Germania and Athena – a Case of Unrequited Love

by Frank Thomas Smith

"of all peoples, the Greeks have dreamt the dream of life best"
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

A panoramic view of German cultural history

1. Literature

German literature can be traced back to the Middle Ages, with the most notable authors of the period being Walther von der Vogelweide and Wolfram von Eschenbach. The Nibelungenlied whose author remains unknown, is also an important work of the epoch, as is the Thidrekssaga. The fairy tales collections collected and published by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the 19th century became famous throughout the world. Theologian Martin Luther, who translated the Bible into German, is widely credited for having set the basis for the modern "High German" language. Among the most admired German poets and authors are Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, Heinrich von Kleist, E.T.A.Hoffmann, Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich Heine, etc. Nine Germans have won the Nobel Prize in literature: Theodor Mommsen, Paul von Heyse, Gerhart Hauptmann, Thomas Mann, Nelly Sachs, Hermann Hesse, Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass and Herta Müller.


German philosophers, who of course owe everything to the ancient Greeks - it is sufficient to mention only Plato, Socrates and Aristotle - have helped shape western philosophy from as early as the Middle Ages. Later, Gottfried Leibniz (17th century) and more importantly Immanuel Kant played central roles in the history of philosophy. Kantianism inspired the work of Arthur Schopenhauer and Nietzsche as well as German idealism defended by Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels developed communist theory in the second half of the 19th century while Martin Heidegger and Hans Georg Gadamer pursued the tradition of German philosophy in the 20th century.


A number of German intellectuals were influential in sociology, most notably Theodor Adorno, Jürgen Habermas, and Max Weber. The University of Berlin founded in 1810 by linguist and philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt served as an influential model for a number of modern western universities.


In the field of music, Germany claims some of the most renowned classical composers of the world including Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. Other composers of the Austro-German tradition who achieved international fame include Johannes Brahms, Richard Wagner, Joseph Haydn, Franz Schubert, George Frederic Handel, Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Felix Mendelssohn, Johann Strauss II, Anton Bruckner, Gustav Mahler, Georg Philipp Telemann, Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg, Carl Orff.


German cinema dates back to the very early years of the medium. It was particularly influential during the years of the Weimar Republic. Austrian-based director Fritz Lang, who became a German citizen in 1926 and whose career flourished in the pre-war German film industry, is said to have been a major influence on Hollywood cinema. In 1930 Austrian-American Josef von Sternberg directed The Blue Angel, which was the first major German sound film and it brought world fame to actress Marlene Dietrich.


Important German Renaissance painters include Albrecht Altdorfer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Matthias Grünewald, Hans Holbein the Younger and Albrecht Dürer. Further artists are the romantic Caspar David Friedrich and the surrealist Max Ernst.


Austro-German theologians include Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach and Rudolf Otto. Also Germany has provided many mystics including Meister Eckhart, Rudolf Steiner and Jakob Boehme.


The work of Albert Einstein and Max Planck was crucial to the foundation of modern physics, which Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger developed further. They were preceded by such key physicists as Hermann von Helmholtz, Joseph von Fraunhofe, among others. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered X-rays, an accomplishment that made him the first winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901.

Politics (the Dark Side)

April 27, 1941. The Wehrmacht commander ordered the Greek military guard at the Acropolis to remove the Greek flag. The Greek soldier obeyed with tears in his eyes. When he was holding the flag with shaking hands, he made a decision: he wrapped himself in the flag and threw himself from the plateau to his death. The Germans lost no time in raising the German military flag - with its huge red swastika in the center - to the pinnacle of the Acropolis. To raise such flags over the parliament or the presidential palace is one thing, they are political after all. But to deface the Acropolis – the cradle of Greek culture and European democracy – in that way is the ultimate insult carried out by barbarians. That night two young Athenians climbed the building and tore down the flag. Thus began the Greek resistance, the first in Europe and a model for other countries under German domination. The soldier's name was Evzzone Koukidis; the two boys were Manolis Gledzos and Apostolis Santas – all now national heroes. But the Germans reacted rapidly and brutally to the resistance, as they did in the other countries they occupied, destroying whole villages, executing thousands, murdering the Jewish population.

Actually, Greece was meant to be Mussolini's plum, not only because he was closer, but also as a reward for his licking the Führer's boots. But the Greek army proved to be too much for the Italians, and the Bulgarians, another fascist ally, and they were beaten back. The Greeks even continued into Bulgarian territory and while they were occupied there the Germans invaded Greece via Yugoslavia.

According to John Anton, distinguished professor of philosophy and Greek culture at the University of South Florida, the occupation of Greece by Nazis and their Bulgarian and Italian allies resulted in the death of 7.2 percent of the Greek population, the burning to the ground of some 800 villages, each of which had 500 to 1,000 people. The Germans also looted Greek culture, resulting in “extensive theft of Greek archaeological treasures.” They force borrowed from the Central Bank of Greece 10,582,120 British gold pounds, equivalent to $23.5 billion. this very day [in 2011] the official German view has not acknowledged the damage that the Nazi occupation of Greece brought upon the historical identity of the Greek people.”


