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Explaining tragic Greece to Lutheran Germany
May 21, 2015

Explaining tragic Greece to Lutheran Germany

For Angela Merkel, economic discipline – something incomprehensible to a typical Greek – is firmly rooted in the Protestant culture of the 16th century. That which Max Weber analysed so effectively in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. This is a culture based on moral discipline and the individual’s subservience to divine law, which in the eyes of Luther and his followers was being trampled through the corruption of the Catholic Church.

This is also a culture which glorifies work as a means of obtaining salvation. A culture which focuses on man’s unfailing dominance over nature (and over other men) to create wealth, and which sees a frugal lifestyle as perfectly normal and moral for individuals.

Capitalism, so healthy today in Germany while declining in many Western countries, not to mention the intense discipline of German society in the workplace and a willingness to obey civil law, all deeply-rooted factors in Germany, stand in contrast to the way in which the same values are being weakened in the neighbouring European states. The cultural revolution which was Protestantism was itself encouraged by new ideas arising in all of the other western European countries from the Renaissance onwards including Italy, France and Britain. Ideas which owe a great deal to Greek thought and which laid the foundations for the construction of modern day nation states.

Punishing the heretic rather than solving the crisis

German culture, so similar to yet also so different from Europe’s Latin cultures, has given humanity some of its best but also its worst hours. To remain polite, let’s simply say that intolerance of other cultures and the wish to domesticate them, and fit them into its own mould is not the least of its faults. Angela Merkel’s policies are one of its avatars. At its most basic level, the key concern seems to be more to punish the heretics than to solve the crisis.

For its part, Greek society is deeply rooted in another history, that of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. As much as it may displease the admirers of the Greek miracle, Greece in its current form historically did not participate in either the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, nor in the building of modern nations or that of capitalism. Those few individuals who sought to anchor Greece in Latin culture from Byzantium onwards were shunned by the Greek patriarchy and found no support for their ideas in society.

Established in the early 19th century, the Greek state is not the result of the collective will of the communities comprising it. As in the colonised countries, the whole state apparatus, the constitutions, kings, politicians and their financing was supplied right from the outset by European chancelleries.

Ingrained habits learned under the Ottoman Empire

The spirit of these institutions never took root in Greek society, which has been unable to modify them or invent new ones to bring themselves into line with the rest of Europe. Society operates within the European institutions just as an actor performs on stage, but does so with its own culture. This culture draws upon a far-off memory of Kings, but recognises only one central institution, that of the church. Thus, although it welcomed the European kings it has opposed the construction of a modern, central political power.

Indeed, political power in Greece is deeply rooted, even today in the notion of the Ottoman Empire. That of the beys and clan leaders who ruled over their kin and their own interest groups, providing for them materially in return for their allegiance.

The legendary refusal of Greek society to pay taxes, something which is so incomprehensible for other Europeans, is a hangover of the far-off days of empire when taxation meant domination and not the construction of a central institution transcending private power and considered as something for the common good.

For two centuries, this state has been governed from outside: firstly, by the European chancelleries, then by the United States after the Second World War, and since 1981 by the European Commission.  For two centuries, those living there have been subject to diktats issued outside their borders, but find their way around these for their own benefit and those of their interest groups. This is what the unfortunate former prime minister George Papandreou did, followed by his successor Loukas Papadimos, despite his technocratic background.

Capitalism was and remains a foreign concept for the Greeks

On an economic level too, there’s never been any collective acceptance of the spirit of capitalism. The economic activities undertaken by society traditionally and spontaneously are products of its history: agriculture, trade, shipping, banking and more recently tourism but not industry.

This doesn’t mean that the Greeks are lazy, as Angela Merkel among others believes. But despite the widespread idea that capitalism is a universal and natural human phenomenon, the Greeks, like many other people living on our planet, understand neither the spirit nor the mechanisms behind it.

Visibly, joining the common market 30 years ago has not enlightened them any further. On the contrary, the European financing allocated by the EEC has not been used for productive purposes but rather for clientelism and the acquisition of European products, including German and French weapons.

