The World from Berlin: Greek President's 'Wrath Is Exaggerated but Ominous'

On Wednesday, growing mutual resentment got personal when Greece's president gave Germany's finance minister a public tongue-lashing. In Friday's newspapers, editorialists lament a longtime Greek-German friendship that has been badly frayed by the euro crisis.

A protester burns a German flag as others clash with riot police as they try to enter the Greek Parliament during a general strike protest in Athens on Feb. 7, 2012. Zoom
DPA

A protester burns a German flag as others clash with riot police as they try to enter the Greek Parliament during a general strike protest in Athens on Feb. 7, 2012.

Sometimes it takes a few days to get over hurt feelings. On Friday, German media commentators were still offering post-game reads on Wednesday's long-distance dust-up between German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and Greek President Karolos Papoulias.

Of course, the context for the scuffle was the frayed nerves resulting from wrangling over a second aid package for Greek and growing resentment on both home fronts. Germans seem to worry that they are footing the bill for Greek sins and that the Greeks aren't doing anything to stem the bleeding. Meanwhile, the already suffering Greeks respond with anger to German demands for more austerity measures. Protesters in Athens have burned German flags, for example, and the country's newspapers have published photo montages of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a Nazi uniform.

On Wednesday, in an interview with German public radio station SWR, Schäuble seemed to attack Greek conservatives by saying: "I am no longer certain that all the political parties in Greece are conscious of their responsibility for the difficult situation in their country." He also suggested that Greek elections may have to be postponed and that the country should install an interim government of technocrats, as the Italians have done with Prime Minister Mario Monti.

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Later in the day, the Greek president launched his own salvo in response. Speaking at a dinner with military officials, a visibly angry Papoulias said: "I don't accept insults to my country by Mr. Schäuble. … I don't accept it as a Greek. Who is Mr. Schäuble to ridicule Greece? Who are the Dutch? Who are the Finns?"

The accusations have been particularly shocking for many Germans because of Papoulias' history of ties to Germany. As a young man, the now 82-year-old fought against the Nazi occupiers in Greece. But later he seemed to embrace the country, studying law in Munich and Cologne. He also speaks fluent German.

Commentators in German papers Friday express universal shock over the president's comments, with many lamenting how relations between two traditionally close countries could have fallen so far.

The conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"The euro crisis is entering into a new phase. For two years, politicians in Europe have been trying to somehow keep everything together. One did absolutely everything possible to avoid allowing surges of nationalist sentiment from getting too high. And, to do so, one wasn't always a stickler about the promises of the problem countries, such as Greece. It was a winking game. Athens pretended like it wanted to reform, and Europe acted like it believed it. But now this arrangement has reached its limits. And that's because the results of Greek efforts have turned out to be so paltry that the others are simply unable to look away anymore. And it's also because people in Greece like to forget that there are also voters in the donor countries who don't want to just play along with everything. And their patience -- like that of the politicians -- has now been exhausted."

"In Greece, on the other hand, people continue to play the victim and to look abroad for something to blame their own malaise on. Populist politicians (there) have been particularly focused on the Germans. Instead of reaping thanks for all the transfers of their taxpayer money, (Germans) are now forced to put up with a tongue-lashing. For example, incensed Greek President Papoulias stood before the cameras and said: 'I can't accept insults to my country by Mr. Schäuble. … Who is Mr. Schäuble to ridicule Greece? Who are the Dutch? Who are the Finns?' The answer is simple: Those are all the (countries) that are currently trying to make sure that Greece can pay what it owes and that want to be sure that Athens will also hold up its part of the bargain this time."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Over the decades, Germans, Greeks and other European peoples have found common values. In a sense, (Greek President Papoulias) is a model European. Thus, one has to take it seriously when a man of his stature makes an accusation that his country is being 'mocked' or 'insulted,' depending on the translation."

"People have come to know Wolfgang Schäuble as a man with both a sharp mind and a sharp tongue. But his recent comments don't really justify Papoulias' agitated response: In an interview, Schäuble hinted that pushing back new elections along the Italian model in favor of having a government supported by all parties might be a model for Greece."

"Papoulias' wrath may be exaggerated. But it's still a very ominous sign. It was this president who responded to Greek opponents of European austerity plans that they should be ashamed of themselves after having branded him a traitor. It was this president who broke up the stalemate between the major parties and appointed a new prime minister. But now it is also this president who must recognize that all of this isn't going to be enough to rescue his country from default. This pressure might also make it excusable when he loses his temper. An irate Papoulias asked the rhetorical question 'Who is this Mr. Schäuble?' But, in reality, he probably knows that this Schäuble knows how to appreciate the value of Europe like hardly any other German politician."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Did Wolfgang Schäuble insult Greece? It's a bit much for the Greek president to accuse the German finance minister of insulting the Greeks. And, for Schäuble, who doesn't want anyone to seem like a more fervent European, this accusation must hit him right where it hurts. However, though it's painful to watch protesters burn German flags in Athens and to see the Greek media disparage Chancellor Merkel, it would be wrong to let our feelings be hurt."

"Instead, it would be much more instructive to inquire into the reasons behind the president's outburst, especially because he knows Germany well after having studied here. The fact that (Schäuble) said it like it is by describing Greece as a bottomless pit could hardly have warranted it. Indeed, everyone knows that Greek politicians ran up debts, failed to collect taxes and ignored corruption. But, by suggesting that new elections in Greece be postponed to make sure that the country sticks to what it has agreed to, Schäuble has touched on a nerve that is sensitive for two reasons. First, he reminds us that Athens has promised many reforms but only kept its word on a few. Second, having an election date set by foreigners would be just as undemocratic as having an austerity commissioner arrive from Brussels."

The business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"'Who is Mr. Schäuble,' asks Karolos Papoulias. 'I don't accept insults to my country by Mr. Schäuble.' Papoulias is president of the Hellenic Republic. When the 82-year-old Greek talks like this, one sits up and takes notice because his life story is closely entwined with Germany."

"Germans and Greeks were good friends. But then came the debt crisis, which has poisoned relations between both peoples."

"This breakdown (in relations) between Germans and Greeks is particularly depressing when one considers that few peoples in Europe have enjoyed such close ties. Schiller felt like he was 'born in Arcadia," and Goethe chose it as the setting for his 'Faust.'"

"The darkest chapter in German-Greek history was the Nazi occupation in World War II. Hardly any other people rebelled against the German occupiers as courageously as the Greeks. And, as a result, the Wehrmacht (Germany's wartime army) and the SS raged as horribly in few other countries. Still, after the war, the Greeks were much more spontaneous than other peoples about extending a hand of reconciliation to the Germans. In 1952, the first Goethe Institut (a German cultural center) abroad opened in Athens. In 1956, German President Theodor Heuss chose to make his first state visit to Greece."

"At the time, Germany was experiencing its economic miracle while Greece was a poor country. In the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Greeks emigrated, and the majority of them came to Germany. This migration lent a new, human dimension to the friendship between the two peoples."

"In 1981, when Greece became a member of the European Economic Community, many celebrated it as 'Europe's return to its roots.' Two decades later, the euro aimed at becoming the brace that held Europe together. But now it is the shared currency itself that is dividing the Greeks and Germans. Two countries, two extremes: On the one hand, you have Germany, the export champion that has seen its productivity continue to go up in recent years thanks to both low wages and the euro. On the other hand, you have Greece, the broke country that is constantly losing competitiveness -- also as a result of the currency union."

"A justified accusation states that the Greeks have been spending more than they've earned for decades. But the Germans have enjoyed particularly good earnings from their doing so."

-- Josh Ward

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