Concerns about Europe's ailing economy simmer but resist boiling over. The U.S. trade deficit narrows, Spanish bond prices are on the rise, and German exports continue to surge. All of this during a nearly worldwide election year, including in Greece and France this coming weekend, on May 6.
Politicians and historians alike know that leaders are elected and wars are fought based on the economic mood of the people. Shortly after World War I, an effete and defeated Germany faced roiling inflation and international humiliation. Germans in 1933 sought a strong leader to steer them out of economic crisis, electing the Nazi party and their loudest mouthpiece, Adolf Hitler, to power. Hitler was soon appointed chancellor and passed the Enabling Act with a two-thirds majority in Parliament, granting him the power of dictatorship. One year earlier, American voters elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt for president, cap in hand, hungry and angry with the perceived failures of President Herbert Hoover. Americans asked their president for compassion, the Germans asked their newly minted Führer for power, and the economic crisis of the 1920s had set the stage for World War II.
In 2012, the global recession has sunk Greece so deep into the mire of economic malaise that they suffer 21.8 percent general unemployment, 50 percent unemployment among young people, and a rate of violent crime in 2010 double that of 2009, all the while serving as the unwilling entry point for about 80 percent of Europe's illegal immigrants. It is also a nation that has been advised by German ministers to postpone elections to allow external (read: German) leadership for another year, told to sell its islands to pay off its debt, and implored to "get up reasonably early" in in order to work as hard as German people do.
Humbled but Not Kneeling
A few weeks ago, in mid-April, Greeks from the Cyclades to the mountains of Macedonia celebrated Orthodox Easter. For Greek Orthodox Christians (who make up 98 percent of the population), Easter is a time when they can eat meat after the long sacrifice of Lent. Vegetarianism, not unlike precipitous cuts to public spending, requires self-deprivation of what many consider to be vital nutrients.
I had the opportunity to visit Athens during Greek Easter, where I enjoyed spit-roasted lamb, choked down lamb-parts soup, and joined the night procession with a candle lit by the flame of Jerusalem. I also learned something important -- the difference between vegetarianism and Greek austerity measures. The former you impose upon yourself. The latter is imposed by others.
While many Westerners still see Greece as the "cradle of democracy," Greeks tend to view their country in a much more modern light. The hokey 1960s movies of Greek's "golden age" in cinema are still watched fondly by young people. Most Greek students study for at least a year in France, England, or the U.S. Young Greeks call their parents hippies if they participated in sit-ins on their university campus during the non-violent revolution of 1973 that eventually overthrew the seven-year military junta.
From 1967 to 1974, Greeks were the subjects of a repressive dictator who tortured his own people and imposed a nightly curfew. All the while, Greeks had been constantly haunted by the real or perceived invasion by neighboring Turkey. In 1974, Turkey did indeed invade Cyprus, which is to this day de facto segregated between Turks in the North and Greek Cypriots in the south. Overshadowing all of these national traumas, however, is the occupation by Axis powers during World War II.
Greece was first invaded by fascist Italy in October 1940, an invasion that was repulsed by the Greek army until the German and various annexed Axis armies secured Greece's surrender in June 1941. The country was quickly partitioned by Italy, Germany and Bulgaria. As many as 60,000 of Greece's Jews were liquidated as part of the Final Solution. This is a national trauma many nations, including the U.S, can hardly comprehend.
Greeks have taken no small steps in comparing the European Union's crippling austerity measures to the Axis occupation, battered like a nail into the nation's political and economic system by the hammer of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Lessons from Crisis
During times of crisis, nations often choose leaders who satisfy their more primordial desires, just as the atheist mugging victim supplicates to the heavens at his time of need. After 9/11, the United States voted twice for an evangelical Christian who marched to the beat of war since day one of his presidency, regardless of the faulty intel or devastating consequences.
Similarly in crisis, France faces a crippled economy, waves of immigration, and increasing marginalization in a decreasingly Francophone world. Voters came out in troves last week to support the Front National (FN), an ultra-nationalist party that swept 20 percent of the vote away from the far more established campaigns of Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande. In the second round of voting, Sarkozy has already begun courting FN votes, stoking the flame of xenophobic fear by warning of a France "diluted" by globalization.
Whichever way France votes on May 6 for president, Nicolas Sarkozy's popularity must be a lesson to Greeks. When I visited France in the early years of Sarkozy's term, I constantly heard people chanting the maxim "Sark-ozy, enculé!" (a somewhat vulgar word meaning "one who is sodomized"). After the global crisis however, an estimated 46 percent of French citizens want him as their president for another five years.
In Hungary, the ultra-nationalist, openly anti-Semitic Jobbik party sat in Parliament for the first time since World War II, winning nearly 17 percent of the vote. The Netherlands government collapsed last week when Geert Wilders' far-right Freedom Party pulled the plug on budget negotiations. Greece itself has seen the rise of the group called Golden Dawn, a party not considered as Nazi only due to their patriotic scorn for Germany. These ultra-nationalists, one young Greek has told me, are known to beat recent immigrants and Greek left-leaning students to within an inch of their lives.
Which Path for Greece?
In the face of the U.S.'s two greatest crises of the century, Americans have turned to FDR and George W. Bush for solace. The Germans had once chosen Hitler for theirs. Which path will the Greeks venture down on May 6? Who can lead a country that has hit rock bottom?
If there is one thing I learned from my short stay in Athens, it is that Greek people feel powerless. Young people who would do anything to work can't -- because jobs don't exist. One young professional I met works part time while spending the rest of her time frantically sending job applications to London. Another stays at her job although she hasn't been paid in months. Most people I spoke to feel that none of the 2012 candidates would have any real power anyway, and voters seem mostly to plan on supporting smaller parties just to oust the ruling PASOK and New Democracy politicians.
Meanwhile, the suburban chateaus of the grotesquely wealthy Greek ship-owners and tycoons stand empty of the families, who have fled to more prosperous lands. "It's the rich who don't pay their taxes," one Athenian hospital doctor explained to me, "yet austerity falls on the middle class' shoulders."
Powerlessness, both economic and political, is a dangerous thing. A young Athenian told me, only half joking, that she'd noticed that the there seemed to be no more stray dogs anymore, apparently because recent Afghan immigrants capture and eat them. While this may seem no more than a light-hearted joke, there is something deeper festering beneath. There is a reason Golden Dawn recruitment has risen -- the very same reason for the elections of Jobbik ministers in Hungary in 2010 and a Nazi Chancellor in 1933.
Perhaps more important than the first day of Easter, according to Greek tradition, is the day of Resurrection that follows. On this day, called Anastasi in Greek, people can finally enjoy meat once again. During my visit, I couldn't help but pick up the heavy sweet scent of lamb wafting over Athens' white rooftops. I knew it was the smell of a reward after sacrifice.
The Greeks allow themselves meat after weeks of Lent but they seem to have no control over their economic future. But it is only when a nation teeters on demise that it can begin to contemplate rebirth. Let's hope the Greeks decide their path wisely.