Greek-German Relations Through a Populist Newspaper

by Myrsini Matthaiou (Panteion University, Athens)

Greece during the Crisis”, as is stated during the last five years in the Greek and international press and literature, represents a distinct period of contemporary Greek history. Starting from the year 2010 as a turning-point, Greek society has been suffering from financial troubles. These turbulences have revealed marginalised and consequently unappreciated phenomena, and have put to the test relationships established and enshrined through the years, such as the relations between Greece and Germany. This essay seeks to trace the course of Greek-German relations during the five years of the crisis, as reflected in the Sunday issues of a Greek populist newspaper (actually, a tabloid), namely Proto Thema (“First Issue”). This is the newspaper with the highest circulation in Greece during the entire last decade.1 Taking as a point of reference three important visits to Greece during this particular period, namely two visits by Chancellor Angela Merkel and one by President Joachim Gauck, we investigate how these visits were greeted and presented by the newspaper in question in the context of the Greek-German relations.


The visits of Chancellor Angela Merkel to Greece (October 9, 2012 and April 11, 2014)

The visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Greece in October 2012 and her planned meeting with Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras a few months after the June elections were presented by Proto Thema as a step towards the conclusion of a “total bailout deal” in exchange for the implementation of “painful [fiscal] measures.” The newspaper came out with this title two days before the arrival of the Chancellor, on Sunday, October 7, 2012.

However, the front page of that issue2 is highly provocative, using as background an enlarged photo of A. Merkel where she appears strictly facing down, with an outstretched finger, while a super-enlarged “HEIL” dominates the centre of the page. The incendiary image is completed by the phrase “THA GINEI TIS TRITIS. General uprising for the visit. They threaten Athens with hell. Fear of provocation.3

Although the editorial of the newspaper on the subject of the meeting of the two leaders adopts a moderate line and highlights points of convergence between the two sides, the figure of Merkel with the outstretched finger and the Nazi salute “HEIL” still decorates the top left of the page, in a smaller size this time. The same is repeated in the next two articles referring to the visit. The concern expressed by the author4 of the article regarding the security measures taken in view of the visit of the Chancellor, because of the rise of the extreme right-wing party in Greece, is impressive. In particular, the author writes: “The rise of the pro-Nazi party in our country gives cause for concern […] with the alarm going off.” At the same time his article is ‘adorned’ by the above-described illustration.

On page 22 we find a short article titled “Difficulties”5 which, with a mixture of irony and criticism, highlights the problem of the sustainability of the Greek debt and the disagreement on this issue between the IMF and EU. The author claims that Germany and the EU as a whole do not want to resolve the issue so as to impose political and fiscal inspection on the country as well as to change the Greek model of socioeconomic development. The last two articles, on the back cover of the newspaper, are written by two of the co-owners of the newspaper. The first one, Themos Anastassiadis, exclaims: “Chancellor, behold your Frankensteins! Angela, SOS, the guinea pig is dead.” The second one, called Tasos Karamitsos, cheers on: “Everyone take to the streets!” in a peaceful protest ‘to honour’ the visit of the Chancellor.

After the departure of the Chancellor, in the edition of Proto Thema the following Sunday (October 14, 2012) references to Germany are sparse. This issue of the newspaper focuses mainly on imaginative protest methods during the manifestation at the Syntagma Square, the naked activists and the trade union representatives wearing uniforms of SS officers, where the Nazi greeting with the raised closed palm was replaced by the Greek greeting of “open palm” (mountza).6 The title of the article was “The naked and the Nazis of Frau Merkel.” A satirical portrayal of Angela Merkel as Valide Sultan (the mother of the Ottoman Sultan), and of the German people as the Sultan, follows. The caption, however, specifies that the satire is addressed to the Greeks, claiming that the German Chancellor as a democratically elected leader is accountable to the German people for her choices. Equally satirical are two more columns, but still the satire refers to the mobilisation on the occasion of the arrival of the Chancellor; another fact that confirms the schizoid editorial line of the newspaper, given the call to a peaceful protest just the previous week.

