What We Owe Greece: A German Takes Stock Of Mediterranean Values

Essay: The West traces its origins to Greece and its Mediterranean neighbors. The region’s history and traditions continue to inspire, even as developments there warn us against taking capitalism and its social benefits too far.

The Parthenon in Athens (Kevin Poh)
The Parthenon in Athens (Kevin Poh)
Berthold Seewald

BERLIN - My family and I visited Greece during this autumn's German school holidays, just a few days before the former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou stepped down. There were regular demonstrations in front of the federal parliament building in Athens – every day, a different sector was on strike – and melancholy was the order of the day in the bars off the beaten tourist track.

We'd planned this trip for a long time: showing our 10-year-old daughter the Mediterranean. And while her parents were trying hard not to show their disquiet at the rapidly escalating situation, our daughter informed us she wanted to live in Greece. Why? Because it was warm, exhilarating, clear, and life was so much less busy and planned-out than it was up north.

Do we still need the Mediterranean? This is a question being asked in countless editorials these days, and it's one that Max Weber, that great analyst of capitalism, would have answered with a resounding "Yes!" Right now we're living in what he described as the "iron cage" of modern capitalism, the flip side of the golden era of Mediterranean antiquity. The great sociologist wasn't projecting some sort of dream world back over time. On the contrary. He recognized a profound Hellenistic pessimism – an atmosphere wherein human existence is perceived as under constant threat -- that he believed characterized all of classical antiquity.

A cradle of world religions and exquisite cuisine

The "Mediterranean" is by no means just Greece. But Greece can stand for the 20-odd other countries bordering the sea. All of those countries have the same shining golden light, and follow many similar ancient traditions. They share a diet of oil, leguminous plants, the meat of smaller herd animals and wine. The also saw the rise of three, related, major world religions. When UNESCO decided in 2010 to place Italian cuisine on its world heritage list, a whole tradition that has linked people from Barcelona to Alexandria for thousands of years was honored with it.

Today, however, this ecumenical cultural entity has come to stand for mismanagement, incompetence and corruption. Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and perhaps soon France as well are being held responsible for betraying the values of Europe in particular, and the West as a whole.

Because they wanted to share in the wealth of the capitalist world without the requisite attention to austerity, cold logic, or disciplined bureaucracy, all of the Mediterranean states – but mainly Greece, which apparently only gained access to Europe by fudging the numbers – should go back where they came from. Or so this reasoning holds.

It may just come to that. The figures are certainly depressing. They are constraining, and who knows better about constraint than we, the trustees of the capitalist spirit. But there's something more important than that: not forgetting what we would lose if the north were to drift away from the south.

It didn't take our 10-year-old daughter more than a few days in Greece to recognize the quality that has fascinated generations of travelers. Add to that the sheer beauty of the landscape and a history so rich it gives you goose bumps. Anyone who has ever stood among the ruins of the temple of the oracle of Delphi and looked at the olive groves on the flanks of Parnassus must, unless they are unfeeling, be overcome with emotion. But it's not just the country that marks Mediterranean civilization: it's also the people.

And they can't – they won't – be reduced to mere guardians of ancient ruins. Neither the English aristocrats making their Grand Tours in the 19th century, nor the Philhellenes who rushed to help the Greeks when they revolted against the Turks, were spared that disillusionment.

They were seeking the land of Schiller or Byron with their souls, and found real, live Levantines instead. "The Greek are a wonderful people; the lower classes possess great character. The top classes, however, are inferior," one Philhellene wrote, nicely summing up our own contemporary take, which is often mixed with anger.

How, we ask, could the elite of Greece, Italy, Spain (or Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria) ruin their people and their countries? Why are Greek billionaires buying up whole residential areas of London while a government employee in Athens can't imagine how he or she is going to support their family?

Bitter poverty without any future perspectives

Close examination of the Mediterranean and its traditions tells us a lot about our own history -- because these golden shores gave us not only democracy, Roman law, and the Sermon on the Mount, but also genocide and whole states seen as clan preserves. Social commitment was (and remains) as foreign to eastern churches as social engagement does to the governments.

