Greek Mythologies

Three weeks ago in Greece, the Syriza Party (described as “radical leftist” by some Western papers) won a decisive victory, sweeping to power on a promise to reverse years of austerity policies imposed by the European Commission.

In Athens, the outcome was greeted as the triumph of hope. Party leader Alexis Tsipras declared victory over austerity: “Greece is leaving behind the destructive austerity, fear and authoritarianism,” he told his followers. “It is leaving behind five years of humiliation and pain.” (USA Today)

The euphoria in Athens could not have been in greater contrast to the terse response in Brussels and Berlin. “We must not reward the breaching of agreements,” Merkel spokesman Wolfgang Bosbach harrumphed in the daily Osnabruecker Zeitung newspaper. “That would send completely the wrong signal to other crisis-stricken countries that would then expect the same treatment.”  “The Greeks have the right to elect whoever they want; we have the right to no longer finance Greek debt,” sniffed Hans-Peter Friedrich, a senior member of Ms. Merkel’s conservative bloc according to Bild. “The Greeks must now pay the consequences and cannot saddle German taxpayers with them.

Greek leftists celebrate their victory

Why such different reactions?

Recognize that for both German bankers and Greek workers, the meaning of an election is not determined by the event itself but by the way in which it is interpreted. And, inevitably, even the most technocratic of us turns to narrative to makes sense of things.

For the cheering Greeks, the election was the triumphant last act in an ongoing national battle against distant German bankers who had imposed unnecessary hardship and suffering on the Greek people. In this story, Greece is the victim, Germany (or Brussels) the villain, and Syriza the hero come to slay the dragon (or eagle).

For the dour Germans, the election was one more childish tantrum by a country still not mature enough to take its medicine, another chapter in the ongoing saga of Greece’s efforts to prove worthy of EU inclusion, one more reason why Greece still needs discipline and control from the clear-eyed north. In this story, Greece is both victim and villain, Germany the heroic (if little thanked) rescuer. And, Germans fear, failure to discipline Greece would encourage similar regression in others (Spain appears wobbly too) and risk the collapse of the EU.

Why such different stories?

In part, they are justifications for self interest, ways of legitimizing a banker’s desire to be repaid and a debtor’s to be forgiven. But the stories of this election need also to be seen as the inevitable form of the tale in the context of national mythology.

In modern Greek mythology, the troubles of the nation always come at the caprice of the Germans (or the EU), arrogant and cold-hearted bureaucrats. The austerity story is just one more in a pantheon of tales that pits the long-suffering Greeks against the cruel North.

And in the mythology of today’s Germany, the present difficulties with Greece are just one more tale in which responsible Germans have to carry the load for their irresponsible neighbors, a Sisyphean task no doubt, but Germany’s burden for its sins.

Such is the power of the mythologized imagination.

And it would be but a curiosity, perhaps, but for the real-world consequences of the divergent mythologies. Viewed in these lights, of course, there is no middle ground. Yet a sober read of the situation suggests truth on both sides. Austerity in the extreme has not worked well for Europe, and even German bankers would do well to lose their infatuation with it. And Greek euphoria will not suffice as a guide to the tough choices Greece really does need to make.