Paul Mason Monday 16 March 2015
Two hundred years ago Germany’s great poet and statesman performed a U-turn that some would like to see Angela Merkel copy
On a quiet street in central Athens stands the bronze, modernist facade of the Goethe Institut, which has been teaching German and spreading enlightenment about German culture since 1952. Last week, the Greek government threatened to seize the building, together with holiday homes and other German assets. Greece is claiming €341bn (£240bn) in second world war reparations from Germany – and if the government does not confiscate the Goethe Institut, there are numerous people in Athens ready to do it “from below”.
With Germany on the brink of vetoing any further debt forgiveness for Greece, the logic of angering Berlin more does not look obvious. To the uninitiated, the two countries’ animosity towards each other can seem inexplicable. Yet fascination with Greece is deep in the German psyche. And the way out of the standoff may lie in the example of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe himself: Germany’s great poet and statesman underwent his own U-turn on the issue of Greece, under the pressure of geopolitical events very similar to today’s.
Though we think of Greece as an economic crisis, it is also on a geopolitical fault line. To the north-east is Putin’s Russia. The Greek cultural affinity with Russia goes back centuries; the Greek left’s sympathies with Moscow are more recent, but very strong. The second world war resistance anthem belted out at Syriza rallies is actually the Soviet marching song Katyusha, with Greek words.
But on coming to power, Alexis Tsipras appointed a hard-right conservative to the defence ministry and pledged not to leave NATO. When that defence minister took to a military helicopter to oversee manoeuvres, Tsipras made sure a key Syriza politician was alongside him, wearing (to the amusement of some on the left) a Greek air force flying jacket. It was a signal, above all, to the Americans: Syriza’s commitment to NATO is real.
To the south-east lies the threat of Isis. The terrorist quasi-state is separated from Greece by a single, buffer country: Turkey – whose lack of resolution in fighting Isis was demonstrated during the battle for Kobani. In response, Tsipras has quietly positioned Greece as the first reliable country in the defence line against Isis. He has also pledged to maintain the old government’s alliance with Israel, and to honour a three-way gas exploitation deal signed with Israel and Cyprus.
But Greece has other options. Pro-Russian feeling among the population, combined with exasperation at the effects of Russia-EU sanctions on Greek agriculture, mean that, if Tsipras were to look to Moscow for financial support, it would be a wildly popular move. Meanwhile Greece has become the new likely route for Russian gas into Europe, after Putin abruptly cancelled a pipeline project to Bulgaria and announced a new one, running under the Black Sea to a hub on the Greek-Turkish border. So there is quiet US pressure on Germany to avoid pushing Greece away from Europe. According to one source, the words “our boys didn’t die on the beaches of Normandy for this” have been used in conversations between the State Department and the German foreign ministry.
The US is worried that Germany’s stance risks simultaneously pushing Greece into the Russian sphere of influence, and crippling its state as a military and intelligence partner against Isis. This, with supreme irony, looks almost exactly like the problem that confronted Goethe and a generation of German intellectuals in the 1820s.
The Greek rebellion against Turkish rule, which began in 1821, threatened to upset the entire diplomatic balance of the western world. It flew in the face of the treaty signed by the so-called Holy Alliance (Russia, Austria and Prussia) to suppress revolutionary movements in Europe. Plus it violated the German enlightenment’s ideal of freedom, which was understood as deriving from the rule of law. Under the influence of the philosopher Kant, the Germans who built central Berlin as an off-white replica of Athens believed all freedom came from obeying authority.
The Greeks fighting the Turks in a dirty war, revelling in their image as brigands and urging revolt across Europe, were seen in the Germany of the 1820s much as the German electorate views hordes of radical Greek youth punching the air and singing Katyusha – with distaste.
So Goethe, initially, opposed the Greek revolt. He feared Russian power would fill the vacuum if the Turks were beaten. And beyond that he feared it would spark further outbreak of revolution in Europe. What changed Goethe’s mind was the death of Lord Byron, fighting on the Greek side in 1824. In a sudden surge of creativity Goethe set to work on his unfinished drama Faust, modelling the central character now on Byron himself, and turning the second half of the work into a meditation on the nature of freedom.
His U-turn reframed the Greek “rule breaking” problem within a broader set of rules: the Christian west versus the Ottoman Empire. Goethe declared his support for the Greeks, in opposition to the will of his political masters in Germany.
Today, there are a growing number of diplomats in the Anglo-Saxon world who wish Angela Merkel would do a similar volte-face. The Germans’ intransigence on the Greek debt crisis is rooted in the same philosophical stance that initially guided Goethe’s generation: namely, that freedom derives from conformity to authority and the rules. But there was always another idea of freedom in the west – the one espoused by republican France, radical Britain and revolutionary America: that freedom exists in opposition to authority, and that the ultimate human right is to destroy the established order.
It’s strange to see a 200-year-old philosophical debate played out in the diplomatic backchannels of Nato, but that’s what is happening. If Germany’s cultural centre in Athens does end up draped in the banners of the anarchist left, then – in a way – it will be a fine testimony to the relevance of Goethe himself. And yet another example of the troubled psyche of this place called Europe.
Paul Mason is economics editor of Channel 4 News