British wartime cartoon
Experimental feature

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00
Experimental feature

My father, the son of a coalminer from Ashington, in northeast England, was 20 years old when he fought in one of the bloodiest conflicts of the second world war, the battle of Monte Cassino, in 1944. The skirmish claimed some 75,000 casualties before the Allies finally achieved their objective, breaking through the Nazi defences to continue their liberation of Italy.

Like many of his generation, he never talked much about what he witnessed in combat and, like many of my generation, I was reluctant to probe. What he loved to talk about was his surprise when suddenly informed that his regiment, the 17th/21st Lancers, was upping arms and being transferred to Greece, where its enemies would not be the Nazis, but the various factions of armed guerrillas that were threatening to turn Greece communist.

He was stationed in a house in the busy town of Lamia, in central Greece, where he met the 20-year-old girl who would become my mother. My father’s eyes lit up when he used to talk of this unlikely courtship, conducted in bad school-level French, and charged by surreptitious motorbike rides in the middle of the night. He got the girl, and he fell in love with the country in which she was born. He married her, brought her to London, and began studying modern Greek at evening classes, quickly becoming proficient.

William Aspden with his future wife in the 1940s

As I was growing up, the only feeling that matched his passion for Greece was his intense dislike of the old enemy, Germany. Once, on a Greek family holiday in the 1960s (we went every year, without fail), he was rendered speechless when he spied a seaside taverna that bore the name “Die Zwei Brüder”. It had been set up by two German brothers who were taking advantage of the growing tourist boom in the country.

How could the Greeks allow this to happen, he eventually asked? Didn’t they know what had happened here during the war? They did, I replied, but they had got over it. In the years that followed, my father began grudgingly to acknowledge the extraordinary economic feats of West Germany and the country’s ability to confront its past. They were quite something, the Germans, he confessed, especially during football World Cups. In the mid-1980s, he bought a BMW, of which he was fantastically proud. He began to drive it to Greece every summer.

On his first full day in office in January this year, the newly elected Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras made a trip to the Athens suburb of Kaisariani to lay a small bunch of red roses on a modest marble monument. It commemorated the murder of 200 communist members of the Greek resistance by the Nazis in May 1944. It was Tsipras’s first official act as prime minister.

In the run-up to the elections, there had been numerous confrontations between Tsipras’s far-left Syriza party and the German government over the terms of Greece’s repayment of debts towards its various creditors: Germany was one of the biggest contributors to the eurozone bailout that began in 2010.

Syriza had vowed to scrap the austerity policies that had been demanded from the “troika” of international institutions, the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, in return for bailing out Greece from its disastrous €317bn debt. The Germans insisted that the terms of the loans were binding and that the austerity measures, including controversial labour market and pension reforms, were necessary.

Greek PM Alexis Tsipras with German chancellor Angela Merkel

Syriza’s victory, Tsipras knew, would now bring matters to the boil. So his visit to the monument was laden with symbolism. He didn’t, on that occasion, say anything about the murder, the war, the debt, or Germany in general. But the laying of those roses became the opening, passive-aggressive salvo in a war of words that has brought Greece to the brink of bankruptcy.

So far, all attempts at compromise have floundered. Greece is running out of time and money. The next few weeks are critical. By the end of this month, the government has to pay €1.7bn in pensions and salaries, while further repayments to the IMF, totalling €893m, are due in May. Without some kind of deal with its creditors, Greece looks certain to default on its debts and face a possible Greek exit (Grexit) from the eurozone.

While a veneer of respectability has marked most of the diplomatic exchanges between the two countries, their respective popular newspapers and commentators have not been so inhibited. In Germany, Greeks have been routinely described as lazy, sybaritic and dishonest, while in Greece the Germans are portrayed, all too predictably, as predatory world conquerors-in-waiting. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has been depicted in some cartoons wearing a swastika, which has prompted condemnation from Tsipras.

Greek protesters in February

But the Greek premier has not been slow to revive memories of Germany’s occupation of Greece during the war, most notably through a renewed demand for reparation payments. Greece is demanding €279bn from Germany for Nazi war crimes and a 1943 forced loan taken from the Greek central bank. The Germans claim that the issue of reparations was dealt with in a 1960 settlement and closed definitively in 1990 before German reunification.

It is no surprise, if a little crass, that Tsipras and his Syriza colleagues should focus on the war in support of their arguments: it was arguably modern Greece’s finest hour, and certainly Germany’s most ignoble. But the improbable intensity of the relationship between the two countries has its roots much farther back in time than that.

The 18th-century antiquarian Johann Joachim Winckelmann

It’s no exaggeration to say that German culture has been obsessed by Greece from the 18th century onwards. Its cultish regard was propelled by the historian and archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann, whose The History of Art in Antiquity, published in 1764, was a key text for European intellectuals. It was marked by a reverence, and almost adolescent passion, for the art and society of classical Greece. Winckelmann’s reading of the glories of ancient Athens (he never actually visited the city or, indeed, the country, for fear of polluting his idealised vision) became highly influential on his compatriots over the forthcoming decades.

“The universal, dominant characteristic of Greek masterpieces is noble simplicity and serene greatness,” wrote Winckelmann. His adulation was followed throughout the continent, leading to the stocking of northern European museums and palaces with treasures from the Greek mainland, then under Ottoman occupation, and a valorisation of ancient Greece as the symbol of an otherworldly aesthetic purity that would act as a corrective against the grim imperfections of modern life.

Some believe that the reverence went too far. In her brilliant essay of 1935, “The Tyranny of Greece over Germany”, English scholar EM Butler examined the lives of great German cultural figures such as Winckelmann, Goethe, Schiller, Hölderlin and Heine, and concluded that they had been all but destroyed by their passion for Greece. “They wished to seize and possess Greek beauty and make it their own; or to outdo it; or, failing that, to destroy it; or to drag it violently into the present; to unearth the buried treasure; to resuscitate the gods,” she wrote.

