When it comes to Germany's handling of the Greece's crisis, the critics have been brutal. The Germans have been unforgiving, inhumane and economically backward, they say. They say that Germany has, whether intentionally or not, ruined the Greek economy based on a moral certitude about the virtues of paying back debt, while pushing through austerity measures that will only make it only harder for the Greeks to pay back anything.
Maybe so. Then again, the Germans and those who agree with them have advanced a host of defenses for why they have taken a hard stance with Greece. And it's worth remembering that even though the Germans may have come in for a share of criticism, other major European powers have, if ever so reluctantly, backed them.
The rest of Europe, after all, has already sent tens of billions of euro Greece's way. They'll have to send more for Greece's economy to continue functioning much longer. But many Europeans feel Greece doesn't deserve any more help, especially because there are other countries in Europe with relatively poor economies and challenged finances that have nevertheless accepted the unpleasant terms they were given for new loans.
"Exasperation is especially widespread among the eurozone's poorer members," wrote Harvard University's Dani Rodrik, a scholar of globalization, in a recent column. "Ask the average person on the street in Slovakia, Estonia, or Lithuania, and you are likely to get a response not too different from this one from a Latvian pensioner: 'We learned our lesson – why can't the Greeks learn the same lesson?' "
In this chart, you see that Greece is among the poorer euro zone members, but by no means the poorest.
Greece's critics argue that the country has been treated generously so far, despite what they see as Athens's mistakes. "You do not give treats to a misbehaving child," Chris Giles writes in The Financial Times. He also wrote:
The cause of Greece’s misery was many years of homegrown economic mismanagement and fiscal profligacy masked with lies over its accounts. When the global crisis exposed its economic misdemeanours, it lost the ability to borrow from financial markets and sought support from the international community. This was granted, largely by its European partners, ensuring much less austerity in Greece than any plausible alternative. Sure, the motives of creditors were not purely altruistic, but the money was lent with the aim of helping the country secure a better present and future.
Giles continued that Syriza, the anti-austerity party that leads the Greek government, has been a poor negotiating partner.
Deploying the kind of tactics that would shame student politicians, the Syriza government has thrown all this hard-won progress aside in an attempt to extract more money from other European countries. It initially asked to reverse spending cuts and tax increases, backtrack on economic reforms and receive a huge debt writedown. There was never any chance of the creditors funding a wishlist that contradicted the democratic wishes of all 18 other eurozone countries. The Syriza-induced stand-off has pushed the Greek economy back into recession.
Many economists, as well as Greece's prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, argue that the only way to restore confidence and certainty in Greece is for the international community to go further and forgive more of Greece's debt. The sooner, the better, they say. Meanwhile, though, Greece needs cash.
Yet many in Europe worry that any more loans it makes to Greece wouldn't be repaid. Greece can't even pay the debts it has taken on already. Before putting more money into Greece, the creditors say they want to see controversial changes to Greek taxes, pensions and labor markets, which they believe will improve their chances of recovering some of their money in the future.
Jeremy Bulow, an economist at Stanford University, argues that the Greek economy has relied heavily on what amounts to European largesse for the past several years. A loan that has no chance of being repaid is no different from a gift, and the Greeks have suffered far less than they would have without that help, he says.
Germany's critics "think that Germany should have given Greece much more foreign aid, really," Bulow said in an interview. "It's got nothing to do with Germany sucking money out of Greece."
Bulow and Harvard University economist Kenneth Rogoff have calculated that Greece received 72 billion euro on net between 2006 and 2009 and another 80 billion euro between 2010 and 2013. Those payments came in the form of Greek bonds sold to investors on the market before 2010, new lending and restructuring from official creditors, and regular subsidies and transfers through the European Union.
Last year and this year, Greece paid back a total of 8 billion euro.
Bulow says that at this point, everyone at the the negotiating table should know that any new loans to Greece will never be paid back, even if they couldn't say it publicly. And so, for officials in Germany and the rest of Europe, just giving the Greeks money would be simpler, but it also would be unpopular with the voters who elected them.
"If you're the Germans and the French, the only way you can avoid telling your taxpayers that you have a writedown is you say 'Okay, we're not getting any money the next couple years, but down the road, Greece is supposed to pay us a whole bunch,' " Bulow said.
There are, of course, objections to Bulow and Rogoff's version of the crisis. Some argue that the money that Greece has received hasn't functioned as foreign aid, but as a rescue for the private investors in other countries who had put their money in Greece. Others say that the problems that caused the crisis in Greece are problems confronting Europe as a whole -- the lack of a continental government with the ability to transfer money quickly between one country and another when things go wrong -- and that all Europeans must share the burden of solving them.
In particular, some observers have said that northern Europeans are at fault for looking the other way when they allowed Greece into the currency union despite its suspicious accounting, making a crisis inevitable. And there's an argument that whatever happened in the past, today Germany is hurting Greece for no reason at all.
Finally, there is still the question of what to do with the rest of Greece's debt. In the short term, financial help is important, but history suggests that unless Greece can write off what it can't pay, its economy won't recover.