October 8, 2011
To find symbolism in the Greek financial crisis, go to the source. The national image on the two-euro coin in Greece depicts an ancient myth about the abduction of Europa, a Phoenician princess, by Zeus, the king of the gods in the form of a bull. The saga known as the “Rape of Europa,” whose protagonist rides the bull’s back in an image reproduced by artists over the centuries, mirrors the turbulent journey of Greece and the rest of Europe, hitched together in an agonizing spiral that seems to go on and on and on.
The crude parallel ends there, however: Zeus turned into a human, had his way with Europa, and she bore him children. The last chapter in modern Greece, meanwhile, is still blank. Will there be a debt default, with its ominous implications for the global economy? How long will Greeks endure the erosion of what was a good life? The future is a void, and anger and helplessness dig deep in the Greek psyche. Joblessness is climbing and essential services such as health care and policing are losing resources.
The crisis may pale beside the bloody conflict or poverty in Libya or Afghanistan, but the hardship is as much psychological as economic. It is the shock of undercut expectations, the loss of benefits and prospects once taken for granted as part of the European contract.
The mood now resembles the plot of “Groundhog Day,” a 1993 movie about a man who wakes up to the same day over and over again. “We don’t see how we can escape from this problem,” said Kostas Theofanides, engineering manager for British Petroleum in Greece. He spoke Thursday evening at a resort hotel on the Athenian coast, where Greek and German business executives mingled during a forum that hummed with talk of investing in a country on the edge.
Greeks, whose previous governments were accused of hiding the extent of the country’s ballooning budget deficit, now talk with withering honesty about their problems, even at investment forums. Theofanides said his compatriots are angry, unsafe and depressed, and wonder how long they have to put up their daily stew of taxes, austerity, unemployment and general uncertainty.
He ticked off the possibilities: Two years? Three years? Ten years, 25 years? Who knows. But there is plenty of blame to go around, and nobody is exempt – from free-spending Greeks, to the politicians they elected, to Germany and the international lenders with their dire prescriptions of cuts and then more cuts.
Dimitrios Gardikiotis, director at an information technology company, suggested Germany had been plotting Greece’s downfall for the past 20 years, luring its junior economic partner into dissolute ways so that it could barge in and buy assets on the cheap. “‘I’m preparing your economic death. Then I will buy you and your wife and your children,’” said Gardikiotis, imagining what he thought might be a German viewpoint. He said it in such a disarming manner that it was hard to tell what he really thought.
“Greeks actually point their fingers at others, not at themselves,” Gardikiotis said. “Of course, there are certain mistakes, and everybody has to recognize their responsibility.”
History is to blame as well, in some Greek quarters. Its students point to centuries of Ottoman rule that ended in independence in 1829, giving other European nations a headstart in building democracy. Then bouts of civil strife stunted progress. The king and the prime minister sparred during the National Schism in the early 20th century, the Western-backed government fought the communists in the late 1940s, and a military junta ruled between 1967 and 1974.
For a few resentful Greeks, there are always the Nazis, who occupied Greece during World War II. On Thursday, several people in uniforms, including a man doing his best to impersonate Adolf Hitler, turned up with a Nazi flag and other insignia outside the German Embassy. “The Germans owe us millions in war reparations, let them pay what they owe us,” said 75-year-old Demetris Kollatos, a fixture on the protest circuit who vaguely recalled the German occupation of Athens during his childhood. “In their greed to get everything, they'll lose everything.”
Mostly, there is grim confusion and numbing fatigue. Greece is struggling to meet the terms of a euro110 billion ($146 billion) international bailout from other eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund, but there is growing doubt about whether it can dodge a default. The country is in a third year of recession, with another on the way.
The government is tightening up on tax evaders, but some edicts, including those about what receipts taxpayers need to save in order to avoid penalties, have changed several times. A columnist in the English-language Athens News, who draws on historical figures for his alias, Alcibiades Ouranos, predicted a looming deluge of bureaucracy: “Thing A should be dealt like that, but we acknowledge that B, C and D are unfairly hurt by that legislation, so we declare that B should do that, C should do something else and D should do that, but only if they do not fall into category E, have F blahblahblah. So bring us statements from agency G, H and I who monitor such things, to establish that you are indeed a B and not an A.”
Some Greeks think they are venturing onto new psychological terrain after nearly two years in which the concept of crisis, which should be exceptional by definition, is as banal as the protests and strikes that convulse Athens from time to time.
Despoina Ergenidou is director of the Numismatic Museum, a monument to the coins and currency of ancient Greece that is housed in the mansion where Heinrich Schliemann, the German archaeologist who excavated Troy, lived in the late 19th century. “It’s not just the economy. It’s ethical values,” she said in an interview in her office, flanked by a garden in downtown Athens. “They are losing what they believe. I don’t mean religion. We were working for something better, we believed in things, people, good ideas. We were working for those ideas. It’s not like that anymore.”
In ancient times, Ergenidou said, there were no banks, so people hoarded coins in hiding places, in pots or pouches, behind walls and under floors. Many families survived war and other hardships through their domestic economies, a garden to grow vegetables or some farm animals.
Those were truly hard times. They were also glorious times, when hundreds of cities and kings minted coins in different denominations and metals. There were tetradrachms and staters and obols, gold and silver and brass, and coins with images of turtles, foals and owls.
It is tempting to find relevance in the words of ancient Greek philosophers to Greece’s modern predicament, in which avarice played a star role. Aristotle recognized the value of money as a tool for the interchange of goods, beyond barter, but warned of its artifice and the imbalances generated by seeking cash without restraint. “It appears necessary that there should be a limit to all riches, yet in actual fact we observe that the opposite takes place; for all men engaged in wealth-getting try to increase their money to an unlimited amount,” he wrote.