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Wildly Different Greek and German Cultures Explain the Debt Crisis

Berlin and Athens were forced into a relationship neither wanted—northern lender, southern borrower. Now they’re emblems of a divided Europe longing for unity.

This story appears in the March 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Updated July 8th—The long-rolling crisis over Greece’s indebtedness is now reaching its climax. The banks are on the verge of collapse, and Greece’s relationship with Germany and the rest of Europe has never been under such strain.
The 12 million Greeks are confronting a future of suffering and penury, with a sense that national dignity requires them not to submit to northern demands for discipline and financial rigor.
They point out that the Germans seem to be forgetting that they needed bailouts and forgiveness after World War II.
The Greeks once resisted the Turks, the Italian fascists, and the Nazis, and now they’re resisting calls from their German creditors to change the way they live and work.
Ochi—‘No’—is the defining word of this newly entrenched mood. Meanwhile from Berlin, Germans look on with frustration and bemusement at a European culture as distant from them as could be imagined.
As the story “Two Cities, Two Europes” in the March issue of National Geographic shows, the deep roots of national experience are shaping these countries’ destinies.
Adam Nicolson’s book Why Homer Matters is about Europe’s Greek roots. Gerd Ludwig’s latest book documents the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. Alex Majoli’s photographs illustrated “ Rethinking Nero,” in the September 2014 issue.

You might think of Berlin and Athens as the two emblematic poles of Europe—one northern, gray, landlocked, rich; the other on the shores of the Aegean, with bougainvillea in its gardens and oranges hanging from the trees in its streets.

But neither quite fits its image. The Teutonic capital buzzes with the surge of postcommunist freedom, thriving on its reputation as the turbulent dance capital of Europe, while the ancient capital of Greece, sparkling in the Aegean light, has yet to emerge from the great euro crisis of the past few years into anything like full health—or to shrug off the conditions that precipitated it. The sun is shining in Berlin; clouds of anxiety still hang over Athens.

In many ways the two capitals turn out to be the opposite of what you might expect: Athens, sclerotic, tense, stuck, with no more than a murky view of its future; Berlin, loose, post-authoritarian, the most open and absorbent of European cities, troubled, if at all, only by the problems of success—and almost careless about what the future might bring.

These cities, the alpha and omega of modern Europe, are bound together in one common destiny. The great European Union (EU) project, designed to mend the horrors and damage of Hitler’s Holocaust and war and make the continent whole, has involved six decades of moves toward integration and enlargement. But there’s a mismatch in the 19 countries that now belong to the eurozone. They share a single currency—the euro—but taxation and public financing are done differently in every country.

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In Athens the demands of the present seem overwhelmingly urgent. Amalia Zepou, an anthropologist and filmmaker who’s making waves as the deputy mayor for civil society, talks of the “complete disillusionment about the political system as a whole, a lack of empowerment in the sense that decisions are taken so far away from where you live, where you are. Why should you vote? For what?”

Manipulation of elections remains universal in Athens. Candidates for places in the city council or in parliament can win only by coming to an arrangement with the chiefs of unof-ficial, vote-controlling networks. Deals are done. Priests offer up their congregations. The men who control open-air markets gather up the votes of the stallholders. Large quantities of voting slips are regularly submitted premarked for a chosen candidate. “If I say no,” one candidate in the local elections this spring told me, “they say, ‘My dear girl, this is how things are done. Grow up.’ ”

“It has always been the way in Greece,” Zepou explains. “It is the system of the family in the village, and it has the most human side to it. It has always been the way that Greece has worked—to know somebody. Because you will always need someone, and they will pull you out of trouble when that trouble comes.”

Somewhere under all the stories of crisis and corruption, of the high level of tax evasion, of doctors found to be cheating the national health service to the tune of 35 percent of the prescription budget, lies this residue of the personal network, of believing more in the value of human contact than the propriety of an institution—or the ability of a bureaucracy to deliver fairness.

