In the midafternoon of Sunday, Feb. 12, the deluge stopped and the sun came out over Athens. Suddenly, it was a perfect day for a mass anti-austerity protest. Syntagma Square, in front of the perennially besieged parliament building, quickly turned into a sea of humanity.
I was there and, having been tear-gassed and deafened by stun grenades in previous Greek demonstrations, knew that peaceful protests can turn violent in seconds. At about 5 p.m., a roar erupted, the crowd lurched and I thought: showtime.
I was wrong—a riot and fireworks extravaganza that would burn 40 buildings was still an hour away. The roar was triggered by a very old man with a shock of white hair being propelled toward the parliament building. His name was Manolis Glezos. In 1941, when he was 19, he climbed the Acropolis to tear down the swastika flag of the German occupying forces, launching the Greek resistance. Later a politician and author, he has been freedom-fighter hero ever since.
Glezos didn't like the Germans then and he doesn't much like them now, but for different reasons. Today's aggressive, German-inspired austerity programs are not only grinding Greece's economy into rubble, they are turning the country into a German colony, he argues. "The way Germany is treating the Greeks is intolerable," he told the BBC. "We are slaves to foreigners. Young people ask me which flag should be torn down now: I say the flag of slavery. And we must fly the flag of sovereignty and freedom."
Those are passionate and fighting words, but he's right. It's one thing to demand austerity and economic reform in exchange for a steady drip of bailout loans (Greece received its second bailout from the European Union, worth ¤130 billion, in March). It's quite another for Germany to be so bloody obvious about who's in charge, especially in a country it once occupied with tragic results.
Just about everyone can agree that Greece is largely to blame for its current woes. Its inability to service its debt made Greece a ward of the EU (read: Germany) and the International Monetary Fund in 2010. Germany and the IMF, in return, demanded sacrifice in the form of higher taxes, fewer civil servants, privatizations, freer markets and lower wages—in effect, a punishing internal devaluation.
Fine. She who writes the cheques calls the shots. But then things turned weird. Germany, in essence, demanded control of Greece's budget. It wanted to appoint a fiscal commissar in Athens. It demanded an escrow bailout account, which would see the EU (again, read: Germany) withhold bailout funds if it didn't like the reform progress, or lack thereof. Even more provocatively, Germany recruited 160 of its tax experts to improve tax administration in Greece. One Athens tabloid called them "an assault force of German tax collectors."
The low point came when Wolfgang Schaeuble, the German finance minister, indirectly suggested that Greece postpone its expected spring elections. His fear, apparently, was that the interim, unelected "Yes, Berlin" government of Prime Minister Lucas Papademos would be replaced with a bunch of anti-austerity political hotheads who would dilute the German initiatives. At that point I thought that Schaeuble, if not the German government itself, had a secret agenda to trigger outrage in the country, all the better to convince Greece to default, bolt from the European currency union and print drachmas.
Austerity slashes growth, which widens budget deficits as tax receipts and employment wane, which triggers more austerity. The inevitable result is bankruptcy, so why not just get it over with?
The problem is that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has calculated that keeping Greece on a steady diet of bailout loot—conditional on austerity programs that seem designed to please German voters as much as they are to punish Greek citizens—is less costly than letting it default. She fears a disorderly bankruptcy could trigger a run on the banks and the sovereign debt of the weak euro zone countries.
Merkel may or may not be right. Regardless, if she is sticking with the austerity program, why is she making it so politically unpalatable?
It's one thing to insist on austerity in exchange for bailouts; it's quite another to drape the austerity in a German flag. Anti-German sentiment is also building in Portugal, Spain and Italy. If these countries think they are turning into German colonies, Merkel's efforts to take the edge off the European debt crisis could backfire, resulting in the implosion of the euro zone.
In Syntagma Square, German and Nazi flags were burned during the riots. I'm not sure if Manolis Glezos saw these acts of defiance, but he would have approved. He'd rather see Greek democracy in a bankrupt country banished from the euro zone than austerity in a country deprived of sovereignty within the euro zone. In the birthplace of democracy, the chances of the former scenario are rising by the riot.