A Glimpse of the German Vision for Greece and Europe

A joke circulating has a Greek passport officer asking a German woman at the border, "Name?" She replies "Merkel, Angela." The passport officer continues: "Occupation?" Merkel responds: "No, just visiting...for now."

As bombs that would incite America's "greatest generation" fell on Pearl Harbor in 1941, about 40,000 Greeks were already dying in the streets of Athens. They suffered a famine. The famine was largely caused by the occupying Germans. To be precise, the Nazi plunderers were removing food and other basic goods from the mouths and homes of Greeks to stoke the German war machine. With a flare for racist insult still recognizable today, German newspapers on the home front fanned the flames of hatred towards the Greeks: "How long," one author opined in 1942, "the Axis powers in their hard struggle can continue to feed a population of millions of idlers remains to be seen." (In Mazower 2008, p. 280)

In the midst of their expanding war, the Germans were manipulating the international political economy to support their growing empire. An enormous debt to Greece was accruing in the expropriation and theft that appeared under gross euphemism as a "balance of trade." The occupying Germans sucked the economy dry and Greece received only degradation and murder in return.

Coincident with conquest and plunder, the Nazis sought to legitimate their atrocious crimes. They forced the Bank of Greece -- itself occupied by a collaborationist and illegitimate government -- to justify their thievery as a "loan." As elsewhere, their victims were made to dig their own graves.

This extorted Greek "loan" to Germany was never paid back. Indeed, in efforts to support the rapid rebuilding of Germany and Europe after the war, the United States made sure of that debt repayment was blocked. (See Albrecht Ritschl and now again Picketty) These "loans" have recently been valued at hundreds of billions of Euros.

Here and there, the issue of these forced "loans" has arisen together with overall German war reparations to Greece. The German Republic has laughed at or shrugged off the obligations of the Reich. Although much soul-searching has gone on in Germany since 1945, today's neo-liberals feel less and less bound by the demands of history.

Using reparations to balance the past with the present is a serious matter. Anyone who has considered what might be owed to African-Americans today for the past atrocities of slavery has felt this: there are real questions about who would pay reparations and who would receive them. What would the value conveyed represent? On the one hand, past evils should not be forgotten. On the other hand, no one born today will have a chance to see the world, as I did, through the living eyes of fellow citizens like Edward Boatner, son of an enslaved father emancipated during the Civil War. At some point it is better to move forward rather than back.

However, no such hesitations should apply when the past is not past. If, for example, some serious effort was being made today to restore slavery in the United States, no serious person could simply laugh off proposals for remedy or dismiss as impractical calls for reparation concerning that perpetual past. The idea would cease to be too morally complicated to consider and redemptive action would take a more prominent place in civic life.

I digress this way to give the American reader a clearer sense of the moral charge of events these days in Europe. The latest phase of the Euro crisis suggests that the past is in fact alive and well in Germany.

What most people refer to as "negotiation" between the European political elite and the Greek government is actually a form of power politics. Under cover of bureaucratic imperatives and economic necessity, the Germans and their cadre in the Eurozone group have at the 11th hour brought ever more destructive and even sadistic demands on the Greeks to the table. We should be asking "Why?" Or, with the Italians, "When is enough enough?"

All this came to a head in the memorandum issued today (Euro Summit SN 4070/15). One provision that should be considered with special care is a requirement "to develop a significantly scaled up privatisation programme with improved governance" in which "valuable Greek assets will be transferred to an independent fund that will monetize the assets through privatisations and other means" to "generate over the life of the new loan a targeted total of EUR 50bn," specifying that "this fund would be established in Greece and be managed by the Greek authorities under the supervision of the relevant European Institutions."

Remember for a moment that everyone says the key malady in Greece is "corruption." So what strange arrogance leads the European bureaucrats and bankers to suppose they will cure this with cool northern oversight? Or perhaps what someone sees here is new opportunity? On its face it should recall the fox's offer to guard the henhouse. Or at least compel us to keep in view the continuing consequences of the Russian privatizations of the 1990s and raise the specter of a Greek Gaidar and reinvigorated oligarchy.

The deeper motivations of this proposal are no longer stated in it. It is a toned-down version of a Diktat that speaks much more boldly in the penultimate draft of the same memorandum. Much could be said about what is different and what is the same in these two versions. It is the original that we shall come back to in a moment.

First consider how the word "trust" has become the pivot point for European action. Not surprisingly, the memorandum itself begins by stating that "the Euro Summit stresses the crucial need to rebuild trust with the Greek authorities as a prerequisite for a possible future agreement....Given the need to rebuild trust with Greece...authorities [will] legislate without delay a first set of measures."

This sounds reasonable enough until you realize that the penchant for strategic stereotyping is strong here. There are those "millions of idlers" again.

Honest interlocutors aiming for real and beneficial collaboration might say that Samaras and Papandreou, or the profound and bi-partisan corruption of New Democracy and PASOK, ruptured "trust" over the past several decades. The EuroZone ministers might add that we, your brothers and sisters in the European experiment, recognize that the current government was elected precisely in popular reaction against that widespread and cancerous fact.

Instead, and with frightening familiarity, the word "Greek" becomes here a vehicle on which every Greek person appears to ride and thereby becomes equally culpable -- from the media and shipping oligarchs to the pensioner and reformer. SYRIZA has many problems but it is none of those social actors. And if everyone is the cause of the problem there can be no agent to pursue its solution. Is that what the Europeans really want?