Boosted by market liberalisation and competition among European products, the traditional gap between production and consumption was transformed into a gaping void and led to the disaster we are witnessing today. Without a doubt, Greek society and its elites bear significant responsibility for this situation.

A European commissioner would contribute nothing

How can we fail to mention the European leaders? Blinded by simplistic economic dogma and the illusion of total power to rule over other countries, they are in the process of ruining their own societies and destroying any possibility for the EU’s peripheral countries to get back on their feet again. Because although Greece is an extreme example of this peripheral Europe, it is not the only one to suffer from the lack of incomprehension which differentiates the “north” from the “south”.

A European commissioner would do nothing for Greece. Quite the contrary in fact. At a time when awareness, albeit marginal, of its own responsibility in the crisis is beginning to take root in the country, an additional humiliation would simply increase the feeling of despair and revolt which is already present within the population.

It’s the austerity measures which need to be reviewed, in addition to the view held by Angela Merkel among others that societies are malleable and can be transformed by wielding a big stick and issuing decrees. Failing which, the risk is of seeing the destruction of both Greece and the whole European construction project.


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About author

Sophia Mappa

Sophia Mappa

Originally from Greece, I have lived in France for 40 years. As a consultant to the OECD for six years I worked on multicultural education and development. In my capacity as the manager of an international research and training organisation, the Forum de Delphes, I carried out research into development and culture, examining the cultural differences between countries within and outside Europe, including among others North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, the Balkans, Russia and Asia. I have also carried out change management assignments with companies and local authorities in Africa and Europe. As a professor at Paris-Est Créteil University, I was involved in teaching and research in the fields of international relations, democracy, governance and the cultural origins of various economic systems worldwide. I consider culture as a social factor which influences both economics, politics, religion, health and education.

There are 2 comments

  • Avatar Leo Salazar says:

    An outstanding article, thoroughly grounded in historical reasoning. Thank you.

    But for my feeling it stops just shy of offering a solution that is philosophically acceptable to both the German and Greek perspective. Yes, the “austerity measures . . . need to be reviewed,” but to what end and by whom?

    As you so coherently stated, any solution that comes from outside Greece will only be perceived by the Greeks as yet more oppressive cultural domination; any that comes from inside Greece will only be seen as self-serving and an attempt to escape from their the ‘proper retribution’ that the Germans feel the Greeks owe them.

    Perhaps the solution is not political/economic after all, but social. Look deeply at the benefits of an EU that stands in solidarity, in quiet acceptance of our cultural differences. (I’m afraid ‘appreciation’ is a long way off). In my view, politicians across the EU spectrum have done a damn lousy job of celebrating the successes achieved by the EU’s common market, not to mention the concrete and measurable social benefits. This lack of ‘good news’ has had disastrous consequences as evidenced by the Brexit vote. Perhaps we should be thankful that the British are about to give us a living lesson in the benefits of the EU after all. It’s a shame so many have to suffer the consequences in making this lesson plain.

    Thank you again for a stimulating article.

    Leo Salazar
    InterCultural Business Coach, Trainer & Consultant
    Amsterdam, the Netherlands

  • Avatar Regina Reinhardt says:

    Dear Sophia Mappa kalimera,
    thank you very much for this thorough historical based article. As we all know skills are developed only if needed. History thought the Greek nation to become excellent survivors, never giving up no matter what governor was on top of their heads and running their own business/trades (highest SME rate throughout Europe).
    How can we all expect Greece to skip lessons to learn on the path of their own country development just to fit in with “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”. I would even go a step further. Looking at Greek’s history and it’s geography the country is not benefiting from being a member of the EU since their culture and values are much more smimilar to the ones of their Middle East nighbours (neglecting how well they get along). And as we know values do not change over night due to diktats issued outside the own borders.

    Finally it’s time to let Greeks walk their own path of country/people development and learn their lessons along the way as they can best do because they can!

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