Times are tough in America, but Greece appears to be on its way to being the second coming of Weimar Germany. If things keep getting worse—and I’m almost certain they will—Greece may be the trouble spot I visit and write about after Libya. And it’s in the European Union!
A sign taped to a wall in an Athens hospital appealed for civility from patients. "The doctors on duty have been unpaid since May," it read, "Please respect their work."
Patients and their relatives glanced up briefly and moved on, hardened to such messages of gloom. In a country where about 1,000 people lose their jobs each day, legions more are still employed but haven't seen a paycheck in months. What used to be an anomaly has become commonplace, and those who have jobs that pay on time consider themselves the exception to the rule.
To the casual observer, all might appear well in Athens. Traffic still hums by, restaurants and bars are open, people sip iced coffees at sunny sidewalk cafes. But scratch the surface and you find a society in free-fall, ripped apart by the most vicious financial crisis the country has seen in half a century.
It has been three years since Greece's government informed its fellow members in the 17-country group that uses the euro that its deficit was far higher than originally reported. It was the fuse that sparked financial turmoil still weighing heavily on eurozone countries. Countless rounds of negotiations ensued as European countries and the International Monetary Fund struggled to determine how best to put a lid on the crisis and stop it spreading.
The result: Greece had to introduce stringent austerity measures in return for two international rescue loan packages worth a total of €240 billion ($313 billion), slashing salaries and pensions and hiking taxes.
The reforms have been painful, and the country faces a sixth year of recession.
Life in Athens is often punctuated by demonstrations big and small, sometimes on a daily basis. Rows of shuttered shops stand between the restaurants that have managed to stay open. Vigilantes roam inner city neighborhoods, vowing to "clean up" what they claim the demoralized police have failed to do. Right-wing extremists beat migrants, anarchists beat the right-wing thugs and desperate local residents quietly cheer one side or the other as society grows increasingly polarized.
"Our society is on a razor's edge," Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias said recently, after striking shipyard workers broke into the grounds of the Defense Ministry. "If we can't contain ourselves, if we can't maintain our social cohesion, if we can't continue to act within the rules ... I fear we will end up being a jungle."