Konstantinos Tsanas has had a terrible summer since moving to Germany from Athens in April. But apart from the depressingly wet north European weather, he says he is happy in a country cursed by many Greek politicians because of its insistence on tying financial aid to strict austerity.
“Ignore the politicians – Greeks and Germans get along, I feel at home here,” he says of Essen, the industrial city on the Ruhr in north-west Germany that he has chosen as his new home. Here his wife, who speaks German, quickly landed the kind of office job she had been unable to find in Athens.
“We don’t want to be rich,” says Mr Tsanas, 43, who quit a job as a radio producer in Greece. “We just want a better life than in Greece, to live without grovelling.”
That hope is making Germany home to a growing number of Greeks. Some 25,300 of them came last year, according to the German statistical office, with the net number of “German Greeks” rising by 14,000 to just under 400,000 – a significant jump after a net outflow in the preceding years.
This stream of migrants is the most eye-catching part of a larger trend – people from recession-hit countries in the southern euro zone moving northwards to seek work. The German economy remains relatively resilient and its companies say they have 500,000 vacancies. The wave of immigration last year helped Germany’s ageing population to grow by 92,000 to 81.8 million – its first increase since 2002.
“Most people who come are educated and highly skilled, although there are also a lot of unskilled people trying their luck,” says Ioanna Zacharaki, who works for Diakonie Rheinland, a charity in Dusseldorf. Apart from Greeks, she has helped Italians, Portuguese and Spaniards. “Engineers and doctors find a ready welcome,” she says.
Demand for highly skilled workers – and southern Europe’s ability to meet it – seems to distinguish this era of migration from the south-to-north flow of the 1950s and 1960s. Then, German industry welcomed millions of low-skilled Gastarbeiter, or guest-workers, from Turkey, Greece and Italy to help mine coal or cast steel.
While that may have encouraged some Germans to feel superior to the Gastarbeiter, today their reception is different, says Dimitrios Dimitriadis, a 34-year-old doctor who is learning German in Berlin and wants to find work.
“Germans need doctors – and you get judged on capability, not on nationality,” he says. “We have to treat each other as equal Europeans – and that is happening.”
Two Greek classmates at central Berlin’s Goethe Institut, the government’s global German language teaching organization, unanimously agree. This is the era of the internet, in which the well-educated in different countries visit the same websites, enjoy the same films and music, sharing a kind of global culture.
“You know, it would be a big issue if we were treated like immigrants,” says another Dimitrios, who declines to give his last name. German bureaucracy may be annoying, and the odd prejudice might spill forth from the odd German. But perhaps the crisis is helping to forge some sort of European identity, says the 28-year-old, who is completing a doctorate in politics in Athens and then plans to move to Germany.
“Maybe it is easier to be European if you’re well educated,” he says. “What if we end up with an ambitious ‘European dream’ among the highly mobile – and a rising nationalism among the less educated who have no choice but to stay at home?”
He is not the only one to worry that the current wave of migration might end up causing problems in countries other than Germany.
“You hear of cases where migrants have had bad experiences – being called lazy Greeks,” says Mrs Zacharachi. “But I think most people who find work here will stay in Germany. And that’s a huge problem for a country like Greece, losing its elites.”
It is an issue that seems to occupy many Greeks who have moved away. But there is also a sense that it was not they who chose to go – they were given no choice but to leave. “I would have stayed in Greece if I could,” Mr. Dimitriadis says.
Mr. Tsanas says Greece needs “big change”, but that he cannot imagine moving back in the next 15 or 20 years to be a part of that – he wants a better future.