A man displays a poster depicting German Chancellor Merkel in a Nazi uniform in Athens
A man displays a poster depicting German Chancellor Merkel in a Nazi uniform in Athens Reuters

Mired in a deep and prolonged economic crisis, the much beleaguered people of Greece have apparently turned the bulk of their anger upon Germany, the most powerful economy in Europe.

The German government -- and especially Chancellor Angela Merkel -- are widely blamed by Greek politicians and ordinary citizens for being instrumental in punishing Athens with a crushing austerity program in exchange for a huge €130 billion ($170 billion) bailout from the European Union (EU).

With drastic cuts in spending, massive job losses, and reductions in pensions and salaries, the Greeks face a long, hard road ahead of them – and it appears Germany will bear the brunt of Greece’s composite anger and outrage.

According to a poll conducted by Epikaria magazine, 71 percent of the Greek public “dislike” Germany, while almost one-third (32 percent) of respondents compared Berlin’s current fiscal policies with those of the Nazis, who brutally occupied Greece during World War II.

Only 8.6 percent of Greeks polled held a favorable view of the Germans (who, not coincidentally, happen to be Athens’ largest creditor).

Moreover, recent negative comments about Greeks by some senior German officials, particularly finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, have exacerbated the ill feelings across Greece.

How deep is this Hellenic animosity towards Germans? And what is the historical background between these two countries at the opposite ends of Europe’s wealth spectrum?

International Business Times spoke with two experts on Greece to gain their insight onto this subject.

Artemis Leontis is an associate professor of Modern Greek and Hunting Family Professor of the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Dr. Maria Hnaraki is director of Greek studies at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pa.

IB TIMES: Anti-German feelings are increasing in Greece; with many Greeks blaming Berlin for their economic troubles and also resenting what they feel is Germany’s domineering, overbearing attitude. Is this a brand new phenomenon, or have anti-German sentiments already existed among the Greek people – and are just now bubbling to the surface?

LEONTIS: The past is never far away from the present in Greece.
We cannot talk about “anti-German” feelings in Greece without talking about the special claim Germany has made on Greece and the huge imprint this has left on the Modern Greek state from its beginnings.

HNARAKI: I should point out that criticism of German policies in Greece has also come from within Germany itself. Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt -- who was one of the protagonists when Greece joined the EU -- has accused his country’s current leaders of failing to grasp modern international finance, and of acting inefficiently on crisis management.
In addition, German intellectual heavyweight Jurgen Habermas, a sociologist and philosopher, slammed German and European elites for not understanding the core issues of the crisis and for failing to provide leadership to the public.

IBTIMES: Please discuss Germany's long obsession with ancient Greece and its role as the cradle of Western civilization.

LEONTIS: The idea of “Greece” has operated in the Western imagination as an ideal, a source, an origin of identity and a cultural model since the late 1700s.
The British, French, Americans, and Germans have all claimed to be “Greek” themselves; but no group has done this with greater certainty than the Germans.

Greek tragedy in particular was a German fixation for all the German greats (Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, Friedrich Hölderlin, Richard Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger).

A symbol of how “Greek” the Germans felt is the Walhalla Temple, the German Hall of Fame in Bavaria honoring 2000-years of German achievements. A paean to the Teutonic race with six Valkyries as Caryatids decorating the interior, Walhalla is a replica of the Athenian Parthenon on the exterior.

However, for those Germans who “identified” with ancient Greek culture, the existence of people on Greek soil who claim to be Greek was -- through at least World War II -- a real problem, and I suspect it remains so today in less conscious or less clearly articulated ways.

Indeed, just two years after the Modern Greek state was established in 1828, the Bavarian Jakob Philipp Fallmerayer, a student of classical and oriental philology, used racist arguments to claim the Greeks of today do not have an ounce of Greek blood in them.

Moreover, in 1833 the new Greek state was given a Bavarian king, Otto, and an entourage of advisors to rule over the country, plan Greece’s capital city, and organize its army and education system, because the ruling powers of Europe did not think Greeks capable of ruling themselves.

HNARAKI: Indeed, many of the greatest German minds, such as Imannuel Kant, Sigmund Freud, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, to name just a few, based their thoughts on classical Greek values, anticipating the incorporation of Hellenism into the foundation of a German national culture.

In that sense, it is of mutual benefit to continue a working relationship, namely what the President of the European Parliament German Social Democrat Martin Schulz underlined as the appeal of the “we are all Greeks” movement.

IB TIMES: This idolatry of ancient Greece continued even during World War II?

LEONTIS: Yes, during the Axis occupation of Greece in World War II from April 1941 through October 1944, the German Reich raised the Nazi flag over the Acropolis, and took possession of what Adolf Hitler called the symbol of “human culture” and indeed all of Greece as something that was uniquely its own.
Under this regime, more than 250,000 people died of starvation, there were mass executions, the country’s infrastructure was ruined, and the population of Greece dropped by more than 10 percent.

Over and over again, representatives of the German Reich stated that they “could not care less” if Greeks were dying of hunger, so long as not a single German starved.

Greeks certainly have never really forgotten this history. It is an immense legacy, and it hangs over the negotiations of the future of Europe.

IB TIMES: What were some of the atrocities the Nazis committed in Greece?

HNARAKI: Many atrocities took place in Greece during the war.
For example, Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, was the home for the largest Jewish community -- Jews were murdered there despite efforts by the Greek Orthodox Church hierarchy and many individual Christian Greeks to shelter them.

Then there was the infamous massacre in the Cretan village of Kondomari – the mass execution of male civilians by an ad hoc firing squad of German paratroopers. Similar incidents were recorded in several other regions in Greece.

Events such as these naturally created negative memories in the minds of the Greeks particularly as they deal with the immediate past.

LEONTIS: There was the mass murder of 1200 civilians at Kalavryta (the entire male population in reprisal for 77 dead German soldiers); the mass murder of more than 218 civilians at Distomo in retaliation for the deaths of three German soldiers; the mass extermination of more than 500 people at Viannos and Ierapetra in Crete; the execution of 164 civilians at Kedros in Crete; and the mass extermination of more than 300 people the village of Kommeno.

Also, Greek Jews were deported en masse – it is believed that 86 percent of Greece’s Jewish population perished in the concentration camps.

However, the deadliest weapon used against Greek civilians was forced starvation – it is estimated that between 250,000 and 300,000 died from hunger during the Great Famine, which reached its peak in the winter of 1941-1942.

Adding insult to injury, the Greeks were forced to pay the German Nazi and Italian Fascist forces large sums as occupation expenses to cover not only their occupation costs but also German war efforts in North Africa. As a percentage of GNP, these sums were multiples of the occupation costs borne by France, Holland, Belgium, or Norway.

Continue to Part 2.