Despite bitter memories of their suffering under German occupation during the Second World War, many Greeks feel an affinity with Germany and German culture. After spending many years working or studying in Germany, hundreds of thousands of Greeks have returned home with positive experiences of their stay there. Over 300,000 people of Greek origin currently live in Germany and are well integrated into German society. The economic crisis in Greece has again led to an increase in the number of Greeks coming to Germany.
Many Greeks – including a number of eminent politicians and academics – also remember with gratitude that they found refuge and support in Germany during the military junta (1967-1974). The close contacts between the two countries’ legal experts, stemming from the fact that Greece adopted the German civil law code after gaining its independence in the 19th century and that many Greeks active in the legal profession studied in Germany, are also particularly important. Many Greek engineers and doctors also studied in Germany. A large number of Greek academics, including leading figures in governance and society, speak German.
For many years, political relations between Germany and Greece were characterised by substantial agreement on international issues (such as the role of the United Nations, Middle East policy and the reconstruction of Afghanistan) and on fundamental issues concerning the European Union. Both the economic crisis and the refugee situation have had a significant impact on bilateral relations. Germany is seen as a crucial actor in Europe, without whose support it will not be possible to overcome the challenges in Greece.
Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier paid his first official visit to Greece as President on 7 and 8 April 2017 and visited the country again on 11 and 12 October 2018 for the opening of Documenta XIV. Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos held talks with Federal President Joachim Gauck and Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on 18 January 2016. In June 2017, he and Federal President Steinmeier co-opened Documenta XIV in Kassel. Former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras paid his first official visit to Berlin on 24 April 2015. He was frequently in touch by telephone with Federal Chancellor Merkel, who last visited Athens on 10 and 11 January 2019. The two countries’ heads of government and ministers meet regularly at EU level. Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas visited Athens on 20 September 2018. His predecessors visited the Greek capital in January 2014, October 2015 and December 2016 (Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier) and in March 2017 (Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel). Former Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias visited Berlin in February 2015, January 2016 and May 2018.
The two countries’ Foreign Ministers signed the German-Greek Action Plan for Bilateral Cooperation in Athens in December 2016, which lays the groundwork for further intensifying cooperation in the various fields of politics, business, technology, academia, education, culture and civil society. Numerous joint projects have been run very successfully for some time, including a German-Greek research programme, cooperation in vocational training, and support for funding small and medium-sized companies. Germany is also supporting the reform process in Greece in a European context via the European Commission’s Structural Reform Support Service (SRSS). In the summer of 2016, Foreign Minister Gabriel agreed two joint projects on renewable energies and export promotion. German experts are currently providing assistance to the Greek Government within the framework of European refugee policy, especially with regard to asylum procedures, coordinating aid to refugees and combating migrant smuggling.
Cooperation between the two countries’ municipalities and regions is being stepped up as part of the German-Greek Assembly (DGV). Federal Chancellor Merkel appointed Parliamentary State Secretary Norbert Barthle as new DGV coordinator in April 2018. Since 2012, over 300 contacts have been established between municipalities on both sides and a series of joint conferences has been held to strengthen knowledge-sharing partnerships. The eighth DGV meeting was held in Crete in early November 2018. The next meeting is scheduled to take place in Erding in the autumn of 2019.
The German occupation of Greece during the Second World War and the crimes committed by the Wehrmacht and SS during this period are still firmly etched in the memory of many Greeks and were also on the agenda of the Syriza/ANEL coalition government. Many victims’ communities have invited German representatives to attend commemorative ceremonies and other events in recent years.
In 2014, the German-Greek Future Fund was set up to promote joint efforts to come to terms with this shared past and provide targeted help to the communities that suffered most from the atrocities committed during the German occupation of the country in the Second World War. In addition, the two governments have announced the establishment of a German-Greek Youth Office as a joint goal. The aim of this Youth Office will be to promote youth exchanges between the two countries and to foster mutual understanding and reconciliation.
Some 50 German-Greek societies in Germany are members of the umbrella organisation, the Association of German-Greek Societies.