Fernand Braudel, the great French historian of the region, castigated the "sharp teeth" of "northern, Atlantic, international capitalism." Yet what he overlooked is that capitalism gave its workers functioning health care and old-age benefit systems, while the bucolic fascination we find in Balkan shepherds stands for nothing less than bitter poverty with no prospects for the future.

The ruin of the Mediterranean should remind us that capitalism isn't the worst means to support human striving for happiness. On the other hand, the Arab Spring also shows that money isn't everything and poverty is no excuse to abandon pride.

Europe is unthinkable without the heritage of Greece, Rome and Israel. Without the Renaissance, this small continent could not have traveled down its special path that led it to world hegemony -- but also ghastly catastrophes. Developments in Greece, Spain and Italy should serve as a warning not to take capitalism and its social benefits too far. Debts are debts and progress is no eternal, all-encompassing remedy for them.

For more than 4,000 years, the Mediterranean and its civilization have lived through countless crises – and overcome them. And the Atlantic world owes a lot to that. So the Mediterranean should have far more value to us than to serve merely as an antithesis.

Max Weber thought that those who would populate the age of the "iron cage" would be technocrats without spirit, pleasure-seekers without heart. The Mediterranean might just spare us that fate.

Read the original story in German

Photo - Kevin Poh

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January 22-23

  • Navalny saga & Putin’s intentions
  • COVID’s toll on teenage girls
  • A 50-year-old book fee finally gets paid
  • … and much more!


What do you remember from the news this week?

1. Which two words did U.S. President Joe Biden use about possible scenarios in the Russia-Ukraine standoff that upset authorities in Kyiv?

2. What started to mysteriously appear on signs, statues and monuments across Adelaide, Australia?

3. What cult movie did U.S. rocker Meat Loaf, who died Friday at age 74, star in?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? 🇬🇧 👱 💬 💼 ❌ 🥳 🦠

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]


Toxic geopolitics: More than ever, we need more women world leaders

The world is watching the Russian-Ukrainian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening an invasion finds an ally in Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, united against their common enemy: the United States. Back in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden — marking his first year in power with painfully low approval rates (higher only than Donald Trump’s) — sends his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to Kyiv to reassure President Volodymyr Zelensky who worries that France’s Emmanuel Macron might undermine Ukraine. And we haven’t even mentioned Xi Jinping!

It’s an endless theater of world leaders beating their respective chests — and they have exactly one thing in common: they’re all men. It’s by now a decades-old question, but worth asking again: What would happen if women, and not men, were running the world? Would there be less conflict, more prosperity? More humanity?

In 2018, the World Economic Forum released a study that showed that “only 4% of signatories to peace agreements between 1992 and 2011 were women, and only 9% of the negotiators.” The report shows that in several conflict zones in the world in recent decades, citing Liberia, Northern Ireland and Colombia, women have been instrumental in achieving peace.

In Colombia, where 20% of peace negotiators for the 2016 peace treaty were women, Ingrid Betancourt, herself a victim of the 50-year conflict, has announced her candidacy for the May presidential elections. Differently from previous bids, where she focused on fighting environmental abuses and corruption, Betancourt now is putting gender issues at the center of her political agenda. Bogota daily El Espectador questions whether the former hostage will be able to ride this important political wave, with feminist movements flexing their muscle around the region demanding more rights.

In Italy, next week’s elections for the head of state are monopolized by infamously misogynous former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is hoping to be elected for the seven-year, honorary function. There is no official candidacy, but Berlusconi’s name and that of current Prime Minister Mario Draghi are the two getting the most attention. Italian feminist writer and intellectual Dacia Maraini writes in La Stampa that, yes, the very fact of electing a female president will be progress for the country — and by the way, there are plenty of women qualifed for the job.