Now, perhaps for bankers or bill-collectors or racists questions about "trust" bring "Greeks" in general to mind. For many European citizens and many national patriots within the European Union, however, concerns about trust are more profoundly linked to the Germans.

It was not the Greeks that laid waste to the 20th century. Have we so soon forgotten how -- only 25 years ago -- the prospect of German reunification revived the question "can Europe trust the Germans?" From Francois Mitterand to Margaret Thatcher, a broad spectrum of very serious people, often the children of German wars, were worried.

Today that question -- "can Europe trust the Germans?" should be reignited around their intransigence in these "negotiations" and the irrational doubling down of their demands against the beleaguered Greeks. In other words, what should we make of Germany's readiness to abandon Europe again in favor a continent centered around military and economic power?

This is very harsh commentary and I think you should know a bit more about what moves me to write it. It is the power of living memory. My Jewish grandparents, immigrants from Ukraine and Russia, taught me to distrust Germany. So did the many in American family who directly experienced war against the Axis powers: grandfather was with the OSS in Africa and Italy, step-father was a battlefield historian for the Army, father told of touring Nagasaki months after the bomb, my mother's late-life companion fought the occupying forces outside of Manila.

It has been a long time that what Germany does is not just of concern for Europe. Indeed, while we say that President is African-American, like all Americans he is also bound by history and interdependence to Europe. America's complex entanglements with and interest in Europe in this crisis hour should be asserted again by our leaders.

The issue of trust, however, has its home base among today's Europeans themselves. Watching the unfolding events I am thinking much more of beloved members of my Greek family. Many of them lived through and remember the German occupation. They know with an intimacy special to the Greek people big hunger and extreme violence. Some of them are from the village of Distomo -- if you want a gut-wrenching reason not to trust Germans look up what happened there.

So even a simple demand for "trust" by powerful Germans is a something of a travesty: Merkel and Schauble and the rest put that gaudy dress on their victim and parade him around.

The frame of mind outside Germany is one thing. What lurks within is even more troubling. For in the penultimate "Eurogroup document" (July 12, 16:00) there appeared this more ominous version of the "privatization" proposal:

"Moreover, valuable Greek assets of [EUR 50 bn] shall be transferred to an existing external and independent fund like the Institution for Growth in Luxembourg, to be privatized over time and decrease debt. Such fund would be managed by the Greek authorities under the supervision of the relevant European institutions."

This is a formula not for privatization or holding collateral, but for piracy and plunder.

Look back at the final version cited above. I admit that some accommodation for decency was made before the Eurozone leaders went public. Nonetheless, this provision is despicable. Not because it will necessarily happen -- we don't know yet what will happen -- but simply for the fact that Merkel and her cronies could even think it, no less share it with others.

It proposes once again the forced expropriation of Greek assets by Germans.

That is, it brings the history that the Germans want us to forget back to life. But they might as well just say "give us your goods or we will starve you and your banks together!"

If you are thinking that "privatized assets" would be held in trust, all the more reason to bring back into living memory those "forced loans." This "trust" is, of course, still unpaid.

This provision reveals more. First and foremost, it shows that -- as many have suggested, including the turncoat Greek Varoufakis -- these negotiations must have been a fraud in three ways.

First, the aim of Germany all along now appears to have been to humiliate Tsipras and his leftist coalition and drive them from office as a lesson to other European parties on the left, including especially France (not just Spain, as many previously thought).

Second, the aim of Germany now appears to have been to degrade the Greek people and to drive them from the Eurozone as vindicative retaliation for their unwillingness to embrace the neo-liberal rationalization of Europe.

Third, where the reunification of Germany and the consolidation of Europe are exalted as the end of the Cold War, what we are now seeing is its continuation by other means.

It is obvious that in Europe -- much more than in America -- the Cold War had important military components. It was, nonetheless, primarily a struggle between fundamental commitments concerning civic life and the regulation of public and private power. It was an intense conflict not so much over who pays or who wins the battle as over who is in charge of the peace.

This is where these three obscure aims of Germany converge. Animosity towards socialism in Germany did not begin with the Soviet victories on the battlefields of World War II. For the Nazis in particular, anti-left politics was in some respects a foundation even deeper than anti-Semitism, which was itself often assimilated to Communism in the course of making a racist world-view into a political force.

What is happening under the guise of fiscal discipline and philanthropy for Greece is not just everyday banking and debt collection. If the Germans really just needed or wanted collateral for existing and new loans, they already have it: having monetized billions in stolen Greek resources during World War II in the form of the forced "loans," the Germans could just hold that against payment of the new loans. They could even threaten to not pay it back if Greece defaults!

There is a powerful "negative" element in all this, such as the suppression of an elected leftist government that has become a symbol for similar movements in other countries.

Beyond that, however, there is an active impulse to empire -- to Reich over Republik. It operates in a neo-liberal disguise. What we have seen these past six months is not simply, or perhaps even, negotiation over debt. It is the winding up of an extraordinary vehicle for German ambition. This is exactly what much of Europe feared from the reunification of its most dangerous member.

If the few lines I cite above from the memorandum express -- as they seem to -- a German passion more than a lapse of diplomatic focus, we had better beware. The movement here is a return to more expansive forms of unchecked power based on extortion and thievery. This is war. This time the Trojan Horse is in Germany's arsenal. It is called Europe. The Germans have now parked it at the gates of Athens. But the siege and slaughter may erupt all over the continent.