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Their Country In Turmoil, Some Greeks Now Lash Out At Each Other

The economic crisis in Greece has divided the country. Here, a pro-euro demonstrator shouts slogans as he holds a European Union flag in front of the Greek Parliament during a rally in Athens on Thursday.
Petros Karadjias
The economic crisis in Greece has divided the country. Here, a pro-euro demonstrator shouts slogans as he holds a European Union flag in front of the Greek Parliament during a rally in Athens on Thursday.

Konstantinos Koutsantonis is 22, a university student who works as a delivery boy to make some extra cash. He considers himself a conservative. He voted "yes" for a bailout deal in last Sunday's referendum because he believes Greece can only reform its economy within the eurozone.

"Some days ago," he says, "when the crisis really exploded and everyone was talking about the referendum and the political news, I had to express my opinion."

He complained on Facebook that the referendum was a bad move because it could be perceived as anti-European.

Many criticized him — including a childhood friend, who called him a "Germanotsolias."

It's a terrible insult, Koutsantonis says, "something like a traitor — that you want to promote the German interests and not the Greek ones."

It's the same term that was used for Nazi collaborators in the Second World War.

"As part of the counterinsurgency effort that the German occupiers launched in Greece in 1944, they created a body who fought on their side, a local militia, so to speak," explains Stathis Kalyvas, an Athens-born political scientist at Yale.

These militias often attacked fellow Greeks — Communist resistance fighters who fought against the Nazis during World War II.

In the bloody civil war that followed, from 1946 to 1949, Greece was further divided between left and right as the country's Communists fought the Western-backed, conservative government.

Greek novelist Thanassis Valtinos lived through that civil war as a child. "Greece was absolutely destroyed in that war," he says. "More people were killed and there was much more catastrophe than during the German occupation during World War II."

After the civil war, the government violently cracked down on leftists and Communists. Many were imprisoned and tortured. The Communist Party was outlawed.

Minutes after being sworn in as Greece's prime minister in January, Alexis Tsipras laid flowers at a memorial for 200 activists who were executed by Nazis in 1944.

Calls For Unity

Valtinos says Greeks should be united today — not reliving wartime divisions. He says people are trying to score political points by comparing austerity to the suffering Greeks endured during wartime.

"Back then, people were dropping dead of hunger in the streets. Children were walking skeletons," he says. "Yes, it's very hard today. But it's not a humanitarian crisis. They don't realize the humanitarian crisis is coming. It could be at our door."

Valtinos realizes that people are suffering now. He knows that many people are out of work. Some are eating at soup kitchens. Some are homeless. But he worries that Greeks will suffer much more if the country tumbles out of the eurozone and reverts to the drachma, its previous currency.

Kalyvas, the political scientist, also worries about how caustic the debate has become between the left and right in Greece, with each side questioning the other's patriotism. Syriza, the leftist party now running Greece, too often blames foreign powers for the country's problems, he says.

"It's a very 1960s, leftist view that Greece is not really an independent country but is a kind of colony," Kalyvas says. "A puppet in the hands of the Americans before, the Germans now — and who knows who tomorrow. So it's a very nationalist perception."

The subtext, he says, is really about the economic reforms demanded by international lenders, and whether Greeks can modernize their country alone — or whether they'll need help from the outside to do so.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.