Why Greece isn’t Weimar
The perfect political storm for violent extremism has descended on Greece. It consists of national humiliation, economic disaster, high immigration, political division and international tutelage. Look no further than Weimar Germany to understand its ingredients.
In the subdued streets of the Greek capital, Athens, where a vague menace hangs like a pall, tempers are frayed. The economy is turning slowly, after draconian cuts and two bailouts totaling 240 billion euros, but not enough yet to be felt. The cry of the extreme right resounds: We, the fathers of civilization, have been sold out by the international loan sharks!
These are familiar insinuations. It is well known where they can lead. The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party is rising, from a negligible fringe group in 2009 to what is almost certainly the country’s third political force today, representing close to 15 percent of the vote, according to polls. If the most acute phase of Greece’s economic crisis has passed, the most acute phase of its political trial is upon it.
I have little doubt that if Greece were not part of the European Union, with the protection and example afforded by this much maligned democratic club, it would have tumbled into catastrophe by now, much as a humiliated Germany did after 1918. Europe has been Greece’s protector even as the single euro currency has been its tormentor.
A typical confrontation occurred the other morning. Alex Soultos, who works in the jewelry business, was in a shouting match. A graduate of Northeastern University who returned to Athens from Boston in 2009, he was making his way through a crowd of strikers outside the Ministry of Administrative Reform and E-Governance when he lost it.
“You should be working instead of blocking the road!” he screamed, his American work ethic boiling up. His business is in a downward spiral in an economy that has shrunk by a quarter.
A group of women screamed abuse back at him. At our age, they demanded, where can we find jobs? They are among the 2,000 “school guards” who were ousted as the government scrambled to find 12,500 public employees it could shift by the end of this month to meet a deadline set by Greece’s international creditors. “We have bills,” Vespina Papadopoulou shouted.
But as Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the minister responsible for the cuts, explained to me inside the besieged ministry, the message from the “troika” — the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank — is clear: “If you don’t do it, no more money!” Europe’s requirement is: Reform or else.
Greece, with an estimated $3.3 billion shortfall in its social security fund this year and a larger financing gap looming over the next two years, still needs money, if much less than before. More urgently, it needs international understanding. The combination of the demands of the troika (widely seen by Greeks as a Trojan horse for Germany) and the frustration evident outside the ministry — Soultos’ private sector has lost close to 1.5 million jobs as unemployment has reached 28 percent — is combustible.
I watched Antonis Samaras, the conservative prime minister, give an impassioned speech this week in which he spoke of the way “democracy breeds its own enemy, which is basically extremism.” He warned that Greece was in the “blind spot” before improvement is felt — a few “crucial” months that “are not the most difficult” but are “the most politically sensitive.”
Golden Dawn has been on a rampage. The police say one of its activists was responsible for the stabbing to death this week of Pavlos Fyssas, a leftist hip-hop singer who had denounced the party. In recent weeks Golden Dawn supporters manhandled a mayor trying to honor victims of the Civil War and attacked Communist Party sympathizers, leaving nine hospitalized.
Samaras is squeezed between the demagoguery of this rampant right and the populism of the left-wing anti-austerity Syriza party, which is promising to restore most if not all of what has been lost since Greece, in the local phrase, fell from the clouds.
Troika officials will visit Athens next week. If they make further demands for cuts in wages and pensions, they could push Greece over the edge. Germany has not yet learned to play the benign superpower. It is time; and after the German election this Sunday there may be a little more wiggle room. Toughness toward Greece has played well in Germany but, as Mitsotakis put it: “The country has been stretched to its limits. This needs to be very, very clear.”
In fact, of course, Germany has also saved Greece from bankruptcy. It did so for the European Union, which helped usher Germany from its cataclysmic “zero hour” of 1945. Through Europe, Germany came back. Through Europe, Greece has been saved from the fate of Weimar. At a time when pettiness surrounds thinking about the EU, and the assumption is widespread that the union’s peacemaking role is over, it is critical to recall that the union is Europe’s surest safeguard against the Continent’s darkest hours.
Roger Cohen is a columnist for The New York Times.