It is wrong to suggest that people should be held accountable for the actions of their ancestors. Blaming each other for the deeds of our ancestors is the cause of vast tracts of human suffering and conflict. Tribes and nations have fought each others for centuries — and, in some places, continue to do so — based on the actions of that tribe or nation’s forefathers. This is irrational. We cannot change the actions of our ancestors. That is perhaps one reason why John Cleese’s portrayal of an idiot hotelier beating down his German guests with a spiel of cringe-inducing World War 2 and Nazi clichés is so absurdly funny.
That being said, we do have a responsibility to learn from and not repeat the mistakes of our ancestors. Failure to learn from the mistakes of one’s ancestors is the point at which the actions of past generations become relevant in a discussion of the present.
There is a line of reasoning that suggests that the first person to compare their opponent to Adolf Hitler or Nazism in an argument on the internet just lost the argument. I tend to see this view as generally correct. The acts and beliefs of the Nazis were unusually horrific, and comparing your opponent or the person or group you are criticizing to the Nazis is often an act of rhetorical desperation, and often a symptom of a lack of imagination. However, what is generally correct is often locally wrong. Sometimes, a Nazi or World War 2 analogy really cuts to the core of a problem.
This, I believe, is one of those times. Having the German government and its allies trying to dictate to the Greek people the terms of Greece’s euro membership, the standards by which they should run their government, and economy, and civil service, and welfare state must feel painfully close to a new German occupation. Greece is a country, we should not forget, that suffered greatly under a German military occupation less than a lifetime ago. It is now experiencing a brutal and prolonged economic depression at the hands of a new generation of austerity obsessed Germans.
Greece has been a willing victim for German austerity. The Greeks have taken Merkel’s medicine. Greece has done a huge amount of spending cuts, so many in fact that by 2012 they had a primary surplus.
Unfortunately, Merkel’s and the Troika’s medicine was a load of horse shit. Instead of recovering, the Greek economy just got even more depressed. Unemployment has been at Great Depression levels ever since Merkel and the Troika began dictating how the Greeks ran their economy. Greek real GDP continues to trend downward. Indeed, Europe itself remains in an epic depression. The austerians keep making it worse.
Now, nobody is saying that the Greeks are blameless. Obviously, they took on a load of relatively unproductive debt they couldn’t afford, and they colluded with financiers to falsify economic data to get into the eurozone. But the country has already suffered massively as a result of those decisions (which of course were not Greece’s alone — the creditors clearly did not do their homework).
The goal now should be getting Greece — and the wider continent and world, which would also suffer greatly from a default cascade or economic slump as a result of the Greek crisis — out of the mess they are in. What Greece really needs is debt forgiveness. Even the IMF recognizes that Greece’s debts are unrepayable. But that is not Merkel and Schaüble’s goal. Instead of recognizing that their policies have failed, and that a change in course is necessary, their goal for Greece is complete capitulation to the stormtroopers. Their goal for Greece is punishment, in order to set an example to other euro members who might get into fiscal trouble.
The great irony — and the thing that makes the Nazi references really begin to stick — is that earlier German governments received massive debt relief. Indeed, after Germany started the Second World War — which killed 50 million people, including 6 million who died in the holocaust — it had its war debt written off, allowing the West German economy to begin to recover and rebuild. Indeed, Germany was the biggest defaulter of the 20th century. Yet now the very descendants of those Germans refuse the same treatment for today’s Greeks, whose troubles pale against the crimes of Germany’s Nazi past.
This is sickening. Not only are they shredding to pieces the European unity and the European Union that has kept war-torn Europe at piece with itself for the past seventy years, they are doing it in the name of an ignorant program of austerity that does nothing other than punish and degrade. And they are doing it in complete ignorance of how their own ancestors benefited from others’ forgiveness. Do they not understand the value of European unity? Of economic growth? Of peace or prosperity?
In choosing the path of sadomasochism, punishment and German supremacism, Schaüble and Merkel and their allies are risking turning what is already a terrible depression for the continent — and a ravaging for Greece — into something deeper, gloomier and more painful.