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“In Berlin,” the poet and journalist Kostas Kanavouris said to me through the cigarette smoke as we sat talking in an Athens café, “everyone thinks they are a Berliner—whoever they are, wherever they have come from, however long they have been there. In Athens no one ever quite thinks they are an Athenian. That’s the difference. In Berlin everyone assumes they belong. In Athens everyone is thinking of the village they started out from. And how they can survive in the city where they are not really at home.” Those are the polarities: the authority city that welcomes everyone; the personal-network city where anxiety walks every street.

In the global financial crisis that started to unfold in 2008, the continent’s natural fissiveness, the deep economic and cultural differences between north and south, began to show. The Germans, on average earning 50 percent more than the Greeks, with a gross domestic product (GDP) ten times as big, were inevitably cast in the role of leaders, while in Greece the crisis brought to the surface problems that had been gestating for decades.

With slow inevitability, the house of cards began to tumble. In 2009 the Athens government revealed that the annual deficit it had been running was not 6.7 percent of GDP, as had been stated by the outgoing government, but some 12.5 percent, with the national debt standing at $400 billion. Greek credit imploded, and capital drained out of Athens, much of it into German safe havens. The biggest loans in history were then made to the Athens government: $146 billion in May 2010 and $162.7 billion in March 2012. But the conditions were tough. The Greeks would have to change their way of life, cut spending, raise and enforce taxes, trim their bloated pension system, regulate affairs more tightly—the Greek government still doesn’t know exactly how many people it employs—and accept supervision of all this from the troika of the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the Berlin-dominated European Commission.

The social price in Greece was enormous. Unemployment climbed to 27 percent and has scarcely shifted since. In Athens unemployment among those between 15 and 24 years old nearly hit 62 percent. During the past six years the Greek economy has shrunk by 30 percent. Central Athens was torn open by riots. Violence against immigrants soared. The worst may, for the time being, be over. But it’s little wonder that an air of trouble and exhaustion hangs over the Greek capital.

Talk to leading intellectual figures in either city, and you find a deep and troubled reflectiveness. Nowhere on Earth can the examples of overweening political ambition, tyranny, repression, division, and human failure be quite so obvious as in Berlin. Walk its streets, and you find yourself reminded at every corner of the history of the 19th and 20th centuries. This was the great power node. Here are the lessons, written in urban geography—in the big, half-empty Nazi air terminal at Tempelhof, in the bullet-scarred masonry left visible on Museum Island, in the inescapable fragments of the Wall. Attempt to dominate, and you will suffer; attempt to destroy, and you will be destroyed; attempt to become the center of the world, and you will find your city carved up and divided.

Wolfgang Thierse, a former president and vice president of the German parliament and one of the most formative voices in the reunification of the city after 1989, is insistent that “Germans and their capital are still caught within their history and are still not ready to consider themselves an important power. In Berlin the evil history of the 20th century is as visible as it would not be in any other capital. We do not want to hide and escape from our history here in Berlin but to face it.”

“Berlin invents itself again and again,” Richard Meng, spokesman for the city’s governing senate, says. “It took ten years after ’89 to find the way for Berlin.” The formula arrived at was, in Meng’s words, “an open-minded city that lets the international community in and makes it possible for young people to live their life here and find their ideas.” That is, the very opposite of any previous idea of Berlin as a showplace for power. Opportunity replaced authority as the central element in Berlin’s DNA.

But there was a problem. Berlin’s lack of industry and big business meant that its tax base was, and remains, inadequate. Even now Berlin is carrying a debt of $77 billion and would be running an annual city budget deficit of 20.7 percent if not for grants from other German states and the federal government. Without the rest of Germany to support it, Berlin would go bust. The annual deficit is shrinking, and new enterprises are being encouraged, but still there seems to be little urgency, in Berlin anyway, to plug the gap. A fine kind of carelessness governs Berlin’s view of its future as the city that, as the former mayor has said, is “poor but sexy.”

