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The lives of others: Can Germany´s past shed light on Greece´s present?

Germany´s stance on Greece has been described as rigid, demanding, and unforgiving. And while this rigidity is enacted by key political figures, the German public is increasingly unforgiving too: in a June opinion poll (Politbarometer), 70% of Germans were opposed to any further concessions to Greece. This might seem surprising – paradoxical even – given Germany’s own conflicted past, let alone its fiscal past.  After all, Germany’s prosperity today is rooted in no small part in the decision of the Allies to allow post-war West Germany to write-off half of its debts. Taking Germany´s conflicted past as starting point, reveals an important thread linking Germany´s past to Greece´s present: Germany´s attitude toward its past deeply informs its present attitude to Greece.

More to remembrance than meets the eye

The German capacity to ‘deal with the past’ is often been used as an impressive, a quintessential example of what psychoanalysts would refer to as ‘working through’: public remembrance plays a key role both in terms of structuring the individual German experience of being German (Lebenswelten) as well as in terms of Germany’s role on the world stage (as mediators for instance). Germany plays politically (both internally and externally). The threat of the past lingers as a warning sign, a moral burden that guides action. But the ubiquity of this warning sign, living in its shadow, can also smother necessary questioning.

Markus Günther recently wrote a thoughtful and thought-provoking article in the German newspaper Frankfurther Allgemeine Zeitung; In it he depicts Germany’s relationship with its harrowing past as a strong example of splitting. Günther argues that the current fight (and this argument has been made about the German 1968 generation) against right-wing parties for instance, has almost become a “catch-all” pretext, a straw man: He claims that as an ever-greater part of society enthusiastically subscribes to opposing “everything right-wing” (however broadly defined), this opposition takes on curious forms: there are concerts against the right, celebrations against the right, dinner parties against the right, even a golf tournament against the right. To Günther what possibly lies behind this ‘over-engagement’ are in fact deep , historical processes of displacement, splitting and projection.

Projection and splitting, are descriptions of how humans deal with negative feelings of blame, anger and frustration. Because they are often unbearable for the individual, these feelings are split-off and then projected onto the other; They are externalised onto the other in order escape from feelings one cannot bear, much less embrace. In other words, we are projecting feelings of aggression in order to get rid of them set them aside.  Rather than deal with them.

Grexit: The split is complete

The current crisis with Greece reflects this all too well: Greece serves as the ideal other, the outsider about who, for once, one can be completely uncensored, unfiltered. A situation in which, for once, guilt, anger, pride (this too, about Germany´s more recent role) are allowed to make their way to the surface.. All these emotions can for once take shape (and not solely here, if one considers movements like Pegida) and be expressed. Greece has become the acceptable fetish. Decision-makers don’t mention Germany´s own entanglement in debt and its own need for forgiveness – after all 20 nations granted a significant reduction of debt to Germany in 1959. Where has compassion gone? 70% of the German public agrees that there should be no further concessions as Schäuble´s popularity goes up. This reveals a very fine line between the commitment to a certain moment of remembrance and turning a blind-eye to other moments, between holding on to and letting go. The Greek crisis serves as the arena where this is currently negotiated.

Germany’s understandable zeal to remember has also turned ‘the other’ (‘The Nazi) into a foreign species, which absorbs all feelings of guilt, anger, fear and thereby prevents us from asking questions about who we are as Germans and who we want to be in relation to others, to Europe, to Greece.

I was recently walking through Berlin and passed one of the symbols of Germany’s destruction: a church, roofless since a 1943 bombing raid; standing there in its vulnerability and fragmentation, like a decapitated egg stripped of its upper shell by a strong hit of the knife.  As I was passing it, I overheard a young boy ask his father: “Who did this?”. The father repeated clearly and with conviction: “Those were the Nazis”. A mix of condemnation and the relief that comes from having once and for all named the problem, circumscribed it, and, taken care of it. No need to spend too much more time on this.

This notion of a subtle taboo has been pointed out frequently, a splitting of beholder and victim protects the restoration of the taboo. And it prevents us from asking questions about what guilt means in international dialogue and negotiations, about our responsibility to support, about notions of debt and accountability.

Towards a more thoughtful engagement

Foucault termed the urge to speak candidly parrhesia, a process that aims to overcome the feeling of the unspeakable, to ask for forgiveness, to speak, and to ask questions about what is speakable, and what isn’t. The Greek crisis with its emphasis on administrative policy-making, technocratic language, the emphasis on this being, in a way, a crisis of ‘book-keeping’ and yet the endless struggle to reach agreements around basic tax percentages—captures this unspeakability, and the failed attempts to overcome it. There is no mention of cultural responsibility, of fear, of ambivalence.

A thoughtful engagement would need to explore the inability to speak, the dynamics that drive this sense of splitting in order to enable real dialogue – with oneself, with ones sentiment, and with “the other”. The struggle with Greece shows our collective lack of working through – and carries with it buried sentiments of frustration and aggression. The price of not addressing these dynamics is a high one: damaged relationships, more resentment and, ultimately, more isolation. Time to incorporate a newest of questions about the deeper meaning of our demands and attitudes.


Ulrike Grassinger, Counterpoint


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