A German king, a Greek crown, historic roots of troubled ties

Greece has railed against what it sees as German dominance since the 2010 start of the eurozone financial crisis, but antagonism between the two countries can be traced back to the 19th century.

Historians point to the mid-1800s for spurring resentment in a newly-independent Greece, when a king from the southern German region of Bavaria ascended to the Greek throne.

His reign led to a prevalence of all things German that today may be the stuff of nightmares for Greece’s anti-austerity Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras — with the German language then used in state affairs as well as in the official newspaper.

In 1830, after 400 years under Ottoman Empire domination, Greece had become a sovereign state under the guardianship of colonial powers France, Britain and Russia, who “imposed on it a German king and an absolute king”, historian Olivier Delorme told AFP.

Otto became the first modern king of Greece but he knew “nothing of Greece”, Delorme said, explaining: “He arrives surrounded by Bavarians, who will run the country by treating the Greeks like flunkies.”

At the royal court, he said, it was the language of Goethe and Schiller that dominated, while Greek ministers were reduced to mere puppets, “only there to apply what the Bavarians dictate to them”.

The era came to be known in Greece as the “Bavariocracy”.

Athens’ Syntagma Square — where angry Greeks have protested swingeing cuts in salaries and pensions over the past five years as the country has tried to reduce its debt mountain — also bears a German hallmark.

The parliament building was designed by the official architect of the court of Bavaria. It has been targeted by Greeks hitting out at austerity imposed by the hated “troika” of creditors, the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

“With the crisis, I’ve seen this memory of Bavariocracy reactivated,” said Delorme, author of “Greece and the Balkans”.

“When one looks at what the troika is doing today, the Greeks see that as a re-run.”

Otto was forced off the thrown in 1862 but on his death bed, back in Germany’s green and mountainous Bavaria, his last words were “Greece, Greece, my dear Greece…”

More than 30 years later in 1898 Greece declared itself bankrupt and appealed for help from international lenders.

Fast forward to the 20th century when the brutal 1941-44 Nazi occupation of Greece produced a new depth of trauma with what Delorme called the “unleashing of savagery”.

The Nazi occupation was one of the bloodiest in Europe with Hitler’s forces rampaging, pillaging and shooting, and encountering a nation that fiercely resisted.

Like elsewhere in Europe, Greek villages were the scenes of massacres such as in Distomo on June 20, 1944 where 218 people were killed.

More than 50,000 Greek Jews were sent to the gas chambers.

Greek-German historian Hagen Fleischer said the occupation led to a mass famine, adding that “during the first winter, at least 100,000 Greeks died of hunger”.

“People made bread out of grass and soup with the straw from brooms,” according to Delorme.

“When, today, you have austerity policies which lead people to return to the soup kitchen, it’s also a complete revival of this memory.”

Germany has never really paid reparations for the Nazis’ crimes in Greece, Fleischer said, amid calls by Tsipras since his January election victory for German compensation.

The far-left premier said this week that his government was “choosing the path of negotiation. That is our duty to history, to the people who fought and to the victims who gave their lives to defeat Nazism.”

The Greek justice minister has said he is ready to approve a court ruling that could see property belonging to Germany’s archaeological school and the Goethe Institute seized as compensation.

At the height of the eurozone crisis, Greeces painful wartime past mixed with the suffering of many of its people sparked caricatures of Chancellor Angela Merkel dressed in Hitler garb.

But Germany remains a destination for many Greek emigrants — more than 300,000 live in Europes top economy.

While in the 1960s and 1970s Greek workers were often found manning the production lines of carmakers such as Volkswagen and Mercedes, today it is young Greek doctors and engineers who arrive in Germany to escape their country’s sky-high youth unemployment.


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