The Athens-raised bi-national Berliner weighs in on the cultural animosity surrounding the euro debate.
Sometimes it’s hard to be a German, yet it seems that becoming one is even harder. I was doing well for a while. I got my own flat in Berlin’s most gentrified neighbourhood, assembled my little patchwork family and stopped smiling at unknown shop attendants. Things were going so well that in 2000, after 10 years in the country, I was even given German citizenship. I was finally home, as happy as any German can be.
Then two years ago everything started going downhill. In March 2010 Focus magazine published an issue that was to have considerable consequences. The cover showed the famous Louvre statue “Venus de Milo” giving the finger to the reader. The headline said “Crooks in the Euro Family” – and addressed Greece, the country where I was born and raised. Now, to be very honest, I do not much care for national symbols, so I was not offended by the statue’s rude gesture, but being called a villain – in a general, undifferentiated manner – was indeed shocking. The real blow though was the content of the main article. Practically every single piece of prejudice that can be conceived about a people was in there. Greeks (in general) were dishonest, lazy, and useless. Their civilisation was rubbish. Their islands overrated. Even their food was indigestible. That article was so stupid as to become ridiculous. Or so I thought. The global financial crisis, which had started in the fall of 2008, was producing its first visible victim among countries: Greece. The newly elected government under George Papandreou turned to Europe for help. National finances were so desolate that the state would soon be unable to meet its obligations. Greece was reduced to the role of a beggar, a role it is still playing.
“You, broke Greek, just sell your islands!”
In no time, the Springer publishing empire employed its usual practice of slander. Bild now only spoke of the “Pleite-Griechen” (broke Greeks), urging them (us) to sell their islands to repay their debts (“Ihr Pleite-Griechen, verkauft doch Eure Inseln!”). Greeks who can well remember the German occupation of their country reacted violently and stupidly. Demonstrators in Athens burned German flags, comparing Angela Merkel to Adolf Hitler; swastikas became a common feature in banners; being a German (as I now was) in Greece became risky. That was not the end of the story, though. German mainstream media, even German politicians, took over where Bild had stopped: FDP politicians, the German minister of finance – even the German chancellor herself in a speech to her party in May 2011 repeated the legend of the lazy, parasitical Greeks, while making hers the myth of under-working Greeks who take too many holidays (“Wir können nicht eine Währung haben und der eine kriegt ganz viel Urlaub und der andere ganz wenig”). Hardly a day passed without the German news being full of horror stories about shameful Greek profligacy. The main narrative had several threads to it that went as follows: a) Life in Greece is a permanent party. Greeks earn massive undeserved salaries – especially in the bloated public sector – and buy expensive consumer goods, at the costs of hard-working northern Europeans; b) Greeks spend their time in cafés, work as little as possible, have short working weeks, long holidays and retire at the age of 50; c) Greeks do not pay their taxes; d) Greece shouldn’t have entered the euro in the first place, as it “cooked the books” to do so.
For the first time in years, I felt ashamed about being Greek. I thought I sensed a second of awkward silence when I said that I am Greek, whenever somebody asked me. But it is also possible that I was becoming paranoid and projecting my own embarrassment onto others. At the same time, I have never felt as Greek in my life as I have since the crisis started. The hardest part was admitting that none of the above was totally wrong, but that overgeneralisation and simplification on the one hand and a blatant exhibition of superiority and prejudice on the other made reasonable argumentation impossible. So what part of these news stories is true and how much is the product of systematic slander?
Reducing the non-existent
The public sector in Greece is not particularly large (according to the OECD civil servants make up 7,9% of the total workforce as opposed to 9,6% in Germany), but one has to admit that it is particularly inefficient. It was born out of the chronic failings of a private-sector labour market, the same structural problem that led Greeks to emigrate for most of the 20th century, creating large expat communities in Australia, the US, Canada and Germany. The political parties that alternately governed Greece since the end of the dictatorship in 1974 used that pressure in the labour market to buy votes: they promised (and gave) permanent civil servant jobs to their own electorate. At the same time, the state was falling short of its role. Free public education was constantly undermined by insufficient and not always well-trained staff, and by a lack of adequate budgeting and infrastructure. Public health deteriorated year by year, not because of the lack of physicians, but because of the insufficient number of hospitals, materials and beds. Public housing of the type known in most parts of Western Europe has hardly ever existed. Instead, public housing “aid” simply meant tolerating cheap illegal construction, usually on the outskirts of the large cities, for a long time. In this context, calls for “less state” sound absurd. How can you reduce the non-existent?