Berlin’s deep shift from Europe’s great troubled power city to its emblem of liberation is shadowed by the story of Athens to the south. When the Greeks joined the EU in 1981, it was—according to Vassilis Papadimitriou, press secretary to George Papandreou, prime minister during the peak of the economic crisis, from 2009 to 2011—“like a ship arriving in port.” It was the moment when the Greeks—previously isolated by the Soviet bloc to the north, in an unsustainable arms race with Turkey to the east, and irredeemably poor—“felt that they were being treated as a proper part of Europe for the first time.”

Membership in the European club ushered in a long swing of optimism, grants, and growth for the city, culminating in its hosting of the 2004 Olympics and building of the magnificent new Acropolis Museum, through which the world could be shown just how modern and sophisticated Greece had become.

The euro crisis was, according to Elli Papakonstantinou, a director of experimental theater in the abandoned industrial suburb of Elaionas, “a moment of guilt, shared by all of us, a sense that somehow we were all responsible for the bad things that were happening to us.” It was a huge, national blow to self-esteem. Papadimitriou says it was “confirmation of the Greeks’ worst fears, that they didn’t really belong in Europe at all.”

The social and personal pain brought on by the ensuing austerity regime remains intense. Ermina Kontaratos, who looks after her severely disabled teenage daughter, wrings her hands in despair at the daily struggle she now has to undergo to get anything out of the welfare system. Since June 2013 she has had nothing. Until then she’d been receiving $1,300 every two months. Then the doctors went on strike. Then she was sent to the wrong doctors, who fobbed her off, and then again to others in distant offices, impenetrably bureaucratic, almost impossible to get to on public transport. She has no car. “The officials have all been turned upside down. They don’t know what they’re doing.”

Her daughter had been receiving a pension of $200 a month since her father’s death five years ago. That too has stopped. How will they live? “I will pray to God,” Kontaratos said. “My son Antonis brings me a bit of fish. I have a vegetable garden, some chickens. I’m much better off than a lot of people. I have some olive trees.”

There has been a tectonic shift of the middle class into poverty. Grandparents have moved in with their families; the young are leaving the city and going back to the villages. For many families, there isn’t enough money for the private tutors who’ve always been part of the Greek education system. The population of central Athens has been dropping; the 2011 census reported nearly a third of the city’s apartments as vacant. Property prices in some parts have fallen by more than 40 percent. For all the boosterish publicity highlighting new clubs in Kerameikos or the burgeoning art scene, the collapse is real and pervasive.

The streets around the anarchist-dominated Polytechnion, Athens’s most radical university campus, are still littered with graffiti—Eat the Rich, Kill the Past, Burn the Cells—and a third of the shops in the smartest shopping streets of Kolonaki are empty. Police wearing protective rubber armor and stab-proof vests and armed with three-foot-long truncheons still wait in huddles outside cafés around Alexandros Grigoropoulos Street, renamed informally for a 15-year-old boy who was shot and killed by an officer in a scuffle on December 6, 2008.

The social and economic stress has meant the eruption of xenophobia in parts of the city. I spoke with the president of the local residents association in Aghios Panteleimon, one of the districts where the fascist group Golden Dawn has received its most support. He took me to see the blackened hole where a pop-up mosque had been until it was burned out in a fire in 2011. “Can you think of anything more disgusting than 70 pairs of shoes on the pavement outside a mosque?” he said. “Of course it was burned down.” Athens, he thought, might allow a mosque to be built, but none would have a minaret. “It reminds us of Ottoman shame”—the centuries before independence, when Athens was merely another city in the Turkish empire.

The days of rage have receded. Last spring the most violent demonstration was the sit-in held by cleaning workers from the finance ministry over jobs. They sat smoking and chatting for a morning in the street next to the ministry. Here and there some commercial optimism has emerged. Internet start-ups like Taxibeat—“Be a 21st-century taxi driver. Make your smartphone a new source of revenue”—are raising millions of dollars in venture capital. All kinds of e-commerce schemes are entering the mix. And street artists have started flogging their canvases to international collectors. A man called Cacao Rocks put a sticker on one of the graffiti works that he’d sprayed all over the wall of an abandoned factory in Psiri: “If you want to buy any of my work, you can find me at the gallery at No. 12 down the road.”

