It wasn't a merry Christmas in Greece and it won't be a happy new year. Not for the 26 per cent unemployed (many of whom will be long-term unemployed), in a system where the dole stops after one year. Not for the 50 per cent of unemployed and unemployable school-leavers and university graduates. Not for the 25 per cent of small businesses that are more than likely to go bust. Not for the thousands of migrants herded in near-animal conditions on islands which are unable to sustain them alive or bury them dead.
Yet despite the misery caused by the major players – the International Monetary Fund and the EU – Greeks continue to support a government which is unable to deliver on its election promises, which cannot reverse the downward spiral of recession or rescue those 30 per cent living below the poverty line.
The left has always been on the margin of Greek public life. That is why the rise of Syriza, from its formation in 2004 with just over 3 per cent of the national vote, to victory with 36 per cent in 2015, has been so phenomenal. It is as unthinkable as an all-Labour government in Ireland, yet it happened for three reasons.
First, voters were utterly disenchanted with the two major parties, New Democracy and Pasok. Second, Syriza offered a radical answer to austerity: rescind the bailout. Third, PM Alexis Tsipras is a charismatic figure – young, handsome, casual, and, like all successful politicians, looks as if he almost cares.
Tsipras thought one year ago that he was in a win-win situation. He could not only give Greece a voice but he could transform European politics by the power of argument. He may still hold the moral high ground, but his compromises on reform and capitulation to austerity show how naive he was when it came to playing politics.
Over the past year we have learned that good intentions, especially if politically incorrect, carry as much weight as a puff of wind in the real world.
The Syriza election slogan a year ago was “Hope is on the Way”. That’s all the Greeks are left with – hope. But what use is hope if there is nothing to hope for? Even so, Greeks have not abandoned the spirit of resistance, the capacity for argument and the determination to survive in conditions that all but the most destitute in Ireland would find unlivable.
Greek politics since independence has been remarkably like Ireland’s. The redistribution of land, the opening up of the professional classes and the opportunities for commercial exploitation bred a bourgeois mentality anxious to achieve social and economic respectability and to educate the young in orthodox conformity. Syriza came on the scene to change all that.
But clientelism and plutocracy are so embedded in the system that to change it would require heart and brain transplants – not for the man in the street or the olive grove but in the corridors of power. Greek people are the servants of the 1 per cent owning 90 per cent of the wealth, controlling most of the media and occupying seats in Tsipras’s cabinet.
Greeks are rapidly discovering that not all conspiracy theories are wishful thinking. They now know that German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble set out to crush Tsipras, Syriza and Greece itself if necessary. They know that refusal to contemplate a “Grexit” was an elaborately choreographed charade. They know that the IMF admits it was wrong in setting up the austerity programme.
It is a cruel fact that small countries have little choice in international affairs. Greeks are now openly saying what had been unacceptable before: that Germany is responsible for many of Greece's difficulties.
In 1833 foreign powers imposed a German king. The last queen in Greece (deposed in 1974) was German and a Nazi sympathiser. Greece is still pursuing war reparations from Germany, but even more serious is the fact that old people today still carry memories of their pregnant mothers bayoneted by German soldiers.
German companies – including Siemens – bribed Greek officials in some of the biggest corruption scandals of recent years. One government minister was jailed, but the Siemens trial, due to start in 2014, has yet to get under way because at least 14 of the 64 defendants are being sheltered in Germany, which has refused to extradite the former chief executive of Siemens Hellas.
German banks benefit from the Greek debt crisis and German companies are the biggest earners from Greek imports. Is it any wonder that Greeks get angry when a German tabloid tells them they should sell off the Acropolis and some of the islands? Is it any wonder that street posters show Angela Merkel wearing a swastika and an Iron Cross? Is it any wonder that Greeks are incensed because the Greek fascist party openly venerates Hitler, burns synagogues and mosques and beats up immigrants while all of its 17 MPs are on trial for murder or associated crimes?
One hundred years ago, while the Easter Rising was being planned in Dublin, the humiliated Serbian army of 150,000 men women and children and their government in exile, arrived in Corfu, where the Greek government gave them asylum after their defeat by Germany. They were a broken people. The mausoleum of those who died here is a chilling place. But they carried the same hope in their hearts that Greeks continue to cherish. And the Serbs regrouped and went back to fight the Germans who had precipitated the world crisis.
In 1916, the Serbs brought with them love of country and a deep faith in its survival. This gelled at the time with the Greek spirit and could offer some hope to modern day Greece, where yet another general election is almost inevitable within the next three months.
Richard Pine's Greece Through Irish Eyes is published by Liffey Press