by Ulf Brunnbauer and Christina Koulouri
On March 2, 2010 the cover page of the most popular German tabloid, BILD-Zeitung, read: “Cheating Greeks Destroy Our Euro.” A week earlier, the weekly newspaper Focus had provoked uproar when its cover page featured the statue of Aphrodite of Milos, pictured as giving the finger. The headline read “Fraudsters in the Euro Family.” As a response to the provocation by Focus magazine, on February 23, 2010 the Greek right-wing daily Eleftheros Typos (Free Press) published the image of Goddess Victoria on the top of the Berlin Siegessäule holding a swastika; its headline was “Economic Nazism threatens South Europe”. In the years that followed, German politicians such as Chancellor Angela Merkel were depicted by Greek newspapers in Nazi uniforms. Anti-German demonstrations in the streets of Athens reached their peak during the visit of Chancellor Merkel to Greece in October 2012. On that occasion, the most popular Greek Sunday tabloid, Proto Thema (First Issue), greeted the German Chancellor with the word ‘Heil’ on its cover page of October 7, 2012.
Only slightly less inflammatory was the language used by politicians in Germany and Greece, when they accused each other of failures in the unending struggle to solve Greece’s debt crisis. Most commentators in Germany tended to portray Greeks as untrustworthy, spendthrift do-nothings, whereas Greeks associated German-imposed austerity with a renewed attempt by Germany to project its power over Greece and Europe. The assessment of Berlin’s policy in Greece was not of course unanimous, but the rhetoric about a “hidden” hegemonic plan was dominant, described by populist politicians as the “Fourth Economic Reich”.
There is no denying that during the Greek debt crisis the relationship between Germany and Greece reached the nadir. The ongoing refugee movement to Europe through Greece provoked further mutual acrimony. The images used in the public debate were full of stereotypes, many of them loaded with a long history and deeply entrenched in the collective imagination of Greece and Germany. Yet, while unfounded accusations and vitriolic reproaches contributed neither to better mutual understanding nor to the resolution of evident political and economic problems, they made clear that the relations between Germany and Greece are overdetermined: denigrating images are used because they have social resonance. Hhence there is an underlying sediment of ideas about each other which can be evoked, manipulated and exploited for political reasons. On the other hand, stereotypes follow the timeline of the crisis: memoranda imposing austerity measures; elections and government changes; international developments not directly linked to the Greek-German relations; and a dramatic flow of unexpected events inside and outside Europe can alter, intensify or dissolve stereotypes. Therefore, there is both continuity and discontinuity in the mutual stereotyping between Germany and Greece.
This is where history and culture studies come in: to explain the genealogy and salience of collective notions about other countries. Historians and philologists cannot solve the problems of the day, but they can help make us understand why other people see the world differently from us, and accordingly why they have different preferences. Historical knowledge can also contribute to fight ignorance, which is partly responsible for the construction of stereotypes. Negative images of other people, which are widespread in the public sphere, are inspired by historical symbols; actually, stereotypes represent an abuse of history. Therefore, historians can contribute to the public debate by raising the historical awareness of citizens so that they may assume a more critical stance as far as simplifying accounts of reality are concerned.
It would of course distort the historical record if one countered the recent controversies between public and political figures in Greece and Germany by just saying that there were so many instances of friendly relations in the past. As a matter of fact, the most direct form of contact between the two countries was a traumatic one for Greece, whose traces remain even today and for which Germany never really lived up: the unprovoked attack of Germany against Greece in April 1941 and the five years of brutal occupation that followed. Hundreds of thousands of Greek citizens were killed and maimed by the Germans occupying forces or lost their lives as resistance fighters, and hardly a family in Greece did not have someone to mourn when the German troops finally left. Unsurprisingly, massacres of villagers by the Wehrmacht and the famine of the winter of 1941/42 remain as major events in the collective memory in Greece. What is also remembered – and easily evoked nowadays – is the reluctance of post-war Germany to pay substantial reparations to Greece. The case of the Second World War as a period of dramatically dense interactions between the two countries – in the form of Germany’s denial of Greece’s right to independent existence – also highlights another important fact; there is a structural imbalance in mutual perceptions: the fact that Greece was subjected to a brutal occupational regime and that the majority of the Greek Jews were murdered by the Germans is hardly present in the German collective memory; in public representations of the war and of German guilt as well, Greece occupies a minor place, if mentioned at all. There are no regular visits of Federal Presidents, Chancellors and Foreign Ministers of Germany to places where German atrocities are commemorated in Greece on a similar level like in France or Poland. Understandably, Greek society is incensed by the perceived ignorance of Germans for the suffering of Greece by German hands.
On the other hand, relations between Germany and Greece have been much more multi-layered than the catastrophe of the Second World War and the German reluctance to address Greek grievances about it would suggest. Ever since the establishment of the Modern Greek state in 1830, multi-level and intense relations developed between the two countries. From the very beginning, these relations were ambivalent and often perceived by Greek and German observers in conflicting ways. There are several reasons for the ambiguity: one is the difference in the political and economic power of each side, which is why Greece has often been on the receiving end of transfers or was integrated in unequal exchanges. Another one is that perceptions of the other country were based upon stereotypical notions that had little in common with social relations, a fact that resulted in misguided actions. The most powerful cultural cliché that fed (mis-)perceptions was the idea of Philhellenism. German (and other European) visitors in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries went to Greece in the romantic and idealistic expectation to meet the descendants of ancient Hellas – an expectation that could only lead to disappointment. The National Socialists as well were enthusiastic fans of ancient Greece, though in their very own interpretation, and they were claiming its legacy. It was at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, when for the first time the Olympic torch was lit in Greece. The first Olympic torch relay linked symbolically ancient Olympia with Berlin. Hitler funded German archaeological excavations in Greece using his own funds, allegedly from the sale of Mein Kampf. Until 1941, Germany found willing interlocutors among the Greek elite, who held similarly racialized images of ancient Hellas. However, Philhellenism also stimulated artistic creativity and prompted peculiar transfers: German architects who decorated Munich with Neo-Classical edifices in the early 19th century (especially on Königsplatz and Ludwig-Straße) would erect public buildings in a pseudo-Hellenic style in Athens under King Otto from Bavaria. Hence, architectural ideas purportedly taken from Greece were re-transplanted in the new Greece via Munich.