Almost two years after her first visit, Chancellor Merkel comes back to meet again with the Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. The front page of the newspaper on April 13, 2014,7 in total contrast with the provocative cover on October 7, 2012, shows the two leaders relaxed, exchanging smiles, but actually “exiled” to the upper corner of the newspaper. The downplaying of the subject and the cooling of the furore are also reflected by the absence of personal spiteful comments, while articles on the subject of the visit focus on economic reports and analyses. The only personal comment is to be found in an article titled “Hard definitive solution for sustainable debt”, accompanied by photos of a smiling Chancellor and an equally smiling Greek Prime Minister. The newspaper adopts a diametrically opposite approach to the visit of the Chancellor, compared to that of 2012, mainly in the presentation of Angela Merkel herself. Giving her a much more friendly face, the article mentions the annoyance of the Chancellor at anti-German protests and photos of her with the Hitler moustache circulating globally in the media; it also elaborates on other aspects of her visit, such as the meeting of the German Chancellor with young Greek businessmen.


The visit of Joachim Gauck to Greece (March 5-7, 2014)

Somewhat paradoxically, German President Joachim Gauck’s visit went unnoticed by the print edition of Proto Thema. There was only a reference to the visit in the caption under a picture of Alexis Tsipras, actually within the framework of an article on the electoral dynamics of SYRIZA. An opinion piece on the occupation loan and the war reparations is also related to that article.

In the electronic version of the newspaper, however, there is a series of articles on the visit of the German president. An extensive and detailed article titled “Papoulias to Gauck: Let’s go to The Hague for the German reparations8 presents as interconnected issues the state of the economy of modern Greece and the perennial question of the German occupation loan and the German war reparations. The article refers to the requests put forward by the Greek President as a political manifesto. Karolos Papoulias characteristically stated that “in these sensitive circumstances, the development of friendly and constructive relations of collaboration between Greece and Germany requires multifaceted efforts. […] the refusal of the German government to discuss the issue of the occupation loan and war reparations. This is not just a pending issue that throws a negative shadow on our relationship. This is a critical issue of ethical policy.” The article also highlights the references made by the President in his speech to the Gastarbeiter, the Goethe Institute, the German Archaeological Institute in Athens and the German School in Athens and Thessaloniki and generally the multiple institutions and activities linking the two countries. The same theme features in another article on the same day9 by Andreas Belegris.] that presents verbatim the German President’s position on the issue of war reparations and the occupation loan,10 also announcing the creation of the “Agency for the Future” which will provide financial means “in order to process and return the memory of the Germans at that period of history in Germany, especially to those places where the Nazi war machine committed atrocities” as well as the creation of a German-Greek Institute for Youth, aimed at mutual exchange of youth visits in both countries.

Press coverage of the day continues with references to the meeting11 of Joachim Gauck with Manolis Glezos,12 a historical figure and a symbol of the Greek Resistance during the German occupation. The reconciliatory symbolism of the meeting is highlighted by the main photo of the article, with the cordial handshake between the two men.13 The next article refers to the meeting of the German President with the opposition leader Alexis Tsipras who underlines the deadlock due the financial measures currently imposed on Greece and also raises the issues of war reparations and the forced occupation loan. The last article of the day refers to the statements of Joachim Gauck during his visit to the Acropolis Museum.14 The German President talks about the difficult and necessary reforms in Greece, the general crisis in the EU, and invents (?) one more play fn words in response to the Greek crisis, expressing the hope for reforms to lead to “Greekovery”.

The next article refers to the dinner of the German President with the President of the Greek Parliament, Evangelos Meimarakis.15 A following article summarises the chronicle of atrocities committed by the Nazis in the Ligiades village near Ioannina in the afternoon of October 3, 1943, with photographs.16 On the occasion of the visit of President Gauck to the Jewish synagogue in Ioannina, the newspaper interviews ninety-year-old Esther Cohen, a Greek Jew.17 She is one of the 50 people who survived of a total of 1,720 Greek Jews who were deported to Auschwitz on March 25, 1944. The next article is dedicated to the visit of Joachim Gauck at Ligiades of Ioannina.18 The German President laid a wreath at the Monument to the Fallen and then said: “With a sense of shame and pain I apologize on behalf of those who committed the crimes and of the politicians who have not acknowledged them so far,” and also: “I am ashamed for the fact that democratic Germany, since starting to work on its past in a critical way step by step, has learned so little and has not been learned from guilt with regard to Greece.[…] this lack of knowledge feeds a second guilt, because the victims are excluded from our memory […] The fact that we can face together the past is for me one of the great things arising from reconciliation.” These are thoughts clearly expressed on the project of Greek-German cooperation in order to detect each other’s stereotypes and prejudices and the historical background that feeds them. The newspaper ends its coverage of the visit of the German President with an article on the meeting he held with members of the Jewish Community of Ioannina.19 The President of the Jewish Community, Moses Elisaf, Professor of Medicine, welcomed President Gauck in the synagogue saying “we can forgive but we cannot forget” and emphasizing the role of memory in efforts to prevent the recurrence of racism and all the ills that come with it.

