A German trauma therapist journeys to Greece. What he sees there surpasses his worst fears. Greek society is crumbling under the pressure of the crisis. Excerpts.
Trauma is Georg Pieper’s business. Whenever a disaster hits Germany, the traumatologist is on the spot. Following the attacks in Oslo and Utøya, Pieper travelled to Norway and supervised his colleagues there. He knows what it means to look closely study and measure the scale of a disaster.
In October Pieper, spent a few days in Athens, where he gave continuing education courses for psychologists, psychiatrists and doctors on trauma therapy. Although he had prepared himself for some shocks, the reality was even worse than he had gloomily expected.
For Germans who watch the news, the crisis is very remote. It encroaches on us first and foremost in hearing terms like “rescue fund” or “billion-euro holes”. Instead of understanding the global context, we see Angela Merkel in Berlin, Brussels or somewhere else, stepping out of dark limousines with a grave expression on her face.
We don’t learn the whole truth, not about Greece, not Germany, not about Europe. Pieper calls what is happening right before our very eyes a “massive displacement effort.” The defence mechanism of politicians in particular functions superbly.
Begging and scavanging
In October 2012 he saw a Greece where heavily pregnant women were rushing around, going from from hospital to hospital begging, but because they had neither health insurance nor enough money, nobody wanted to help them bring their child into the world. In a suburb of Athens, people who were until recently middle class, were gathering fruit and vegetable scraps from the street.
An old man said that he could no longer afford the medication for his heart condition. His pension had been slashed by half. He had worked for more than forty years, and he thought he had done everything right. Now he no longer understands the world.
People who go to a hospital must bring their own bedding, and even their food. Since the cleaning staff was fired, doctors and nurses, who have not been paid for months, have been cleaning the wards. There aren’t enough disposable gloves and catheters, and the EU is warning of the danger of the spread of infectious diseases.
Whole blocks of flats have in the meantime had their oil supplies cut off for lack of money. In spring a 77 year old man shot himself in front of the Parliament in Athens. Shortly before his act, he is said to have cried out: “This is how I leave my children with no debts.” In the past three years the suicide rate in Greece has doubled.
Whirlwind of helplessness
A trauma is an event that shakes the world of the individual to its foundations. The experience is so overwhelming that it pulls the victim into a whirlwind of absolute helplessness. Only a cynic speaking about Greece talks about its “social decline”. What we are living through now is a collective trauma.
“The Greek men have been particularly hard hit by the crisis,” says Pieper. Much more than women do, men derive their identity from their work – in other words, their value to the labour market. But the value to the market of the vast majority of them keeps falling. That’s also an attack on their masculinity. Mental illnesses such as depression are spreading in an epidemic across Greece. No one will be surprised that three quarters of all suicides are men.
One doesn’t have to be either a pessimist or an expert to grasp what that means for the social relationships among people and for the bonds holding Greek society together.
The anger at a corrupt and perverted domestic system and at the international political system that spends the tranches of aid money to bail out the banks, but not to save people, is terrible. And it is growing. The men bring this anger home to their families, and their sons take it out to the street. The number of violent gangs that attack minorities is increasing.
That was why in November the United States issued a travel warning for Greece, advising that people with dark skin were particularly vulnerable. That, says Pieper, shocked him – that such a warning should be issued for a country like Greece, which sees itself as a hospitable land.
Even the most devastating blow need not bring an individual to his knees, says Pieper, because each of us has a tremendous will to survive. So much for the good news. The bad news is that a social safety net needs a functioning society. What power such a society can have was shown by Utøya. All of Norway stood behind the victims of the massacre, as if someone had rung out a bell of solidarity across the country.
In Greece the functioning society has been undermined for so long that it has finally collapsed: the crisis has wiped out the welfare state. “In such dramatic situations,” says Pieper, “man turns into a kind of predator.” Sheer necessity drives him into casting off his reasonableness, and selfishness displaces solidarity.
A few days ago Transparency International published its Corruption Index. Greece holds bottom ranking in the EU, rubbing elbows with Colombia and Djibouti. News like that is pure poison.
Georg Pieper says, “I wonder how much longer this society can hold out before it explodes.” Greece is on the brink of civil war. That affects us all.