Even five years ago, the idea that the relationship between Germany and Greece could become a source of woe would seem laughable. You could pick any other two European countries (Poland and Portugal; France and Denmark) with no more nor less grounds for tension. But there is now a terrible pall over Europe, with political leaders needing to take decisions for which there is little historic precedent, and in the doubly unattractive context of each option being a bad one. Whether the decision proves to be bad but with a good final outcome, or bad but with a catastrophic outcome, there is no question that the first policy round will be deeply hated.
This unlikely conjunction of Berlin and Athens makes us scramble for a historical context – and what there is, alas, is very discouraging. The German state has made a cult of prudence, hard work, provincialism and rectitude which is utterly admirable in itself, but sometimes unbearably annoying to outsiders. Indeed, almost everything about Germany is simultaneously mystifying and annoying to outsiders.
This is particularly the case with the British, who have been tricked for years into accepting ever greater insecurity, stagnant wages, and an ever more chaotic, flimsy and semi-privatised state under the impression that it is a bold vision of the future. Meanwhile just a short hop away over the North Sea there is a country with a much larger GDP where public services are excellent, the trains are clean and fast, yet shops close at weekends and the idea of 24/7 working seems outlandish and rather sad. But it would be very rare for a German actively to volunteer incredulity at how Britain does things. This would be considered bad form in any but the most drunken context.
It is as though the lessons of the 1940s have been learned so thoroughly that anything at all which might smack of bossiness or preaching would have everyone running for the hills thinking the Nazis are back. This neutered quietism is, of course, very attractive up to a point, but it is dangerously at odds with the way the euro has evolved.
The currency was viewed by Germans and other European visionaries as the full stop that would end the nightmarish historical experience of the 20th century. It stemmed from an anti-nationalism which has sadly proved just as mystical and pathetic as nationalism itself. The German vision was of the great euro project being hauled forward by the peoples of Europe, shoulder to shoulder. But the hauling turns out to have been somewhat voluntary – with some countries seemingly unaware that there was any hauling to be done. And no political authority was ever created that would force equal responsibility. Instead of being supported by a spread of talent, the euro steadily distorted and undermined the less big and strong economies, with everyone throwing aside their own hauling ropes and allowing themselves just to be pulled along by the Germans.
This has resulted in small, almost resourceless Spanish municipalities borrowing as though they were located in a precision-engineering hub of Baden-Württemberg: which, in financial terms of course, they are. Only economic growth could hide this – but this was growth akin to a runner on a running machine who, the moment the machine suddenly shuts down, is impaled on the digital display panel.
Greece is in the most terrible position, because the distortion has been the most extreme. Clearly the Greek political class has been crazily improvident and corrupt, but it is very hard to imagine how in any democratic system it would have been possible to resist what was on offer. It has been part of the evasive feebleness of the arguments around the euro to imply that this is something to do with "Mediterranean" fecklessness. The Germans are rightly identified as savers not spenders; they tend towards a type of licensed extravagance. They will allow themselves the expensive car or the foreign holiday but allied firmly to financial frugality.
Surely, though, a point must come when so many European countries are being blamed for being Mañanaland scroungers that there must be a suspicion of something more systemic at work – weren't places like Spain viewed until recently as dynamic, modern, shaking off the past and so on?
Greek localism is, oddly, of a related, if different kind to Germany's. Greece has been battered, threatened, traumatised and occupied. A very significant part of that was, of course, carried out by Germany in the 1940s. It is not really surprising that this uncomfortable fact has bobbed up and become a standard point made by Athens demonstrators. But it is profoundly shocking because the whole idea of the euro was to banish such history.
The tragedy for the Germans is that they viewed the euro as their great, healing gift to the rest of Europe, an act of self-denial in which they cashed in their totemic Deutschmark for the continent's greater good. That this, combined with the dilemma that throwing more money at the crisis (without a parallel jump to political union) is unthinkable for the Germans, has resulted in such gusts of anti-German hatred in Greece that it is a nightmarish parody of what was meant to happen. The nature of Greek indebtedness and the euro's structure meant decisions which lie at the heart of sovereignty fell exclusively in the hands of Frankfurt and Berlin. Quite by accident, and without an ounce of intent or malice by Berlin, Greece has (like Ireland) become a German colony – and it is not a colony which has a future.
The idea of Europe as this enormous, borderless playground of economic opportunity is now held up to the Greeks as a sort of mockery: they are hideously trapped in a sovereign space which has no sovereignty. But the Germans too find themselves in a hideous trap. They never even meant to engage with Greece – it was a minor aspect of an I-want-to-teach-the-world-to-sing fantasy about saying goodbye to the old Europe of bullying and division. The coming days and weeks will require Germans to do something they cannot do: take charge and quickly build a proper political structure to underpin the euro's economic structure.
This would convert Greece from a German colony to a German county, but even writing this makes it clear it will never happen. The only logic therefore has Greece rejoining its non-euro neighbours. But the impact is incalculable – and we have no historical precedent to even provide some illusion of cheerfulness.
Simon Winder is the author of Germania: A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern