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The Tyranny and Devastating Glory of Greece

Protesters demonstrate against austerity cuts in Syntagma Square, Greece, June 29, 2011. (Photo: Megan Garner)

On the eve of World War II, in 1935, the British scholar, E. M. Butler, spoke about the “tyranny” and “devastating glory of the Greeks.” She explained:

“Greece has profoundly modified the whole trend of modern civilization, imposing her thought, her standards, her literary forms, her imagery, her visions and dreams wherever she is known. But Germany is the supreme example of her triumphant spiritual tyranny. The Germans have imitated the Greeks more slavishly; they have been obsessed by them more utterly and they have assimilated them less than any other race. The extent of the Greek influence is incalculable throughout Europe; its intensity is at its highest in Germany.”(1)

Butler was not quite right. WWII shreded the classical façade of Europe rather quickly.

Of course, before WWII, Germany claimed Greece. Germany was even the best place in Europe for Greek classical studies. But, suddenly, WWII revealed the emptiness of all that classical training, the shallowness of the classical civilization that floated over the West, especially over Germany. The “incalculable” influence of Greece over warring Europe dissipated as a fog in the sunlight.

Germany that, supposedly, was such a slavish imitator of Greece, started WWII without a memory of or respect for Greece. The German commanders and troops who occupied Greece in 1942 treated the Greeks in a truly barbarian fashion: They killed and starved the resisting Greeks. The Germans divided the country into three zones of occupation, giving Greek territory to the Bulgarians and the Italians.

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.

Anton also says Germans forced Greek peasants to move to the cities and, in general, made it very precarious for the survival of the Greek people, indeed, they accelerated the process of de-Hellenization that has had traumatic effects on the continuity of Greek culture.

Finally, according to Anton: “to 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.”(2)

The German government also refuses to acknowledge, much less do anything about war reparations to Greece. Between 1942 and 1944, the country was completely devastated, its industrial infrastructure wiped out and its population experienced the terror and death from the occupying barbarian horde of Nazis.

Having these facts in mind, the German economic historian Albrecht Ritschi reports (June 21, 2011) that Germany has no standing, indeed, it is bordering on hubris, in its intransigence in punishing Greece because the country is unable to pay back its debts. Ritschi says, “Germany was [the] biggest debt transgressor of [the] 20th century.”

Ritschi explained the reason Germany prospered after WWII was the generosity of America in forgiving loans to devastated Germany and in taking “steps to ensure there wouldn't be a repeat of high reparations demands made on Germany.” This meant that the victims of Nazi occupation, including Greeks, would “forgo reparations.”

That is why Ritschi urges the German government to be generous to Greece, remembering the 1953 American “haircut” of the German debt that reduced it to “practically nothing.”(3)

Now, that's precisely what is needed to resolve the ugly and dangerous financial crisis in Greece. Germany ought to convince its EU and IMF partners to give a substantive “haircut” to the Greek debt. Only then would Greece be able to return to rebuilding and reforming its economy for normal development that the Nazis so violently interrupted.

Such a peaceful resolution of the Greek crisis would also revive the classical influence of Greece in the Western world, enabling the Greeks of today to stop the de-Hellenization of their country and culture and feel secure about their national identity.


1. E. M. Butler, “The Tyranny of Greece Over Germany” (first published 1935; Boston: Beacon Press, 1958) 6.

2. John Anton, “Greece, Germany and the Complex Issue of War Reparations,” Mediterranean Quarterly, 22:2, 11-19 (2011).

3. Interview of Albrecht Ritschi, Spiegel online, June 21, 2011.

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