There was also a woman politician making the news this week for actually getting elected: Maltese conservative politician Roberta Metsola, became the new European Parliament President after the death of Italy’s David Sassoli. And yet the election of the first female president of the EU’s legislature since Nicole Fontaine in 2001 has been widely criticized by female politicians — primarily for Metsola’s stance against abortion rights. "I think it is a terrible sign for women's rights everywhere in Europe," French left-wing member of the European Parliament Manon Aubry told Deutsche Welle.

The women who have risen to power in history (Margaret Thatcher, anyone?) don’t necessarily make the case that gender is the silver bullet to fix politics. Still, after watching all the toxic masculinity on the world stage this past week, we can rightfully demand fewer men.

Irene Caselli


• Record-breaking online concert of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”: More than 100 musicians from around the world will take part today in a performance of Mahler’s epic 8th symphony consisting of 1,200 elements, including a double chorus, children’s choir, a full orchestra and an organ. The event is a culmination of a year of work; all artists recorded their parts in isolation besides the children’s choir. Tickets can be purchased here.

Yearly Japanese festival will set a mountain on fire: Today, the grassy hillside of Mount Wakakusayama in Japan will go up in flames as fireworks go off in the background as part of celebrations for Wakakusa Yamayak. The origin of the festival isn’t totally clear, but might relate to border conflicts between the great temples in the region or to ward off wild boars.

• New insights into antiquities taken by the Nazis: Scholars are looking into how German forces during World War II looted artifacts such as on the Greek island of Crete. Nazi officials pillaged these valuables for their own personal gain, but many were also destroyed, which is why researchers around the world are hoping to gain greater insight into this often overlooked aspect of German occupation.

Exhibition of Beirut’s restored artwork: The Beirut Museum of Art has inaugurated the exhibition “Lift” featuring 17 paintings by Lebanese artists that had been damaged by the port explosion in 2020, and have since been restored as a result of a UNESCO initiative.

The world’s first vegan violin tunes up: Berries, pears and spring water are just some of the natural ingredients relied on for the construction of the instrument by English violin-maker Padraig O'Dubhlaoidh. Traditionally, animal parts like horsehair, hooves, horns and bones are used, especially to glue pieces together. The £8,000 instrument is sure to be music to some animal lover’s ears.


One year ago anti-corruption lawyer and politician Alexei Navalny was detained in Russia, marking the effective end of domestic opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the time since, more than half of the former coordinators of Navalny's headquarters fled Russia. Even Navalny's name is forbidden: Putin never says his name, calling him "this citizen."

At the same time, Navalny’s imprisonment and the de facto end of the opposition have changed Russia. The fear of persecution, the lack of alternatives and the total censorship and propaganda have caused Putin's ratings consistently downward.

An aging leader with no successors, no enemies and dwindling popular support is finding it increasingly difficult to explain why he must continue to rule forever. In such a situation, there’s nothing quite like an external threat to fuel the raison d’être of the authoritarian regime. In Putin’s eyes, the perfect threat right now is NATO expansion, and the perfect enemy is its neighbor Ukraine and its attempts to join the military alliance. Whether Russia's president is ready to engage in a real war is the great unknown, but its aggressive and uncompromising foreign policy — like his disposing of Alexei Navalny — is the latest legitimization of his increasingly absolutist rule now into its third decade.

Read the full story: What The Alexei Navalny Saga Tells Us About Putin’s Intentions On Ukraine


Íngrid Betancourt spent more than six years as a prisoner of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terror group in Colombia, an experience that is sure to play a role in her recently announced presidential campaign. Betancourt, who is 60, is running as part of the Verde Oxígeno and is the only woman in the Centro Esperanza Coalition (CCE), a centrist alliance.

Betancourt could be a boost for the coalition and embody its goals of transforming, overcoming polarization and, as its name indicates, giving hope to Colombia. In particular, the centrist candidate who in the past has been largely focused on anti-corruption and environmental protection, has said she will make women’s rights a cornerstone of her campaign.

Read the full story: Ingrid Betancourt, A Hostage Heroine Reinvented As Feminist For President


A growing number of studies around the world show that COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have prompted a disproportionate increase in mental health illness among teen girls. These include rising suicide rates among adolescent females in the United States, Germany and Spain and a higher prevalence of anxiety and eating disorders in Israel. But why are women being disproportionately impacted?