The debt crisis and public opinion
The sometimes fierce and heated debates conducted in the media and among the general public in both countries since 2010 about Greece’s debt crisis and the “right” way to overcome it have since faded into the background, particularly because of the huge pressures put on Greece by the refugee crisis, where the Greek side sees Germany as a particularly helpful partner.
The German Government is helping to strengthen the bilateral dialogue through frequent visits and discussion forums. An important contribution is also being made here by Germany’s political foundations, which have had offices again in Greece since 2012.
According to figures provided by ELSTAT (the Hellenic Statistical Authority), Germany was Greece’s largest trading partner in 2017, with a trade volume of 7.3 billion euros, thus overtaking Italy in terms of export figures.
At 5.26 billion euros in 2017, however, German exports to Greece were no longer as high as in 2008, when they totalled approximately eight billion euros. This reflects the trend for exports from other EU countries to Greece. The reasons for this may be the decline in demand in Greece as a result of the financial crisis in the country, as well as greater reticence on the part of the German exporting industry as regards doing business with Greece.
German companies are among the principal foreign investors in the country. Deutsche Telekom has gradually acquired a 40-percent stake in the former state-owned Greek telecommunications company OTE and is currently increasing this share. In addition to companies such as Siemens, Bayer, Boehringer Ingelheim and Hochtief that have been operating in Greece for many years, retail companies such as Lidl and Mediamarkt are well established and successful in the country. Major infrastructure projects, including the Athens Metro and the new Athens International Airport, have been completed with the help of German companies. Since the spring of 2017, a subsidiary of airport operator Fraport has been operating 14 regional airports previously run by the Greek Government. The concession is initially limited to a period of 40 years. Thessaloniki, the second largest Greek port, will be run by a German-led consortium in the future. In the field of renewable energies, the German wind-turbine manufacturer Enercon is working with a Greek partner to set up what will be the largest wind farm in Greece. Approximately 29,000 people are employed by the over 120 German companies operating in Greece.
Greece aims to take on a role as a regional hub in supplying energy and energy resources. The start of construction in May 2016 of the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), which will also run through Greece, was an important step towards achieving this aim. The plan is that the pipeline will create direct access for natural gas from the Caspian region to European markets.
Close cultural ties have existed between Greece and Germany since the time of the Greek struggle against Ottoman rule, which was supported by the philhellenes in Germany. Numerous German scientists, scholars and administrators went to Greece during the reign of King Otto of Greece from the House of Wittelsbach (1833-1862), especially from Bavaria. The pioneering research carried out by German archaeologists, the work done by German engineers to help develop the country and a general affinity for the German legal system forged strong ties in the academic sector that survived the two World Wars. Around 40,000 Greeks have received all or part of their vocational training in Germany. One in ten Greeks have lived in Germany for an extended period at some point in their lives.
There are branches of the Goethe-Institut in Athens and Thessaloniki, enriching cultural life in both metropolitan regions. The branches of the Goethe-Institut in Greece hold more language examinations than anywhere else in the world.
The German School in Athens, which is over 110 years old, has a German and a Greek section (with more than 1000 students) and enjoys an excellent reputation. The same is true of the German School in Thessaloniki, which dates back even further. In addition, several private schools in Greece are helping to promote the German language.
Founded in 1874, the Athens branch of the German Archaeological Institute supervises important excavations in Olympia, at the Kerameikos Cemetery in Athens, in Kalapodi, on the island of Samos, in Tiryns (Peloponnese) and in Aegina. It maintains an extensive library and a large photo archive and library.
The German Studies departments at the Universities of Athens and Thessaloniki receive support from three lecturers, who are seconded from Germany. The German Academic Exchange Service has also operated a dedicated Information Centre in Athens since 2004. So far, more than 2500 Greeks, mainly master’s and PhD students, have received scholarships from the German Academic Exchange Service, while over 300 Humboldt research scholarships have been awarded. In the 2015-2016 winter semester, there were approximately 7000 Greeks studying in Germany, not counting Erasmus programme students, 3800 of them resident and 3200 non-resident students.