The current occupation has been accomplished without firing a shot and without a German soldier having entered Greek territory except for a military attaché in the embassy. The weapon used is much more subtle, even apparently attractive, reminiscent of the Trojan horse. Virgil wrote: "Do not trust the horse, Trojans. Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts." But now karma has reversed history with the Trojan-like Germans having unconsciously tricked the Greeks into allowing their own currency to be replaced by the Trojan one. Well, though, the Trojans were pretty stupid to allow that horse stuffed with Greek soldiers onto their territory, and in our time the Greeks have been equally stupid to accept the German dominated currency as their own.

The European Union is a great idea. Just think, no more national frontiers. Well, the frontiers still exist, but no documents are required to leave or enter or even to reside or work in any of the member countries – for citizens of the member countries. There's a European parliament in Brussels, which doesn't do much harm and is at least a venue for discussion.

But the common currency, the Euro, was a very bad idea indeed, except for the economically strong. By economically strong I mean, above all, Germany. By the economically weak I mean, above all, Greece. Look at it this way. If a strong country produces many quality products which the weaker neighbor is only able to produce with less quality or not at all, then the strong country will be able to export its products to the weak country, perhaps. That is, if the weak country is able to pay for them. Or, if its residents prefer to make do with the poor quality local product rather than pay more for the imported one.

One of the principal reasons for not buying the imported product is when the target country's currency in weaker than the exporter's. The weaker the target country's currency the more expensive the imported product. But...what if both the importer and the exporter have the same currency? The price, then, is always the same, especially if there is no import tax, which has also been eliminated in the Euro-zone. Therefore, the bottom line for Greece having the same currency as Germany is that German imports are now cheaper for Greeks, and their own exports are more expensive. In 2011 Greece imported almost 23 billion dollars in goods from the European Union, Germany being the leader; it exported 11 billion to the EU.

It is an illusion to think that a country like Greece can compete economically with Germany if the playing field is level. No, Greece must be able to devalue its currency when necessary. If not able to do so its own industry will be at a disadvantage and will be destroyed – just as Argentina's industry was destroyed in the 90s when its currency's exchange rate was frozen at 1 to 1 with the U.S. dollar. Argentina finally arose from the debacle by defaulting and unfreezing its pesos.

So it should have been obvious from the beginning to the Germans that “sacrificing” their strong German mark in favor of a European currency would be no sacrifice at all. But it wasn't obvious to England and France either after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. They feared German reunification, from a military-political viewpoint as well as an economic one. They got Chancellor Helmut Kohl to agree to a common currency in exchange for their recognition of a reunited Germany – thinking they could not be browbeaten with the powerful D-mark if all had the same weapon – a kind of fiscal containment policy. "The European Union was a political concept, designed to tame a bellicose Germany. Strong economic interdependence and a common European identity, it was thought, would be cultivated by the institutions of the union, as Europeans benefited from the economic prosperity that integration would create". [New York Times - Aug. 27, 2012]

It was a serious misjudgment. Germany wished above all to be peaceful and democratic and no longer a threat to anyone. And East Germany, after over fifty years behind the iron curtain, was an economic basket case. So Germany's main task at that time was the reintegration of the communist East into the capitalistic Federal Republic. Having lived and worked in Germany for a number of years, in a burst of overconfidence in German efficiency, I predicted at the time that it would take seven years. I wasn't off by very much. And the euro has helped rather than hindered the development of the new, peaceful German reluctantly dominant industrial powerhouse.

So now, when the euro-bubble is on the verge of bursting, the Germans argue that they are strong because they work hard and the others – the southern populations – are lazy: We love them, they say, to visit on vacation. They have wonderful scenery and weather and they are so simpatico. But, although they are already suffering from the austerity which has already been imposed, even more is now demanded. How dare they demand more – especially when they know it's the wrong thing to do? Most politicians, including Frau Merkel, know very well that austerity is the worst thing to impose on a population during a recession. But they also know that the majority of their own citizens believe it, or at least are not willing to be the ones who bail out the rest – the lazy ones – with their hard earned tax money. And in a democratic state an election is always just around the corner. So for them – as for all politicians, German or not – it is more important to win the next election and keep power, prestige and a good income with little real work than doing the good, the right thing.


Isn't it time, now, during this crisis, for Germany to engage in compassion and try to make up, at least in part, for the past instead of (metaphorically) occupying Greece again, this time without guns and boots. The destruction of the economy is being repeated, though by other means. We all live in the economic age so the weapons of choice for the sophisticated modern armies are economic ones. In this case, the euro. Which, by the way, complicates enormously one of Greece's main industries: tourism. Greece was once very cheap and therefore more attractive for most foreign tourists because of its weaker currency. That is no longer true, unfortunately.

I realize that comparing today's gentle Germany with the Third Reich can be considered unfair, even an insult, especially considering that almost all Germans alive today weren't ever born during the National Socialist regime. Nevertheless, history matters, as it will for American generations who learn about Vietnam. I am waiting for an American president to go to Vietnam and apologize. So I wish to emphasize that I am using the comparison here only to highlight the effect this economic occupation has on a country like Greece: humiliation and poverty. Greece cannot free itself from foreign occupation by using the enemy's tools. It must resuscitate its resistance movement, not with violence and Molotov cocktails, but with a unified cry: Viva the drachma!

And Germany? German cultural contributions have been unparalleled in world history: the musicians, the poets, the philosophers, the scientists. Has that time definitely ended – or is it still possible for a revival of the true German spirit? By concentrating on politics and economics Germany gets into trouble. It's greatest talent lies in the cultural sphere, where it can be not only successful, but loved as well, even by the modern Greeks – something it deeply desires.