ATHENS — Amid a massive security operation that locked down much of this ancient capital, German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday staged a gutsy foray into the heart of Europe’s debt crisis. If her protest-plagued trip shined a spotlight on struggling Greece, it also highlighted a problem for a resurgent Germany: its image.
As Europe’s largest and healthiest economy, Germany has risen to the height of its post-World War II power over the past three years, effectively serving as the region’s paymaster through a series of debt-crisis bailouts. As Germany has led demands for harsh cuts in exchange for cash, Merkel has emerged as Europe’s symbol of austerity.
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.
His government is desperately seeking the release of the next bailout payment of $40 billion, delayed by disputes over whether Greece’s debt is sustainable and how quickly fresh cuts can be made. The International Monetary Fund has said it will not contribute any more to an existing bailout plan for the country, leaving Germany and other European nations to foot the bill — a role German taxpayers are tiring of.
But there is no question the onerous terms of the current debt deal have revived bitter old feelings. An independent Greek commission has been named to study the question of whether Germany still owes Greece reparations for the brutal Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1944. To help fund Greece’s 2013 budget, some Greek politicians have argued that Athens should demand repayment of a forced loan made to the Nazis in 1941.
To understand the anger coursing through parts of Greece so many decades after World War II, consider the case of Distomo, a tiny hamlet 86 miles north of Athens. Its main street, Sacrifice Road, earned its name after the events of June 10, 1944, when the Nazis came calling.
In what is thought to have been retribution for attacks by the Greek resistance, Nazi occupiers went door to door starting at 4 p.m., rounding up locals and systematically massacring 218 victims ranging from a 90-year-old grandmother to a 1-month-old child. The town gathers every year to remember what happened that day: how the Nazis gutted a pregnant woman, how they butchered the village priest.
After the reunification of Germany in 1990, locals sued the new German state for individual compensation. Armed with a Greek court ruling, they tried to seize the land of Germany’s Goethe-Institut in Athens in 2000. A subsequent ruling struck down the decision in the town’s favor, but for many here and across Greece, one point remains clear.
“Greece does not owe Germany. Germany owes Greece,” said Lucas Papachristou, 74, Distomo’s former mayor who was 6 at the time of the massacre.
In the 1960s, Germany paid out roughly $74 million to Greek victims of Nazi crimes. But many here argue that failed to settle the issue, with the newly appointed commission of academics, economists and government officials now reviewing archives and records to come up with what they describe as a more accurate figure.
Yet in Distomo, perhaps of more concern to Germany than the elderly with bitter recollections are the likes of 16-year-olds like Asteria Pandeska and Maria Kelermeni. Both say they have come to like many modern-day Germans, a people they largely know through exchange students at their high school. But both girls share a distrust of the German state and its motivations, and they are furious about the stereotypes of Greeks as lazy and profligate that have flown from the pages of German tabloids and looser-lipped politicians in Berlin.
In addition, they blame Merkel for foisting tough austerity on Greece, a country where after three years of crisis, 68,000 businesses have gone bankrupt and one in four Greeks is out of work.
“We hear the Germans make negative comments about the Greeks, as if we are inferior to them because we have financial problems,” Pandeska said. “I feel those are echoes of the past.”
Kelermeni added: “Of course, she can’t, but I wish Angela Merkel could walk the streets of Athens on Tuesday and see the suffering Germany is causing us today. I wish she could see just how harsh she is being with our country.”
The efforts in Greece aimed at revisiting the past are viewed at least in part as political posturing in a broken country reaching for whatever leverage it can find in tough bailout negotiations. And in their most candid moments, many here concede that the woes are just as much Greece’s fault given its deeply troubled political class, its culture of tax evasion and the wild overspending in this Mediterranean nation after adoption of the euro in 2001.
Merkel is facing intense pressure at home to be tough with the Greeks and to spell out in firm terms that there is no alternative to more pain if they want to stay on the euro. Yet in recent months, Merkel has seemed to tone down her rhetoric on Germany’s troubled neighbors. While insisting countries like Greece must continue making hard adjustments, she has increasingly acknowledged the heavy toll that cuts are taking.
And Greeks such as Panagiotis Korliras, a leading economist here, say Merkel should be given substantial credit for facing her toughest critics by visiting Athens. Merkel’s trip Tuesday forced Korliras to close his office because of the anti-Merkel protests called in nearby Syntagma Square. But he is pleased that she decided to visit. It shows, he said, that Merkel is backing up her public words — she has repeatedly said she wants to see Greece stay in the euro zone — with deeds.
“It’s a signal that somehow, Germany will keep Greece safely in the euro,” Korliras said before Merkel’s arrival. “She’s coming to say, ‘Help us help you.’ ”
Elinda Labropoulou in Athens and Howard Schneider in Washington contributed to this report.