By William Pfaff
The most important European casualty of the international financial crisis has been the solidarity that until recently existed within the European Union, whose foundation and continuing raison d’etre has been to consolidate nations and peoples formerly driven by nationalism and destructive national ego.
That solidarity has been placed in jeopardy by the German press’s and public’s reaction to the EU’s fateful act of prideful overreaching, creating the European Monetary Union and single currency. Seventeen of the EU’s members are currently full members, employing the euro in their internal economy and external trade. Others have been expected to join. The EMU’s conceptual flaw was to put small and large countries, politically fragile and politically advanced countries, rich ones and the economically fragile, all possessing rival temperaments and histories, into a single fiscal entity.
When crisis arrived, Germany, being the richest and most successful of the currency bloc members, was asked to contribute most to the effort to resolve the crisis. It has done so but in a hectoring manner and on terms that to the greatest degree possible exported its own values, economic culture and interests.
Its economic officials spoke condescendingly, if not contemptuously, of their neighbors. Part of the German press turned to invective, describing a European economic South characterized by indigence, indulgence and envy, as being against a North, led by Germany, composed of frugal, industrious and successful nations unwilling to be pulled down by the southerners.
Worst of the former was Greece, but Italy, Spain and Portugal were included, and France, characterized by the most important German weekly, Der Spiegel, as “obsessed” with Germany, “nostalgic” for lost greatness, “narcissistic ... wanting to belong to the North but with its heart in the South.”
Greece however has been the main target of German denigration, not without cause; Greece was accepted into the EU and then into the monetary union despite a general recognition among European officials that its finances were mismanaged (which the Greeks disguised with the help of Goldman Sachs).
History is not an alibi, but neither is ignorance or indifference to history, from which Germany has richly profited since 1948, when the U.S. decided that German manpower and military ability was indispensible in the developing Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union, and passed an exculpatory blessing over the West Germans, making them for the nonce into defenders of democracy, wartime grudges waived.
Greece was less fortunate. Its Second World War began in October 1940 when Nazi Germany’s fascist ally, Italy, attacked Greece. The Greek army threw the Italians back into Italian-controlled Albania. An armed lull followed.
Germany, which already partly occupied Romania and Bulgaria, was preparing Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia, assembling in Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria, some three million of its own and allied troops.
The Greek army counterattacked the Italians, overrunning a quarter of Albania and taking 28,000 prisoners. German troops then invaded Greece on three fronts. On April 23, 1941, Greece signed an armistice, turning to guerrilla resistance, which its people continued to the end of the war.
The weeks spent by the Germans in rescuing the Italian army from the Greeks is generally credited with having delayed the invasion of Russia, launched June 22, for a sufficient period to cause the German offensive to bog down in winter conditions short of Moscow and Stalingrad, allowing a successful Russian counteroffensive to be prepared. Germany’s defeat at Stalingrad coincided with Britain’s desert victory at El Alamein and was the turning point in the European war. Germany never won another major battle.
The wartime occupation of Greece by Germany, Bulgaria and Italy, as the Cambridge historian Richard Clogg has recently noted in the London Review of Books, caused “one of the most virulent hyperinflations ever recorded, five thousand times more severe than the [German] Weimar inflation of the early 1920s. Price levels in January 1946 were more than five trillion times those of May 1941.”
The occupation produced one of the worst famines in modern European history. It is estimated that some 200,000 Greeks starved between 1941 and 1943. In addition, savage war continued between Greek guerrillas and Axis occupation forces, with the usual torture and reprisals on the order of 150 hostages shot for every attack on a German soldier.
In 1944, the Germans conducted a scorched earth withdrawal, accompanied by atrocities for which many Greeks today consider German reparations inadequate. The official estimate is that 1.2 million Greeks—more than an eighth of the population—were made homeless by the occupation. There still is a controversy over what happened to Greece’s national gold stock.
The war itself was succeeded by civil war between Communist guerrillas, supported from Tito’s Yugoslavia and Russian Army-dominated Bulgaria, and Royalist Greek forces supported by Britain. British overstretch prompted the U.S. Truman Doctrine guaranteeing Greece and Turkey against Communist takeover. The civil struggle did not end until Tito’s break with Stalin in 1948 cut off support for the Communist guerillas.
The story of Greek relations with Germany are thus more complicated than seems currently appreciated in Berlin. Greek resistance to invasion can be credited with causing the defeat of Germany by the U.S.S.R.; Greece’s friends might argue that it gave the Allies victory in World War II.
(A declaration of bias: I have a daughter who is a French citizen, and a daughter-in-law who is Greek.)
Visit William Pfaff’s Web site for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
Photo by UggBoy (CC-BY)