There’s a range of reasons. In India, for example, young women had increased difficulty accessing education resources when schools went online and shared a disproportionate burden of household tasks as opposed to their male peers. Around the world, social media also played a significant role; without access to in-person socialization and hobbies, young people spent more time online, often comparing themselves to others, impacting feelings of self-worth. The situation is particularly dire given the challenges of accessing mental health support resources during the pandemic.

Read the full story: Why The COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis Is Hitting Teenage Girls The Hardest


Norwegian mobility company Podbike has announced that Frikar, its four-wheeled enclosed electric bike, will soon hit bike lanes on home turf. The futuristic-looking vehicle does require the user to pedal, which powers a generator and drive-by-wire system that keep the Frikar running — with a speed limited to 25 km/h.


“Mãe De Bolsonaro” is the top query on Twitter in Brazil, after news that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s mother Olinda Bonturi Bolsonaro had died at age 94.


Photo of the new President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

New President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

Philipp Von Ditfurth/ZUMA

London’s legendary bookshop Waterstones Gower Street tweeted a photo of a letter from an anonymous user confessing to having forgotten to pay for their books some 48 years ago. Owing approximately £100 ($136), adjusted for inflation, they had sent through £120 ($163) to make up for their tardiness. Touched by the kind gesture, the bookshop reciprocated by donating the money to the largest children’s reading charity in the United Kingdom.


Dottoré! is a weekly column on by Mariateresa Fichele, a psychiatrist and writer based in Naples, Italy. Read more about the series here.

Bucket of tears

I’ve been thinking and thinking about a patient of mine since yesterday. His name is Giovanni.

Psychiatrists, you might not know, are quite often asked the same unanswerable question: "Why does one become insane?”

When I was younger, I searched and searched for an answer, losing myself in scientific explanations about synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters.

By the end of my studies, I’d realized that the only thing that was clear was that I’d been clutching at straws to justify my work and give it a semblance of scientific dignity. In the years since, I’ve forced myself, in defiance of the authority of my position, to reply with a laconic but honest: "Sorry, but I don't know."

So when Giovanni asked me that same question, he was not happy at all with my answer. “Dottoré, how’s it possible that you don't understand why I became crazy?”

When he tried to ask me again one day, I tried a different response:

"Giová, do you cry?"

"No. Why?"

"Imagine that the tears that you don't shed, that you force yourself not to shed, because that's what you've been taught to do, all end up inside your heart. The heart is an organ that pumps blood, which brings nourishment and oxygen to the whole body. But over time those diverted tears accumulate to the point that the heart begins to pump them instead of your blood. Slowly your body becomes sick, but the part that suffers the most is your brain. Because tears don't contain oxygen and nourishment, just sadness."

I expected a reaction to this fanciful explanation, but instead Giovanni kept quiet and eventually left.

The next time I saw him, he said: "Dottoré, I've thought about it. I know you told me about the tears to make me feel better, but maybe you’re right. Because sometimes I feel that I have a lake, more than a heart. But it takes a very powerful pump to pump out all that water, and my heart alone cannot do it. And now that you've explained to me how I became crazy, can you also tell me if I'll ever get better?"

"Do you want another story or do you want the truth?”

"This time, I’d rather have the truth!”

"The answer is always the same then. I'm sorry, Giová, but I don't know this either. But I can tell you one thing for sure. I'll help you slowly, slowly with just a bucket. Because the truth is, not even I have that pump."


• Italy's parliament will convene Monday to begin the process of voting for a new president to succeed Sergio Mattarella for a seven-year term.

• Qualification games for the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 for South, North and Central America as well as Asia. Argentina’s national team will not be able to rely on superstar Lionel Messi, still recovering from COVID-19.

• Next Thursday will mark 100 years since Nellie Bly died. The American journalist is known for her record-breaking 72-day trip around the world in 1889, inspired by Jules Vernes’ book Around the World in Eighty Days

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