For some in other lands and continents Greece may seem distant and marginal, a few narrow peninsulas and scattered archipelagos jutting out of the sea. Some may vaguely recall school knowledge about it. “Didn’t some fellow named Prometheus steal fire from the gods? Or was it Alexander the Great untying some “Gordian knot”? Or a Hercules who fought a lion and cleaned out filthy stalls?”
But little Greece is not marginal now! Stolen fire today is the political kind, the metaphorical lion needing to be conquered is snarling in Berlin and Brussels. And while there are still plenty of stalls to be cleansed, inside and outside the country, the huge knot, once easily untied with a stroke of Alexander’s sword, is today a very tangled barrier with a more than uncertain future.
One thing is not uncertain: the Sunday referendum in Greece, with a turnout of 62.5 percent, saw an amazing 62.31 percent of the voters choosing “ΟΧΙ” — which means NO! This courageous vote hit usually smug politicians and bankers so hard you could almost hear their teeth rattle — or gnash — in well-appointed cabinet rooms from Berlin’s Tiergarten to the Palais de l’Élysée, and oak-paneled bank executive offices in skyscrapers high over Frankfurt, Amsterdam, and Luxembourg.
These harsh demands for austerity, most ardently voiced by Angela Merkel and her Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, aimed primarily at enriching Germany’s finance and industry and strengthening its leadership position in all Europe and beyond, with the aid of any other European Union politicians who could be bought or brow-beaten.
Sometimes these endeavors collided with ambitions of the US-centered banks and corporations, who were willing to leave much of Europe to their German buddies, but had their own ambitions in areas like the Ukraine, the Near East, and Africa and close allies at the top in one-time Communist countries like Poland and the Baltic mini-states.
But all could agree on one basic aim: progressive governments with the well-being of their non-wealthy citizens at heart, which required paring the billion-size incomes of the giants, were not to be tolerated, above all not permitted to prosper and serve as models. This policy, tragically pursued back in the 1930s in the Spanish Civil War, has been US foreign policy for years, indeed, for well over a century. It was sharply demonstrated in Latin America, with invasions of Guatemala, Cuba, and Grenada, putsches as in Chile and Honduras, and current efforts to undermine or overthrow undesired governments in Venezuela and Ecuador and buy out some of the others.
But in Europe, for Germany, this meant Greece! If Greece, always rebellious, historically always striving for true independence, could reject the miserable conditions imposed on it by the financial powers that be, then who knows? The people of Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Italy could learn some lessons and take some cues! This must be prevented by all possible means!
A first upset was the victory of SYRIZA in the January elections. Since then everything possible was done to defeat progress there and either force SYRIZA to surrender or split the population and then depose it. When SYRIZA made its daring decision to risk its survival by calling a referendum, all stops were pulled, Europe’s prominent leaders warned of the dire consequences which, they threatened, might mean that Greece would have to give up the treasured euro and stand alone in the windy Mediterranean cold! The Greek people’s answer was a slap in the face for all of them, including leaders of the Social Democratic Party like Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel. Now they are all hysterically rushing from Berlin to Paris to Brussels to decide whether to sacrifice prestige and face up to dealing with Greek representatives who now have a big popular majority behind them, or to play it tough, let the Greeks, already hungry and poor after five years of pre-SYRIZA deceit, now sink into even worse poverty, which would risk tearing a first fissure in the euro currency structure, Merkel’s legacy. And who knows, maybe those oh-so-stubborn Greeks might just possibly manage to cut through that knot, beat the snarling lion, clean the stables — and save their bold fire as a flare for brothers and sisters in other countries.
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A gargoyle of a different kind — but not fully unrelated — raised its ugly head in the city of Essen this same weekend. It could also gain new importance — in a very negative way.
The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) was founded as a party in 2013 to oppose, from the right, both the European Union and the euro. Its main leader, Bernd Lucke, 52, was an economics professor best known for opposing higher wages for working people. But the party’s main attraction soon became its opposition to foreigners, especially immigrants, asylum-seekers, and all “Islamists,” in other words, people of Muslim belief from Turkey, Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, or northern Africa. As the party began to split between Lucke’s far-right policies and the ultra-far-right policies of his opponents, Lucke aimed at ending the party’s rule per trio by becoming its solo boss. But in Essen the tables were turned; the extreme far right not only chose instead the attractive, very ultra-right Dresden chemist Frauke Petry, 40, as new boss but booed Lucke from the podium and cut off the microphone when he tried to defend his position. She smilingly rejects same-sex marriage and wants to limit abortions. He, like other less extremist leaders, will probably quit the party; indeed, he may have to. A big question remains: will the party lose or gain members as a result? The polls show it hovering between 4% and 6%; it has already broken into five state parliaments. If it overcomes the 5% barrier in 2017 it will get seats and a voice in the next Bundestag. While it cannot now be defined as a neo-Nazi party it is not all that far from it and could attract the extremists in PEGIDA, the NPD, and other far-right groups.
Far-right groups are definitely on the rise, from the Rhone valley in France to Skagerrak beaches in Scandinavia, their rabid mobs looking for trouble in Dresden, Budapest, Vienna. Progressives, in Greece and elsewhere, are marching and demonstrating where they can, hoping their (as yet figurative) barricades will hold. No Emperor Alexander is desired, though a Prometheus or a democratic Hercules might perhaps be welcome. But the Titan really needed in the years ahead is a combined force of determined people overcoming all divisions of nationality, age, gender, sexual orientation, language, religion, and color. Here and there we have seen potential strength, most recently in Berlin, Frankfurt, and other European cities with countless signs saying ΟΧΙ — NO! Such emulation of the courageous Greek people means NO to repression and austerity but YES to many vitally needed goals, beginning with decent jobs. These signals need to multiply — they are our hope!
Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).