The Bavarian-Greek connection is a particularly close one; it is also loaded with controversy. The first King of Greece was a Bavarian Prince, Otto Friedrich Ludwig von Wittelsbach, second son of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Otto was just 16 years old when crowned, and he came not alone, but with 3,500 Bavarian soldiers and his own counsellors who planned to transplant the administrative structure of Bavaria to the newly established Kingdom of Greece. Along with them, a substantial number of Germans moved to Greece, where they expected to prosper. During his reign Otto I, who wanted to rule as an absolute monarch, faced strong opposition by Greek politicians who demanded a constitution; retrospectively, his rule was seen as “foreign” in Greek collective memory, and was called “Bavarokratia”. So, from the very beginning of Modern Greece’s existence, Germany was one of the most important countries in Europe with which Greece entered into – often uneasy ‒ relationships. There was, for example, a lively academic exchange, not least thanks to the German Archaeological Institute in Athens, which was established in 1872. Also Germany became an important trading partner for Greece. A close relationship developed between the German and the Greek royal dynasties when the heir to the Greek throne Constantine married Sofia, the Kaiser’s sister. This family bond affected the question of Greece’s participation in the First World War and lead to a deep National Schism between the Greek Prime Minister Venizelos and King Constantine. Despite the brutalities of German war-time occupation, Greek post-war governments were quick to try to re-establish friendly relations with (West) Germany. After all, both the Federal Republic of Germany and Greece became part of the Western alliance system – and as partners in NATO and members of the European Union (which Greece joined in 1981) they are literally in the same boat.
One of the most notable and visible signs of intensifying bilateral relations was the increasing numbers of “ordinary” people who went to Greece and Germany, respectively, after the end of World War Two. However, these movements also highlighted the structural inequality of the relationship: while Germans came mainly as tourists to Greece, as the country became one of the major tourist destinations for Germans, Greeks went to Germany as labour migrants. In 1960, the Federal Republic of Germany and Greece signed a treaty on the recruitment of workers from Greece, as a result of which more than 400,000 Greeks left Greece in order to work in Germany, typically in the industrial sector. Although many of the Greek Gastarbeiter returned, they left a community of nowadays more than 370,000 people of Greek descent constituting the fourth largest immigrant population group in Germany. The numerous Greek restaurants all around Germany are a vivid legacy of the post-war mass migration from Greece to Germany. Not all Greeks that came to Germany did so voluntarily: East Germany took in thousands of Greek communists who fled the country after their defeat in the Greek civil war in 1949, and opponents of Greek military dictatorship (1967–1974) found refuge also in West Germany.
After almost two hundred years of bilateral relations, it is evident that these were intense but often asymmetric, usually to the disfavour of Greece. It is apparent that representations of past conflicts are revived in times of crisis. The mutual representations of the past are also asymmetric: whereas Germany, in different ways, occupies an important place in the memory landscape of Greece, German memory is largely silent about Greece. If at all, Greece serves as a romanticized image of a sanctuary from stressful life under forbidding weather. Considering the fact that representations of the past are an important part of our current perceptions of the world, and that these perceptions shape our expectations for the future and thus inform practice, the creation of empathy implies taking stock of these mutual images.
This historical background and its relevance for today was the starting point of a two-year long project by the University of Regensburg and the Panteion University, Athens. Under the title “Contested Greek-German Pasts. An Initiative for Students and Young Scholars”, a group of 24 professors, postdoctoral researchers as well as doctoral, graduate and undergraduate students worked on specific topics from the history of bilateral relations between Greece and Germany and their representation. The project was funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in its program “University Dialogue with Southern Europe.” Two workshops in Athens and Regensburg in 2015 served not only the discussion of the research themes, but were also used for guest lectures on various aspects of German Greek relations. On both occasions, panel discussions on the current state of the relationship were organised as well and drew large crowds. Visits to museums and archives in Athens and Munich showed the richness of the historical material on the relationship between the two countries. The individual research projects address four major episodes in the history of German-Greek relations:
- Bavarian Rule
- German occupation during the Second World War
- Greek labour migration to Germany after 1945
- Mutual clichés in right-wing discourse
These are four important examples of the dense network of relations which have produced legacies that have shaped mutual perceptions for many years or even up until today. Important as they are, they do not account for the full history of relations between the two countries and their societies. Thus, we understand this collection of essays also as an invitation to further explore this historical relationship. We can build a common Europe only if we know more about those who share the common house and how they have interacted in the past – in bad and good days. There is no bright future without accounting for the past, including its dark aspects. A small project like this will not be able to repair the relationship between Greece and Germany, but it shows the potential of joint efforts and mutual appreciation, which is so easily overseen once the yellow press and populist politicians dominate the debate. Besides, it is particularly important to involve young students in endeavours of this kind combining research with personal interaction, because younger generations will build our future.
Finally, we want to thank all those who contributed to the success of the project. These are our colleagues who coordinated the working groups, as well as the researchers and students participating in them. Guests have enriched our program in Athens and Regensburg, and various institutions provided a warm welcome. Last but not least, the DAAD deserves gratitude for the funding of the project. Were there only more initiatives of this kind.