Three weeks ago I received a call from my brother urging me to get on a plane and get to Cyprus as soon as I could. He said "there is a plan afoot by the Germans," that's how he put it, "to steal" our mother's life savings, which I had transferred to a bank in Cyprus, fearing the Greek banks' insolvency some years back.
I looked it up and sure enough, news of severe EU measures against Cypriot banks was dominating the web. I did just as my brother suggested and ended up in Nicosia in front of the parliament building as the members inside were debating a law to seize bank deposits.
As I stood stunned along with thousands of Cypriots, the parliament rejected the Eurogroup's "deal" unanimously. The talk among those in the crowd was one of anger and disbelief aimed at Europe in general and the Germans in particular with hand-made signs calling Merkel a "fascist."
To my right there was a merchant whose entire family had come out, his elderly mother holding an icon of the Virgin, his young children shouting anti-German slogans, his wife looking distressed and painful, with tears running down her cheeks. It seems they had, a week prior to the announcement by the new conservative prime minister Anastasiadis to perform a "haircut" on depositors, sold their old building and had closed on the purchase of their new windows assembly cottage factory that was to employ a few more of their relatives and now this seemed unattainable.
Unable to do anything other than stand helpless in front of the parliament with everyone else since the banks were closed indefinitely, I returned to Greece to wait for my scheduled flight to the US.
The talk in Greece is harsher. Everyone is affected by the shortsighted moves of the Troika -- the European Commission (EC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the European Central Bank (ECB), which Germany controls. Although the Greeks are now resigned to austerity measures that have placed over 700,000 households without a single member working, the Troika's latest foray to seize bank deposits in Cyprus, many Greeks believe, is a harbinger to seizing bank deposits in Greece and further denuding them for the sake of European fiscal discipline. Greeks, like Cypriots, see this as a northern European and German occupation. In fact, the news of the assault on Cyprus is reported side by side with German prosperity and economic prowess.
"The Germans lost the war (WWII) because we fought them to a standstill, rebuilt their country and economy on the backs of the US taxpayers, never paying a cent to Greece for reparations, not even as much as an apology for killing one third of us, and for hauling off all of the Salonica Jews to death camps and looting their fortunes, as well the looting of our resources and setting us back a hundred years," said my cousin Michalis, now in his late eighties, who had fought in the resistance. "Here they are again just seventy years later with an economic occupation this time to destroy us once again," he added, nursing a bitter cup of coffee at my village café.
Many shook their heads in agreement as he continued: "I am too old and feeble to pick up a gun again, but by god it is unbearable to see my great grandchildren impoverished by the very same barbarous bastards that killed my two brothers, my father, and my mother. I wish I was dead not to have to see such treatment again at their bloody hands."
His friend Savva, a sixty-six-year-old whose pension was slashed down to 360 Euros, seconded what he had to say.
"And if that's not enough they have the temerity to be calling us lazy," Savva said. "I am working since I was five. I was pensioned at sixty-two when they put stents in three arteries. I have one foot in the grave and I am still working in odd jobs so that I can contribute my full pension to my daughter Areti, who has three children. She and her husband are unemployed. They need the money to buy potatoes and eat morning, noon, and night, and they dare to call me lazy and profligate. Me?"
Savva recognizes that the Troika is trying to divide and conquer working people across Europe. "The big shots are using their own mass media to pit working stiffs in Europe against us and steal us all blind," he says. "You know I worked in Germany, a gastarbeiter in Siemens for ten years. I got a kick in the pants and out I went. No pension from them!"
"Siemens," he continued bitterly, "and the French weapons industry paid off our corrupt politicians to sell us all kinds of things we could ill afford and now instead of hanging these bastards they are asking us, the people, to pay for their sins. And we do because we have no choice. Instead of standing by us in our hour of need and of suffering, they are taking our savings."
Like many Greeks, Savva rues the day that Greece dropped the drachma for the Euro. "They sold us a line of equality and prosperity to join the EU and now they are taking our bedding," he says. "We were doing just fine with our 5,000-year-old drachma. With the Euro, overnight prices for goods doubled and now quadrupled, and instead of eating our oranges and vegetables we produce, they subsidize cotton production and bring us cabbage from France."
Of course matters are much more complicated, with micro- and macro-economic nuances up the kazoo, but to the average person in Greece and Cyprus that all means absolutely nothing. They either have enough to pass another day, or they don't.
European unity is an empty word when it comes down to it. There is a great disparity of income between EU nations, but an absolute equality of pricing. As a result, the poorer south pays a much greater share of their income for essentials. In the case of Greece and Cyprus, people's income is less than half and falling by the day.
So you can see how talk of a united Europe is insulting to millions of Greeks and Cypriots and others in the south.
To be sure, the Germans see themselves as reformers of the "lazy" south. Sociology professor Ulrich Beck argues that "the Germans no longer wish to be thought of as racists and warmongers. They would prefer to become the schoolmasters and moral enlighteners of Europe."
According to Beck, Germany is teaching Cyprus and the rest of the countries in crisis a Teutonic moral lesson. He says that according to German standards, "Suffering purifies. The road through hell, the road through austerity, leads to the heaven of economic recovery."
Such talk of a constructed Protestant paradise reminds the Greeks of the fisherman who lives a simple life happily angling for fishes from the quay. He has some cheese, bread, and a flask of wine in a basket by his side and takes in the gorgeous sunset when he is approached by a northern European, who suggests to him that there are far more efficient ways of fishing than the one he is engaged in.
"To what purpose?" asks the Greek fisherman.
"Well," says the northern European, "so that it may bring you riches, which will help you enjoy life."
"And what am I doing now?" answers the fisherman.
Many Germans wish that if "Ireland and Greece sank into the sea tomorrow, Germany would be quietly relieved," as Simon Winder, publishing director at Penguin and author of a definitive history of Germany, said recently. And the tabloid Bild recently ran a headline on its front page that said "German money [is] thrown away on the bankrupt Greeks."
It is no surprise under these circumstances that the extreme right is rising to worrisome levels in Greece.
The loss of sovereignty and economic independence is feeding extremist nationalism of the worst kind. The harsher the measures imposed, the more extreme the form it takes.
Worse, it is starting to enter the vocabulary of the less unfortunate as well.
I made it a point of listening to some well to do and to some still hanging in by the skin of their teeth in the middle class. While just a year ago it was anathema to mention the military junta of 1970, today these very same people have become nostalgic for that past. Given that the military's salaries are under assault by the Troika's austerity measures, the same as the rest of the country's public servants' salaries, it would not be a far-fetched assumption that some officers are already conspiring.
Golden Dawn, the far-right parliamentary party that uses the Nazi salute and organizes shock troops against immigrants and Jews alike, is fiercely nationalistic and equally anti-German. It has many friends in the police, cultivates relationships in the disgruntled armed forces and will provide assistance to such an initiative if taken up.
Let's not forget history. It was under similarly harsh economic conditions and assaults on sovereignty against Germany that galvanized Hitler and National Socialism. The northern Europeans must take notice and heed these warnings and not sacrifice democracy in its birthplace to fiscal discipline. They should help the Greeks and the Cypriots to wipe out corruption instead, and not root in place the very same kleptocrats in power that looted the public trough simply because they do their biding. Governments with clean hands are sorely needed.