Alongside all this, bubbling up throughout Athens are local organizations looking for local solutions, cleaning up garbage, planting trees on abandoned plots, painting children’s parks, giving Athenians guided tours of parts of the city they don’t know, putting up brief histories in simple Greek on the walls of buildings, yarn bombing the trees in Kolokotroni Square to celebrate them and their beauties.

Such transient uses of abused or abandoned city spaces are a global phenomenon. They’re everywhere in Berlin too, but the same actions have different meanings in different places. In Athens the enemy they’re addressing is a sense of failure and disillusion. In Berlin it’s the opposite, the threat that too much success will start to erode Berlin’s famous freedoms. Demonstrations are held there against the building of new apartment blocks. In parts of the city, such as Kreuzberg and, even more, Mitte, which were the great squat hangouts and art centers of the ’90s in the years after the Wall came down, the new problem is money. The power of capital, the gentrifying flood of new cash drawn to Berlin’s cool image, is what threatens to alter the precious, inclusive social fabric of the city.

This is Berlin’s own version of the escape from failure. Only by integration and participation, by a version of intimacy, can the modern city hope to be a humane one. You hear that message from all corners. Since 2009 Marco Clausen, a social historian, and Robert Shaw, a filmmaker, have run a community garden called the Prinzessinengärten right in the middle of urban Berlin, on the site of a large, Jewish-owned department store that was bombed in the war and never rebuilt. If people suggest that the 1.5-acre garden is not very productive in terms of food, Clausen has an answer: “No. What we produce is social exchange. What we produce is a neighborhood.” The garden is, he says, “a symbol of a lot of the things that people desire.”

For many, this Berlin culture, which had its roots in the pre-1989 squats of West Berlin, is under threat. “What will this city look like in the future,” Clausen asks, “if we just go on selling to the highest bidder? The city is not made by its planners and architects; it is made by its culture and everyday connections.” That’s a powerful vision of what a good city might be: Don’t let money or power dominate, don’t let property drive out humanity. The irony is that Clausen is voicing precisely the ideal of human connection and human networking that lies at the root of Greek culture and that has proved so difficult to integrate with the systems of the modern state: How to reconcile human connection with a pan-European economy?

Wolfgang Thierse, the veteran politician who for decades has been intimately involved in the making of the new Germany, recognizes that “the attractive thing about this city was that it was not finished. There were these empty spots and all this chaos. But the attractiveness of the messiness is disappearing.” In Prenzlauer Berg, where he lives, Thierse estimates that 90 percent of the residents moved there in the past 25 years. “Which means another 90 percent have been pushed out. Gentrification is an experience of the last ten years, and a painful experience,” he says. “People expect the city to put brakes on that process, precisely to make it less painful.” The great German success since 1945 has been a product of what the Germans call capitalism with a social dimension.

One young mother I met in Kreuzberg—she wouldn’t give me her name—told me how the rich would park outside her apartment block, sizing it up for gentrification. “They don’t need schools,” she said. “They just want parking spaces.” She said that whenever she sees a limousine full of prospectors, she shouts, “Go away. This is my house—not your money.”

Keeping the inclusive social fabric of the city intact is central to Berlin’s own escape from the pressures of modernity. The London model (a destructively free market in housing) and the Paris model (a superchic white core surrounded by poor and troubled immigrant suburbs) are to be avoided at all costs.

This is the central paradox. Berlin thrives on the careful organization of an apparently liberated city. Athens suffers the constrictions and baffles of a culture that, at its deepest level, doubts the value of authority—and consistently undermines it. The twin questions facing these cities are: How to resist the increasing dominance of the market? And how to create institutions in which people will believe? There is no sleek answer at hand.



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