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Can this relationship be saved? A German in Greece gives her take

February 17, 2012 | 10:55 am

Edit Engelmann might be uniquely suited to sort through the current Greek-German discord. Engelmann is a German who came to Greece for love, marrying a Greek man and relocating to Athens four years ago. Her book "Crisis! Crisis! Debt Under Olympus!" came out in Germany last year.
The discord between Germany and Greece over how to salvage the stumbling Greek economy has deepened distrust between the two countries, Henry Chu and Anthee Carassava reported for The Times:

To hear many Germans tell it, Greece is a land blessed with sunshine but cursed with a lying, cheating government that routinely breaks its promises and expects others to pick up the pieces. ... Athens, the Germans say, has consistently failed to deliver on pledges to slash its bloated bureaucracy, sell off state enterprises, go after tax evaders and overhaul its uncompetitive economy.

Yet ask Greeks what's happening to their country, and many respond with yowls of pain and anger -- directed in large part toward Germany. Berlin, they fume, is a tyrannical taskmaster whose only motivation now seems to be to inflict as much punishment as possible on a country whose economy has already been pushed into free fall.

The he-said-she-said has gotten ugly: A German magazine ran a cover showing an iconic Greek statue flipping the bird. Greeks have photoshopped German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Nazi garb.

Edit Engelmann might be uniquely suited to sort through all this discord. Engelmann is a German who came to Greece for love, marrying a Greek man and relocating to Athens four years ago. Her book "Crisis! Crisis! Debt Under Olympus!" came out in Germany last year. She calls it "a diary describing the first year of the Greek crisis out of the view of a 'frog in the streets.'"

The Times called Engelmann in Athens to ask whether this relationship can be saved.

Tell me about how the tensions between Germany and Greece developed.

Honestly, it was the Germans who started it, using the Venus de Milo showing the middle finger [on the cover of Focus magazine]. Then of course a reaction came from Greece. That was the beginning of it.

The Greek papers and public have not responded to the German provocation for a long time. But when the pressure has been growing and growing, the reactions from the Greek side have also been coming out. Now both of them are using stereotypes.

From the people themselves, these stereotypes do not come through. I have never been attacked or shouted at for being a German. I’ve never been called a Nazi or anything.

But Greek people feel that they are under occupation by the European Union, which is led by Merkel and [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy. Nobody else has as much to say in Brussels as they do. So the Greeks say: "We joined the European Union because we wanted to protect our democracy. We wanted economic development. We wanted to be part of the European community.

"Now we find ourselves with a diminished democracy, with a sovereignty that is not ours anymore. They sent somebody over to control every move we do. We basically lost everything. And on top of that, our economy has degraded since we joined the European Union." This is what the people see and this is what makes the people angry.

How has daily life in Greece changed in the years you've lived there?

Greeks have lost a gigantic portion of their income. I know families who've lost 30, 40 percent of their income. The unemployment has grown incredibly. I've seen people living in the streets. They put some plastic sheets against the walls and they creep inside to protect themselves from the rain.

Often it is the elderly ladies who are sneaking from waste container to waste container. You see from the way they are dressed that half a year ago, they didn't have these kinds of problems. Families are bringing children to orphanages, saying, "Please take the children, we can’t feed them anymore."

When I came, this was a blooming country. You went through the main streets of Athens and there was one shop after another, like any big city. Now we have a shop and three shops closed -- empty. I walk about 500 to 600 meters alongside empty shops on the way to the Metro where I live.

Slowly it starts to get this look of things not being taken care of. The streets used to be taken care of. They took away the waste. They dusted in the Metro station. All these things have slowly diminished and gone away. There are areas in Athens where, three years ago, you could walk through -- it was not the nicest part of the neighborhood but you could go safely. Now it's dangerous.

Here [in Greece] there's no social net. If you become unemployed in Germany, you get unemployment compensation, health insurance, all these kinds of things. It's not very luxurious but you at least have enough to go on. 

Here you get some support for one year and then nothing. Either your family picks you up or you're out in the streets. Lots of Germans do not understand that. The Germans are spoiled in that way. It's a social security system that's worked for the past 50 years as a net where hardly anybody fell through.

What do you want Germans to understand and what do you want Greeks to understand?

I want the Germans to understand that what they are being told, that the Greeks are lazy, the Greeks don’t work, they enjoy the sunshine and don't do anything, this is simply not true. Prices for food are more expensive than they are in Germany, but people earn less. And that's something the Germans don't know, they don't understand. I was telling my sister-in-law in Germany, if I go shopping in Greece, I pay this much for butter. She said, "How the hell are you doing it?"

This is something that is not said in the papers. The media are contributing to this growing tension with misinformation. I do not understand why they are doing it. You get people who usually would help each other, you make them angry at each other. I do not see any sense in it.

So that’s the German side. What would you tell the Greeks?

What my brother said so nicely when I told him I was going down to the demonstrations. He said, "Go down there and tell them we are not all Merkels." I think that is a good message to give.

Do you think the relationship between Germany and Greece can be saved?

Of course I think that the relationship can be saved. Actually, I think that the damage is not so much that the relations need saving. 

I strongly believe that if the media outlets stop their propaganda -- and this call is directed a lot more to the German press than to the Greek -- and once the experts have started to find solutions that are beneficial for the people rather than for the banks and stock markets, there will be no bad feelings between Germans and Greeks. 

On the contrary, once the German politicians decide to take the side of their and Greece's people, go and work for increasing democracy, of maintaining and protecting sovereignty and independence of themselves and other states, Germany will acquire an excellent reputation and will go down in history not only as an effective crisis manager, but will also conquer the hearts of the European people as benefactors.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: A man on Monday walks past the Bank of Greece headquarters in Athens, where a plaque has been altered to read "Bank of Berlin" in Athens. Credit: Louisa Goulimaki / AFP/Getty Images

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