By Xenia Kounalaki
In an interview with Kathimerini ahead of his arrival in Athens, German President Joachim Gauck said that if Greece sees through its structural reforms, the country will receive due support from its European Union partners.
Gauck, who arrived for a three-day visit on Wednesday, acknowledged the sacrifices made by Greek citizens in the grip of austerity policies mandated by the country’s foreign lenders, but also welcomes some timid signs of recovery.
On Thursday, Gauck is due to be accompanied by Greek President Karolos Papoulias to the village of Ligiades, near the northeastern town of Ioannina, where Nazi troops massacred 92 people in 1943.
Although Gauck concedes that Germany bears an undeniable “moral responsibility” for the events of World War II, he avoids the issue of Greek claims for reparations.
Born in Rostock in 1940, Gauck assumed office in March 2012. A former Lutheran pastor, he came to prominence as an anti-communist civil rights activist in the former East Germany. After the Berlin Wall came down, Gauck headed a probe into the activities of the Stasi, East Germany’s dreaded secret police.
You are known to be a fervent Europeanist and you recently called for what you described as “more Europe.” In a key speech earlier this year, you said that Germany should not seek to impose its will on other members of the European Union. Given the fact that Greece has suffered a great deal over the past few years because of the debt crisis, do you think that Germany should consider giving the country a hand through a “growth package” or through a generous debt settlement?
Many Greeks have to go through enormous personal difficulties when, for example, families are split up because one of the parents lands a job hundreds of kilometers away from home, or when young people are unable to find a job and have no prospects. I understand that people get frustrated when they do not have the money to purchase medicine or pay their electricity bill. Greek society has achieved a lot, people have made many sacrifices. And for that reason I am really glad to see some early signs of an economic recovery. The EU has for the first time in a very long time predicted growth in Greece. Such positive indications inspire courage and strength ahead of the upcoming challenges. And in order to meet these challenges you also need faith and the will power to carry out reforms and structural changes. I would like to encourage all Greeks to stay the course – not to meet Europe’s demands but for its own good.
We have seen in other European countries that overhauling the state and the economy takes far-reaching reforms. And I am certain that in this case, Germany and the other European countries would continue to support Greece.
You are probably aware of the rise of far-right extremism in Greece and other countries that have been affected by austerity and the debt crisis. There has also been a rise in anti-German sentiment and Euroskepticism. Are you concerned by this trend and its impact on May’s European Parliament elections?
Of course I am worried by anti-German sentiment and Euroskepticism. The best we can do is fix the reasons behind their existence by making it clear that Europe, a united Europe – not a return to nation-minded practices – offers the best possible framework for the growth of all nation states. The EU can better help individual nations in dealing with crisis. Also, the European family can come up with better answers than any individual state to contemporary challenges – the environment, immigration, internal security, digital technology and many other areas. Furthermore, we need to remember that the European project is far more than a big market with a common currency. Europe is the foundation for a life of peace and security, work and prosperity. In the EU, we live in a political and cultural community of shared values that is unique in this world. I hope that European voters turn up in [large] numbers at polling stations at the end of May. Anyone who wants to have a say in the future shape of Europe must head to the ballot box.
Germany is haunted by the Nazi nightmare. Greece is now facing the threat of extremism. What are your thoughts on this, especially with regard to the way in which Greece and Europe must deal with the rise of far-right extremism?
I am sad to see the revival of old prejudices which we essentially thought had been consigned to history. I am also annoyed by the way certain German and Greek media reported on the other country. Fueling discord and encouraging people to react against one another does not help to solve the problem. It may be tempting to seek the causes of our problems outside our borders but this does not contribute to self-assessment. We must not gloss over problems but identify them and seek solutions that are in line with our European values – especially in the manner in which we deal with refugees and minorities.
You were an anti-communist human rights activist in East Germany and you oversaw the opening of Stasi archives. How would you react to a victory of Greece’s leftist opposition, a party that includes many old-style communists and which has in the past used strong language against Germany?
I would not like to comment on the policies of specific parties. I grew up in a centrally planned economy and a dictatorship. This is why I appreciate a republic that is not tied to any ideology and that does not succumb to populism. I appreciate Germany’s social market economy. It combines economic freedom with social responsibility. This is a precious combination of two important principles. In a social market economy every individual has the freedom to develop skills and qualifications. They can pursue this direction while at the same time enjoying the protection of collective solidarity.
Many political parties insist that Greece has a strong case on Germany’s WWII reparations. Do you think Greece is being realistic in demanding compensation?
During World War II, Greece suffered an especially violent German occupation. The war left deep scars on Greece. Greek Jews were systematically exterminated, and Greeks were shot, hanged, killed in a brutal manner, and many Greeks died of hunger.
This “rupture of civilization” burdens us with a particular responsibility. Germany is aware of this fact. We are also aware of the fact that the future lies in peaceful cooperation with our neighbors and friends.
I would not like to discuss the legal issue of reparations, but allow me to say this: We do not want to deny our moral responsibility nor relativize it.
This year marks the anniversary of the outbreak of WWII, which was started by national socialist Germany. During my official visit I want to pay respects to the victims. Together with President Karolos Papoulias, I will travel to Ligiades to commemorate the victims of a terrible slaughter. I am grateful to your president for accompanying me to this site of horror. I will also meet with members of the Jewish community to commemorate the victims of displacement and extermination of Greek Jews. Germany is deeply sorry for the war’s victims.
However, although many Germans are aware of the crimes in other countries, events in Greece escape them to a large degree. There is clearly a need to make up for the deficit. Education on the crimes of war and the persecution of Greeks is, in my opinion, the most important task in the immediate future – through exhibitions, exchange of opinions – and part of this is knowing about the Germans who fought on the side of the Greek resistance.
Many Greeks feel that Germany is treating them the same way the victors of WWI treated Germany. Germany, they say, should adopt the more open and positive approach taken by the allies following WWII. What is your opinion?
Your point seems to be that a nation that is hit with rules which are in its view unfair is in danger of playing a fierce defense. But I do not see any direct parallels here. Let’s not forget that Germany was punished in 1919 for its warmongering. Greece is now being asked to uphold principles it committed to by entering the European Community and the eurozone.
In my opinion, the solidarity that Europe is now showing Greece – even under completely different circumstances – is similar in spirit to the reconstruction aid provided by the allies to West Germany following the end of WWII so that the country could get back on its feet.
Everyone in Europe wants to see a competitive, prosperous and confident Greece with prospects inside and together with the EU.
For us Europe is not one choice among many. It is a lesson from history and our best option for the future.