A country keenly attuned to any perception of itself as aggressor, Germany witnessed the price of its rising clout Tuesday as 7,000 police officers sought to contain tens of thousands of chanting demonstrators who at least partly blame Berlin for Greece’s economic nightmare of soaring unemployment and cascading bankruptcies.
Berlin is also coping with the inevitable memories of the last time German influence reigned on the continent. Virtually no one here or elsewhere in Europe fears a renewed military threat from Germany, a modern nation that still largely clings to a cathartic form of pseudo-pacifism. Yet an undercurrent of distrust inflamed by the present is nevertheless increasingly evident.
Nowhere is that more true than here in Greece, where rising resentment underscores the obstacles ahead for Merkel’s quest for a more thoroughly integrated European Union. With Germany’s weight poised to grow even further, Merkel sought to show solidarity with the Greeks here, hailing how far they’ve come and commiserating with their “suffering.” But with signs growing that Greece will not meet bailout demands without dramatically accelerated cuts or watered-down loan conditions, she gave no sign Berlin was willing to be more lenient. If Greece doesn’t deal with its debt problems now, she said, “they will only resurface in a more dramatic way.”
For left-wing parties that often rail against the United States, Germany has already become the new target here. Anti-Merkel chants echoed through the streets of Athens on Tuesday, and the searing scent of tear gas lingered. A walkout by state workers temporarily shuttered schools, hospitals and transit stations. Some protesters carried banners depicting the German chancellor in an SS uniform, under the words, “No to the Fourth Reich.”
Along with the usual cast of protesters were well-dressed, middle-class Greeks such as Monolis and Anastasia Moraitis. The two retirees, in their mid-60s, have seen their pensions cut 35 percent under several waves of German-backed austerity here, and they came out to vent their rage.
“I believe the Germans have been and still are the enemies of the Greeks,” said Monolis Moraitis as his wife and other bystanders nodded in agreement.
For Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who needs a deal with international lenders before the government runs out of cash in late November, Merkel’s visit amounted to a strong show of support. Samaras called Merkel “a friend,” lauding her trip for “turning a new page” in what have been tense Greek-German relations. “Though the Greek people are bleeding, we are determined to stay in the euro,” he said.