise of power unprecedented since Hitler overran the continent. The Germans are dictating to other countries. Removing elected prime ministers and installing men chosen as “technocrats” — a synonym for obedient — they have turned Greece and Italy into protectorates. With staggering disregard of manners and statesmanship, the German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble recommends that Greece postpone forthcoming elections and install a government with no representatives of the key parties. To which the Greek president, the elderly Karolos Papoulias who as a teenager fought the Nazis, asked, “Who is Mr. Schaeuble to insult Greece?”
The German recipe is to make the debtor countries acknowledge their manifold faults and pay as much of their debts as is feasible. Austerity is the watchword. Greeks must cut expenditure, raise taxes, and hand the money over. The new Greek government under its approved prime minister Lucas Papademos has the grim task of enforcing this policy. This at once invites the comparison, too close for comfort, with General Tsolakoglou or Ioannis Rallis, prime ministers who collaborated under German occupation in the war. Then as now, the economy collapsed. Greeks were made to pay the costs of the occupation and they were forced to sell whatever supplies the Germans wanted. In return they received worthless paper marks, issued locally. In Athens alone, 300,000 people died of starvation. Mussolini’s son-in-law and his foreign minister, no soft heart either, noted in his diary, “The Germans have taken from the Greeks even their shoelaces.” The costs of the occupation and a compulsory “war loan” were never repaid. Jacques Delpla, an economist and adviser to the French government, estimated in July 2011 that Germany owes Greece 575 billion euros.
Today the Greek government has long since ceased to pay its bills. Pensions have been slashed, the budgets of schools and hospitals cut. Unemployment is over 20 percent. The middle classes are ruined. People accustomed to look after themselves and their families, to run a business and provide work, are becoming homeless and living off charity and public soup kitchens. It is not surprising that newspapers are drawing comparisons with the Nazi-dominated past. At Kalavryta in December 1943 the Germans in one among scores of massacres summarily executed 696 men. Thirteen survived, and the last one still alive gives interviews. In a celebrated act of resistance, 82-year-old Manolis Glezos pulled the swastika flag off the Acropolis, and he too is giving interviews. A columnist in the Daily Telegraph reproaches German policy for its unbelievably heedless cruelty towards Greece.
It is a strange freak of history that Greece was the staunch ally of Britain from the first days of the war onwards, and resisted the German occupation with courage, only to find itself under the German cosh at a moment when Britain has rejected the euro zone and cannot be a meaningful ally. A debate has taken place in the House of Lords, in which Lord Lamont, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, pointed out that Greece is being forced to choose between the “utterly impossible and utterly incredible.” A friend of mine, Lord Willoughby de Broke, went further. German policy, he said, was down to “austerity macht frei,” an echo of the slogan “work makes you free” set over the entrance to Auschwitz. The past is catching up with the present and the European Union autodestructs.