ATHENS -- Visiting the epicenter of Europe's debt crisis for the first time since the troubles began three years ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday tried to assure recession-racked Greeks that she understood their suffering but encouraged them not to abandon the road of austerity and painful spending cuts.
“I know that the path to recovery has been difficult,” Merkel said after two hours of talks with Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. “Still, the strides that have been made are worth being completed.”
Her words failed to placate many of the 30,000 people who swarmed Athens to protest a visit by the woman they blame for pushing Greece down the road to economic ruin through her relentless emphasis on austerity in exchange for emergency aid.
Just minutes before Merkel arrived in downtown Athens, protesters dressed as Nazi officers rolled into Syntagma Square, outside the Greek Parliament building, in a military jeep festooned with swastika-stamped flags.
Then, as the German leader gave only qualified support for Greece's continued membership in the Eurozone, the club of 17 nations that use the euro currency, militant protesters fired a flurry of firecracker-like projectiles at the police outside Parliament.
Merkel's visit was a foray into a lion's den of fury and resentment over the harsh austerity program demanded by Greece's international creditors, which has seen unemployment, homelessness, poverty and despair rise to alarming levels in this Mediterranean country.
Merkel offered moral encouragement but no promise of further debt relief or added aid to Greece.
"I'm not here as a schoolteacher to hand out grades, but rather to offer encouragement and support," she said. "There is hope at the end of the tunnel, and I am convinced that this path [of fiscal retrenchment] will bring success if complete."
Samaras, who leads a shaky coalition government that is trying to come up with more budget cuts to satisfy lenders, said Greece needed Europe's help to return to growth. "We're not beggars. All we want is to have a chance at standing strong on our feet to work out of recession," he said.
In addition to Samaras, Merkel met with Greece's president and with a group of businesspeople before heading back to Berlin.
Her visit revived haunting memories of the Nazi occupation of Greece. Placards and banners across the capital brought swastikas back to the streets of Athens, only this time put out by Greeks themselves to mock and criticize Germany.
Some protesters referred to Merkel as "the new Fuhrer."
"History is repeating itself," said Georgia Taragi, a 59-year-old pensioner. "Only this time we won't stand for it. Greeks have awakened."
-- Anthee Carassava
Photo: An elderly man carries a banner past a line of riot policemen during a public protest in Athens to mark a visit by Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor, her first in five years to the Greek capital. Credit: Kostas Tsironis / Bloomberg.