“You could have asked any Swabian housewife,” said the chancellor in 2008, “you cannot live above your own means. That is the core of the international crisis.” But what exactly are the means of a Greek? A teacher’s first salary in a public school is €650 a month (net) while the cost of living is absolutely comparable to Germany, if not higher. Merkel might be hammering common-sense wisdoms about the need for an effort “shared by all equally” (“Es geht auch darum…. dass alle sich ein wenig gleich anstrengen”) but how to ask people struggling with the poverty line to ‘try harder’?
And so much for the cliché of the underworking Greek: according to Eurostat, the average working week in Greece is 44.3 hours (as opposed to 41 in Germany or the European average of 41.7). Greeks have 23 days of holidays a year (as opposed to 30 in Germany). The average retirement age for Greek men is 61.9 years as opposed to 61.5 in Germany (it is indeed much lower with women).
We should keep in mind that all these figures can show are averages. This means that they fail to convey the deep inequalities of Greek society: while most Greeks work hard – often in two jobs to make ends meet – and enjoy a week less holiday than the average German, others live parasitically. For every Greek who pays taxes, there is another one who evades them. In fact, a lot has been said about the (very real) problem of tax evasion. What has been ignored though is how official tax cuts for the rich in the past 10 years have deprived the state of a comparable amount of money. The deep and long-standing inequalities that permeate Greek society are partly responsible for the country’s misery at the moment. For a long time, governments have been largely recruited from a financial oligarchy (national and international), with which they engage in all kinds of business dealings. Ironically, it is the same oligarchy that is least touched by today’s crisis.
Blaming the poor for their poverty
Though probably all of the above problems are endemic of Greek society, it is difficult to hold them alone accountable for the current crisis. The crisis – economic, political, and cultural – does not make distinctions between the honest and the dishonest. This asymmetry is one more reason why stigmatisation is rather useless in explaining what is going on and futile when looking for solutions out of the crisis. Also, as the news from Ireland, Portugal, Spain or Italy show, what we are facing is hardly a national crisis, but rather a European – or international – one with of course very local variations. I am still puzzled at the German stance, both at a political and personal level. Together with a new growing national pride (who many welcome as an emancipation from the past), there is a growth of a new arrogance, a rhetoric and demonstration of superiority. ‘Blaming the victim’, where the poor are alone responsible for their own poverty, has risen from a neoliberal dogma to a national narrative: “Throw the Greeks out of the eurozone at last!”, exclaimed Bild last February.
Meanwhile, hardly a week has passed in the last year without somebody from Greece calling me looking for a job in Germany – preferably in Berlin. A friend is now waiting tables in Neukölln after having completed her doctoral dissertation at the Technical University of Athens. “Are you here to look for a job??” is what I was asked at a late evening dinner recently. When I replied that I employ six people in Berlin and I actually needed to go because I hated getting up early in the morning, I was confronted with a quizzical “that’s the Greek talking…”. In the meanwhile, public offices panic at the naïve idea of hordes of unemployed impoverished Greeks and Spaniards arriving just to get German social benefits. A recent attempt of the government to seal off the system for other European citizens (in February, a Ministry of Labour’s directive to the Unemployment Agency staff reaffirmed strict conditions for access to Hartz IV for EU applicants) is symptomatic of this new fear. As a friend remarked when planning to go out for coffee with others, “I’ll end up paying for everybody else since I’m the only German in the group”.
Fortunately, I no longer have to put up with these little moments of blatant stupidity that often. I have unwittingly limited my circle of friends to non-Germans (hmm, does a German partner qualify?). Yet there’s no way out of it. Something similar happens to me whenever I go back to Greece: friends and family there make jokes about “my” chancellor or “my” Siemens, making me feel like the kind of person I would avoid when I’m in Berlin. It seems I’m caught up in limbo.
If you know of any nationality I can apply for easily, please let me know.
This article appears in Issue 107 of the EXBERLINER magazine