Twinned towns seek German-Greek harmony amid Nazi jibes

Thu Mar 8, 2012 1:52pm EST
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By Harry Papachristou, Alexandra Hudson and Noah Barkin

OREOKASTRO, Greece/DETMOLD, Germany (Reuters) - Hans-Joachim Fuchtel doesn't fit the image of the cold Prussian bureaucrat intent on imposing tough German discipline on struggling Greeks.

Appointed by Chancellor Angela Merkel late last year to explore ways to boost grass-roots cooperation between Germany and Greece, Fuchtel is a jovial 60-year old from the Black Forest who manages a brass band in his spare time and serves as honorary president of a camel-riding club.

His first job as a boy near Germany's western border was collecting snails to sell as food to the French forces that occupied the area after World War Two. He says he wants to bring the same initiative to his new post, mobilizing Germans to work with Greeks to overcome the animosity built up during the euro zone crisis. He has his work cut out.

Fuchtel's office in the German Labour Ministry is adorned with pictures of him in Mauritania, driving a tractor in southern Germany and with his brass band in China. On his cluttered desk is a book "The misery of being Greek", a gift he says from a previous visitor.

"Germany and Greece have a long friendship, but when you look at the headlines at the moment, particularly in the Greek media, then you see that friendship being stretched to the limit," Fuchtel said.

Merkel's insistence that Greece push through ever deeper budget cuts in exchange for EU aid has fuelled rising anger in Greece where protesters have taken to burning German flags and carrying around effigies of Merkel in a Nazi uniform.

The German press hasn't pulled its punches either. Top-selling tabloid Bild regularly portrays Greeks as lazy, corrupt and ungrateful. Berlin's push to wrest away Greek control over its own budget in negotiations over a second European bailout has only intensified resentment between the countries.

Fuchtel, who has been caricatured as an overbearing German in the Greek media, has been tasked with promoting projects that can benefit both countries. Behind the scenes, he is working to boost the number of partnerships between German and Greek towns, get German foundations involved in Greece, and encourage Germans with expertise to advise Greek municipalities on matters ranging from tourism to renewable energy to waste management.   Continued...

ATTENTION EDITORS - IMAGE 22 OF 26 TO ACCOMPANY PICTURE PACKAGE 'TWIN TOWNS' Exterior of a pharmacy in Detmold in the west German state of North Rhine Westphalia, March 7, 2012. Ties between Germany and Greece run deep. More than 300,000 Greeks reside in Germany, making them one of the biggest ethnic communities in the country. Nearly one in ten Greeks has worked, studied or lived in Germany. And roughly two million Germans spend their holidays in Greece every year, more than from any other country. Despite these links, officials from both countries are now realising that grass-roots cooperation between the countries has been virtually non-existent. Only about 30 partnerships between German and Greek towns currently exist, for example, compared to 2,000 German-French pairings. One partnership that has existed for over half a decade is between Oreokastro, a posh but increasingly troubled suburb of Thessaloniki in northern Greece, and Detmold in the west German state of North Rhine Westphalia. Picture taken March 7, 2012. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay