greece and germany: the last tango?


Thomas W. Gallant

Nicholas Family Endowed Chair of Modern Greek History
University of California, San Diego


The humiliating and economically debilitating ‘agreement’ forced on Greece on 12 July 2015 was the single most crippling settlement imposed on a country since the Treaty of Versailles, and it laid bare what many of us have long suspected: Germany wants Greece out of the Eurozone, if not of the European Union. The reasons why certain German leaders seem to have be become so Mishellenic, I will leave to others to speculate on. What I want to do is to put Germany’s current disposition toward Greece into its proper historical context. There has certainly been much discussion recently about Greek-German relations historically but it has focussed almost exclusively on the events of the 1940s. And while it is certainly the case that the devastation wrought by the Wehrmacht and the Axis occupation government on Greece were horrible, this is a myopic view of history. Greece and Germany have been doing a long slow dance for almost 200 years now, and throughout that period it has been Germany that was invariably the lead partner while Greece was forced to dance to the German tune.

In many of the analyses about how Greece got into this crisis there have been two recurring critiques based on crude stereotypes. One is that a social contract between Greeks and their state never fully developed. Thus, rather than seeing the state as an expression of the popular will and its institutions as instruments to serve the common good, Greeks see it as a reservoir of resources to be exploited, if not plundered for personal gain. Egoism, then, trumped collectivism, and this character flaw has been passed on from generation to generation as if it were part of the Greek gene pool. The second stereotype is related to the first and it is that clientelism and personal patronage have become so deeply embedded in the Greek collective character and in the very sinews of the political system that corruption flourishes endemically. Greek politics since independence, the argument goes, has operated by means of personal connections and “favors” and not on the basis of laws and regulations. Greeks, in short, do not play by the rules. In both popular discourse and in much journalistic writing, both of these flaws are blamed on the Ottoman legacy, the results of many centuries under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. This is simply wrong. To the extent that these stereotypes have any validity, it was not the Ottoman legacy that is to blame but the Othonian legacy, that is what took place during the formative years of Modern Greece under the rule of the Bavarian king, Otto (or in Greek Όθων).

When the Greeks rose up against the Ottoman Empire in 1821 in the name of freedom and liberty, and their struggles was founded on the ideas of the Enlightenment. During the war, they promulgated liberal constitutions that created a system of government reminiscent of the United States with an elected executive branch, a senate and an independent judiciary. Did it have problems? Absolutely. Was it the foundation on which a democratic polity could have been based? Undoubtedly. Would it have worked? We will never know because at war’s end, France, Great Britain and Russia imposed on Greece an absolute monarchy. Why? Because they felt that Greeks were not culturally ready for democracy. Leaving aside the irony of that argument, what it meant was that Greeks would have little to no participation in the building of their own state. Instead that task fell to the young Bavarian Prince, Otto, his German advisers and the German army that accompanied him to Greece after 1832.

The structural flaws in the Greek political and economic systems have their origins in the failed process of state formation undertaken by the Bavarian monarchy. Take clientelism, for example. Since this was an absolute monarchy, there were no avenues open to Greeks to obtain positions in state institutions, the government bureaucracy for example, except through royal patronage. Not only was the system of governance created by the Germans flawed but many of the policies that the German regime implemented were disastrous for Greeks. To take two glaring examples. In 1835, the king instituted a program of land redistribution that was aimed at developing the Greek rural economy, but the program was so poorly designed and so incompetently implemented that, instead of promoting economic growth, it led to widespread rural indebtedness and to the maldistribution of wealth. It would take over half a century for the Greek rural economy to recover for this disastrous program. The Bavarians were no better at handling the state’s finances either, resulting in Greece having to declare bankruptcy in 1843. Even after the Greeks rose up in that year and forced their German king to accept a constitution that reintroduced democracy to Greece, two branches of government, the Senate and the Royal Council, still depended on royal patronage. Moreover, because of the bankruptcy, Greece was frozen out of international financial markets for decades and so did not participate in the global economic boom that took place in Europe between the 1840s and the 1870s. This was Otto’s Bavarian legacy.

Even after the Greeks rose up again and threw Otto out, Greece’s German entanglement continued under their new king, George I from Denmark. Wanting his royal progeny to receive what he considered the best education and military training, he sent his sons to study in Germany. His eldest son and heir, Crown-Prince Constantine, for example, received his military training in Berlin and served in the German Imperial Guard; he also studied Political Science at Heidelberg and Political Economy at Leipzig. So, Constantine’s ideas about the authoritarian role of the monarchy in a crowned democracy were shaped in Wilhelmine Germany and his understanding the relationship between the state, society and the economy were molded by his experiences in the Germany of Otto von Bismarck. Following the royal example, many Greek elite families sent their sons to study in Germany and many of them came back, like the royals, committed Germanophiles. In Constantine’s case, he also returned with a German bride, Sofia, the sister of Kaiser Wilhelm.

Throughout his political career, first as Crown-Prince and then as King, Constantine’s German intellectual formation showed through. He has the unique distinction of having driven out of office two of Greece’s greatest politicians, Harilaos Trikoupis and Eleftherios Venizelos, in clashes between popular democracy and royal authoritarianism. In 1895, Constantine’s blatantly unconstitutional intervention in democratic politics led to a clash that forced Trikoupis to resign. Greece was then plunged into a decade of political and economic chaos. Fast-forward twenty years and he would do the same to Venizelos. Backed by a popular mandate won at the ballot box, Venizelos sought to bring Greece into the First World War on side of the Entente, while King Constantine held firm against entering the war against Germany. When he drove Venizelos out of office, he inaugurated a schism, which brought the country to the brink of civil war and which created deep sectarian division in Greek society that persisted for decades. The ’National Schism’, as this episode is called, cast a dark shadow over Greece for most of the Twentieth Century. So here was yet another ‘gift’ from Germany to Greece.

But that was not the last of them. Another German-trained, Germanophile, Ioannis Metaxas, sought to do for Greece what Adolf Hitler had done for Germany. And after staging a coup in 1935, he established a fascist dictatorship that drew inspiration and examples from the Third Reich. Then, there are, of course, the 1940s, the German invasion, occupation and the destruction of Greek society and economy. These are but a few of the legacies for Greece of their German entanglement.

It might seem as if I am trying to lay the blame for Greece’s ills on Germany and Germanophiles. I absolutely am not. It takes two to tango. Greeks bear much of the burden for the current crisis. In a book coming out later this year (Modern Greece from Independence to the Present published in English by Bloomsbury and in Greek by Pedio), I devote two chapters to an analysis of the economic and political history of Greece over the last thirty years, pointing out the numerous mistakes and missteps previous governments made. It is also the case that many of the reforms that Greece is now being forced to make are long overdue. The pubic sector is bloated; there is far too much regulation; the labor market is dysfunctional. And, yes, favors and personal connections are still the lubricant that greases the wheels to get things done in the public sector. Though as someone coming from a country where a few millionaires and billionaires practically buy elections and where an army of political lobbyists largely determined which laws get passed, it is hard for me to single out Greece regarding undue private influence in the political system.

What I am saying is that many of the structural flaws in the Greek political system and the economy have long and deep roots that have their origins in the foundational years of the modern state. From the very moment of independence until now Germany, Germans and Germanophiles have exerted profound and almost invariably deleterious influence on the development of Greece. For centuries, Germany has treated Greece likes its Mediterranean dependency or even as a colony. The histories of Germany and Greece are intricately entangled. But, there can be no doubt who was the lead partner in this centuries’ long dance. This most recent episode of German bullying of Greece is just the last of many such episodes; it just may be the worst. Germany wants Greece out of Europe. Only Merkel and Schäuble can answer why. Maybe now Greece can end the dance; maybe this will be their last tango. I certainly hope so, but unfortunately I think not.


  ΧΡΟΝΟΣ 27 (07.2015)