William Pfaff adds a perspective to the seemingly endless Germany-Greece Euro crisis that is virtually never mentioned here: History.
History is not an alibi, but neither is ignorance or indifference to history, from which Germany has richly profited since 1948, when the U.S. decided that German manpower and military ability was indispensible in the developing cold war confrontation with the Soviet Union, and passed an exculpatory blessing over the West Germans, making them in a nonce into defenders of democracy, wartime grudges waived.
Greece was less fortunate. Its Second World War began in October 1940 when Nazi Germany’s Fascist ally, Italy, attacked Greece. The Greek army threw the Italians back into Italian-controlled Albania. An armed lull followed.
Germany, which already partly occupied Romania and Bulgaria, was preparing Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia, assembling in Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria some three million of its own and allied troops.
The Greek Army counterattacked the Italians, overrunning a quarter of Albania and taking 28 thousand prisoners. German troops then invaded Greece (population approximately 8 million) on three fronts. On April 23, 1941 Greece signed an armistice, turning to guerrilla resistance, which its people continued to the end of the war.
The weeks spent by the Germans in rescuing the Italian army from the Greeks is generally credited with having delayed the invasion of Russia, launched June 22, for a sufficient period to cause the German offensive to bog down in winter conditions short of Moscow and Stalingrad, allowing a successful Russian counteroffensive to be prepared. Germany’s defeat at Stalingrad coincided with Britain’s desert victory at El Alamein and was the turning point in the European war. Germany never won another major battle.
The wartime occupation of Greece by Germany, Bulgaria and Italy, as the Cambridge historian Richard Clogg has recently noted in the London Review of Books, caused “one of the most virulent hyperinflations ever recorded, five thousand times more severe than the [German] Weimar inflation of the early 1920s. Price levels in January 1946 were more than five trillion times those of May 1941.”
The occupation produced one of the worst famines in modern European history. It is estimated that some 200 thousand Greeks starved between 1941 and 1943. In addition, savage war continued between Greek guerrillas and Axis occupation forces, with the usual torture, and reprisals on the order of 150 hostages shot for every attack on a German soldier.
In 1944 the Germans conducted a scorched earth withdrawal, accompanied by atrocities for which many Greeks today consider German reparations inadequate. The official estimate is that 1.2 million Greeks – more than an eighth of the population – were made homeless by the occupation. There still is a controversy over what happened to Greece’s national gold stock.
I should say more about Pfaff, a Paris-based expatriate who is one of America’s most brilliant columnists and political writers. His work appears weekly in the Paris Herald Tribune, sporadically in US papers. Those treated to regular doses of Michael Gerson, Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, Jackson Diehl, Maureen Dowd, etc. who wonder when was the last time they learned something new from a newspaper column might do well to follow him.