In the deutschland.de series on foreign postings, German ambassadors and high-ranking employees at international organisations offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what they do. (Part 15: Dr Peter Schoof in Greece).
Which issues are currently defining bilateral relations between Germany and your host country?
For a start, German-Greek relations have a long TRADITION and mutual interest is very strong. Many Greek people have known our country since the 1960s, when we boosted our workforce through controlled IMMIGRATION and brought in so-called guest workers. Many intellectuals came to Germany between 1967 and 1974 during the years of the dictatorship. At that time the Goethe Institut and Deutsche Welle formed an important platform for the opposition. Conversely, Germans have always been attracted to Greece, especially historians, archaeologists and other scholars in the humanities or other disciplines. Not to mention the millions of German holidaymakers who travel to Greece each year. And we are expecting a new record number of tourists in 2015.
At the moment the discussions about the financial and debt crisis are still the dominant theme in bilateral relations. We mustn’t forget tabouthat especially the middle classes and the young people in Greece are struggling against huge difficulties. The people of Greece are not only the rich ship owners. The overwhelming majority are normal families who are trying to make ends meet. It’s true that in the face of this situation there is occasional resentment. And the role of the media – on both sides – isn’t always helpful. I’m hoping that the successful agreement on a new three-year economic adjustment programme has now created the basis for greater stability. And I’m also hoping that Greece will return to growth and improved employment. What’s more, I think it’s important to point out that a large number of motivated young people are prepared to help modernise the country along with increased competition and they are willing to make their own contribution.
A second dominant theme is of course migration. Greece is by far the hardest hit first country reached in the EU. It is estimated that the number of illegal entries to Greece will be more than 400,000 in 2015. This represents an enormous additional challenge to the country. Since Germany is the main destination country, it is only logical that both countries cooperate very closely in this matter.
What links your host country with Germany in a special way and in which particular fields would you like to further strengthen relations?
From a historical point of view Greece and Germany are linked by the reception of Hellenism in 18th century German Classicism. The term philhellenism stands for the discovery of Ancient Greece and its reflection in our own culture. It is no coincidence that the first external branch of the German Archaeological Institute was founded in Athens. Then there is the link with Greece through King Otto von Wittelsbach from 1830 to1862. The twentieth century is overshadowed by the dark chapter of the German occupation with its terrible consequences. The number of victims varies, but the lowest estimate is 100,000. In the post-war years relations between the two countries grew as many Greek people migrated to Germany and especially because of the role of the Federal Republic of Germany as a platform for the opposition against the dictatorship.
It was against this background that intense and divers relations developed over the decades. Germany is Greece’s third largest trading partner, and more than 120 German companies provide more than 30,000 jobs in the country. Greece is hugely popular with German tourists. In 2015 – despite the crisis – there was a new record number of visitors.
In the light of developments during the crisis I would like us to invest more in the real foundations of bilateral relations, in other words in exchanges between the people, especially the young ones. The generation of the former ‘guest workers‘ is growing older now, and more young Greek people should have a chance to get to know our country. Similarly, I would like to see more young Germans really getting to know Greece, not simply as tourists. This is the best way to prevent stereotypes becoming fixed which are of no benefit to any of us. I think that cultural exchange is an important approach. In the German cultural scene there is a high level of interest in Greece. And the creative artists in Greece are well acquainted with the most important German theatre makers, filmmakers and writers. Looking at Greece, there is an incredibly active and creative cultural landscape, and I wish it could receive greater attention in Germany. In Athens alone there are more than 100 theatres and innumerable film and music FESTIVALS. I would like to help German people to develop more curiosity in this respect. They will not be disappointed.
How would you describe the people’s mood generally, and towards Germany? It is striking, at least in the German media, how many high-ranking Greek people talk in fluent German about the crisis. Does this indicate a certain proximity?
Yes, that’s true. Despite all of the political discussions I regularly notice a very great proximity. Every evening the main Greek news programme provides extensive reports about the commentaries and reactions in the German media. Politically interested people here are well acquainted with the names of the press officers from the German federal ministries. As far as the mood among the general public is concerned, I would like to stress that the Greek people are extremely hospitable. Foreigners are traditionally treated very generously. The same people who criticise Germany in a political discussion will often invite you to join them for a meal afterwards. I find Greece very pleasant, the way people clearly distinguish between abstract discussions and human relationships. I myself am treated in a very open and friendly manner, not just by governmental bodies but in all my encounters with people. Basically Germany is regarded as a reliable and strong partner in Europe. People respect our economic strength and dynamic energy, they admire our public spirit and our cultural diversity. The capital of BERLIN acts like a magnet and attracts many visitors. Many key players know Germany very well. Two of the prime ministers in the last fifteen years speak fluent German; the former foreign minister Dora Bakoyanni studied in Munich, and so there are numerous Greek personalities who are welcome guests in German talk shows.
In 2014 it was decided to establish a German-Greek Youth Foundation. What are the background and objectives? How is the project progressing?
The foundations were laid for a joint youth foundation on 12 September 2014 in BERLIN in the presence of FEDERAL PRESIDENT Gauck and the then Greek President Karolos Papoulias. The youth foundation is designed to be an institution that is jointly supported by Greece and Germany and strengthens mutual understanding. The main objective is to promote exchanges between young people from Germany and Greece. For instance, this might be in the form of SCHOOL partnerships, in vocational training stays and exchanges within the framework of church or CIVIL SOCIETY programmes. The youth foundation aims to establish friendship and cohesion particularly amongst young people.
The German-Greek Youth Foundation isn’t a one-way street. It will enable young German people to come into direct contact with people in Greece in order to gain friends for life. And young Greek people will also be able to get to know Germany and its people directly. These contacts will also give the young people a chance to focus on and talk about the dark chapters in our shared history as well. It is important to dismantle stereotypes and gain a truer image of the others. In this way we can help to correct the often distorting images conveyed by media coverage.
But it is also about exchanges to promote the MOBILITY and flexibility of the younger generation and help develop a solid understanding of each other, for instance through cultural, sporting, political and historical themes.
Following the positive experiences of the German-French and the German-Polish Youth Foundations, I am convinced that the German-Greek Youth Foundation will be a success. I must point out that the German-Greek Youth Foundation will have its own profile and agenda. It is my sincere wish that we focus the activities on concrete needs and situations in both countries, including the efforts to combat youth unemployment.
There are often differences between insider and outsider views of a country. Given your personal experience, what would you like to say about Greece?
The majority of people in Greece are working hard and are trying to bear up under the stress of the crisis. That would not be possible without a very strong sense of family. I know of cases where one person is supporting several unemployed family members with his income from work. This natural solidarity in families, which comes without a lot of words, really impresses me. This is something really worth talking about.