It is very surprising that such extensive reports on the visit of the German President in Greece did not find their way to the print edition. My personal opinion is that the style and the tone of the editorial content of the online edition of the newspaper is far removed from the print edition, at least as regards this specific issue.


  1., «Δέκα χρόνια στην κορυφή της κυκλοφορίας» (Ten years at the top of circulation), 21/03/2015.
  2., Proto Thema newspaper (Πρώτο Θέμα), 07/10/2010.
  3.  It’s the day of the visit of the Chancellor (Triti means Tuesday in Greek). The phrase is taken from a political satirical show on Greek television and it is a play on words with the day on which it is broadcast. („Tha ginei edo tis Tritis!“). It paraphrases the saying “Tha ginei tis Popis” meaning “we (or they) will kick up a hell of a row”.
  4.  Giorgos H. Papageorgiou (Γιώργος Χ. Παπαγεωργίου).
  5.  By Giannis Makrygiannis (του Γιάννη Μακρυγιάννη).
  6.  A „mountza“ is the most traditional gesture of insult among Greeks, which consists of extending all fingers of one or both hands and presenting the palm or palms towards the person to-be-insulted in a forward motion.
  7., newspaper Proto Thema, 13/04/2014.
  8., “Παπούλιας σε Γκάουκ: Πάμε στη Χάγη για τις γερμανικές αποζημιώσεις” (Papoulias to Gauck: We go to the Hague on German reparations), 06/03/2014.
  9., “Παπούλιας: Η Ελλάδα δεν παραιτήθηκε ποτέ των διεκδικήσεών της για αποζημιώσεις-κατοχικό δάνειο[Papoulias: Greece never quit claiming reparations for the occupation loan
  10.  „I cannot take any position other than that of the German government„.
  11., “Γκάουκ σε Γλέζο: Είσαι μύθος. Είναι χαρά και τιμή μου που γνωρίζω έναν ήρωα.” (Gauck to Glezos: You are a legend, it’s a pleasure and an honour to meet a herο).
  12.  Manolis Glezos: emblematic figure of the Greek National Resistance; he became a hero when, eighteen years old, on the night of 30 to 31 May 1941, together with Apostolos (Lakis) Santas, they lowered the Nazi flag from the mast of the Acropolis in Athens during the German Occupation. And this was one of the first acts of resistance in occupied Greece.
  13., The photo.
  14., “Δεν μπορούν να εφαρμοστούν στη Γερμανία αντίστοιχα μέτρα, λέει ο Γκάουκ για το ελληνικό πρόγραμμα (Equivalent measures cannot be taken in Germany says Gauck about the Greek program)) by Basilis Dalianis.
  15., “Ενθουσιασμένος με την Ακρόπολη και τον…ταραμά ο Γκάουκ” (Gauck excited with the Acropolis and the … taramas). 07/03/2014.
  16., “Τι έγινε τον Οκτώβριο του ’43 στους Λιγκιάδες (What happened in October ’43 at Ligiades), (main photo of the reportage);;;;
  17.  “Εσθήρ Κοέν: Τι να μας πει τώρα ο Γκάουκ (Esther Cohen: „What can Gauck tell us now”).
  18.  “Γκάουκ στους Λιγκιάδες Ιωαννίνων: Ζητώ συγγνώμη από τις οικογένειες των νεκρών (Gauck at Ligiades, Ioannina: I apologize to the families of the dead).
  19.  “Συγκίνηση στη συνάντηση του Γκάουκ με τους επιζήσαντες του Άουσβιτς (Emotional meeting of Gauck with Auschwitz survivors), 08/03/2014.