But her subjects had succumbed to a kind of curse. “One murder, one sudden death, two cases of insanity, another of megalomania; and the insidious disease of mythomania undermining nearly all; it is enough to make the merciful regret that Winckelmann was ever born,” wrote Butler.

The German scholar who really “got” Greece, said Butler, was Nietzsche, who mocked Winckelmann’s portrayal of a sunny, serene Aegean polity. The philosopher, instead, evoked a “sombre, tragic, valiant and beauty-loving people, intimately aware of the terrible nature of the world they lived in”. The philosopher’s key to understanding the Greek temperament was the figure of Dionysus: a god of intoxication and music, “shattering forms and melting personal identity away, so that the individual was pulled down into the racing river of life and learnt to affirm its tragic secrets”.

Here were the beginnings of a philosophical tension between Germany and Greece: the “hopeless passion for the absolute”, as Butler put it, of the German temperament, floundering on the darker, more complex verities of real life. It felt like a betrayal, and it was to linger for two centuries.

After the twin traumas of war and civil war, modern Greece recovered to become, well, modern. It wasn’t only German brothers who discovered that the country’s natural assets could become the foundation of a highly profitable tourist industry. But here was the twist: Greece discovered that its selling point, in the febrile 1960s, was not the “noble simplicity” so admired by Winckelmann, but a modern evocation of Nietzsche’s Dionysian spirit.

Greece’s beaches were for relaxing, switching off, sunbathing in the nude, making love under the stars. In Zorba the Greek, Michael Cacoyannis’s 1964 adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel, the Cretan peasant Alexis Zorba puts forward a lyrical manifesto that would find short shrift among the Winckelmanns and, indeed, the Schäubles of the nordic world. “This is true happiness,” he philosophises to his new friend, Basil, an uptight Englishman played by Alan Bates. “To have no ambition and to work like a horse as if you had every ambition. To live far from men, not to need them and yet to love them. To have the stars above, the land to your left and the sea to your right and to realise of a sudden that in your heart, life has accomplished its final miracle: it has become a fairytale.”

In the film’s climax, after Zorba’s failed efforts at entrepreneurialism, Basil asks him to teach him the steps to the sirtaki, a dance designed, it seems, to will away the consequences of failed entrepreneurialism. Mikis Theodorakis’s tinkly theme for Zorba’s dance remains the most famous piece of Greek music of all time, a joyous paean to not caring very much about money.

Melina Mercouri in ‘Never on Sunday’ (1960)

Hundreds of thousands bought into the fairytale. And for a brief golden age, brought to an abrupt halt by political chaos and the military coup of 1967, Greece knew how to market it. In Never On Sunday (1960), the happy Piraeus hooker Ilya, played by Melina Mercouri, later to become the feistiest of culture ministers, shows the witless classical scholar Homer Thrace (depicted by writer-director Jules Dassin) that the real spirit of Greece is to be found in the louche bars and loose morals of port life, not in the arid pages of his books. Homer Thrace may have been American but, in his literal-minded dedication to the fantasy world of classicism, he was the embodiment of German scholarly seriousness. And his final indignity — he falls in love with Ilya but cannot have her for she is a free spirit — was an almost cruel rebuke from a vibrant, confident nation towards an alien culture that had so misunderstood its founding myths.

In the streets and Tube stations of London these days, there is a large poster for American Express, advertising its “preferred rewards” gold card. “Your trips to work can help you get a break in Athens” says the slogan, and it is accompanied by a giant plate, decorated in classical style, being smashed into several pieces. Nietzsche’s message lives on: it is not the Greece beloved of 18th-century scholars but the Greece of rowdy tavernas that finally tempts us to add another credit card to our bulging wallets. (The ironies spilling out of this missive are worthy of an essay all of their own.)

Meanwhile, the governments of Greece and Germany continue to rile each other, winding their respective populations to a frenzy, while the rest of the world wonders who will blink first. It is a matter of cosmic importance. First, because the eurozone matters in the world economy, and the actions of both countries will influence how it conducts its affairs in the future.

But there is a more profound philosophical debate in the undercurrent of these stormy waters, an existential dilemma behind the number-crunching. What kind of people do we want to be? Orderly, rigorous, thrifty? Or spontaneous, life-loving, plate-smashing? Of course, these are clichés and, of course, they are absurd: statistics show that the Greeks are industrious people, and personal experience tells me that the Germans certainly know how to party.

But the twisted love affair between the two countries cannot, it seems, move away from the stereotypes: they lurk in the subtext of just about every discussion of the current troubles. Greece versus Germany has become a battle for the European soul.

The piece of pottery that Peter Aspden’s mother stole from a German officer

My father, shortly before he died in 1992, expressed a surprise wish to be buried in Lamia, scene of his most important conquest. His funeral was conducted in accordance with the rites of the Greek Orthodox church. It seemed a long way from Ashington. When the family gathered together afterwards, my mother told us the story of a small spherical fragment of pottery that had always adorned the sideboards of our various houses as I was growing up. It had been brought to her house in Lamia during the war by a German officer who found himself stationed there in the final weeks of the occupation. He had stolen it from an archaeological site in Athens. But then she stole it back from him, she said, and we all laughed for the first time that day.

Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer

Photographs: Allstar; Getty/ Milos Bicanski & Sean Gallup


Letter in response to this column:

Admit it, FT — the single currency has been the most awful mistake / From Sir James Pickthorn

Plato, not Nietzche / From Antony Black

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.