ATHENS (Reuters) - Ruediger Bolz has 350 students coming through the doors of his German language institute in central Athens each day - 20 percent up on a year go.
The rush among Greeks to learn German may seem odd after the war of words between the two countries, with Athens fuming at German accusations of financial mismanagement and some Greek media playing on Nazi caricatures of Berlin politicians.
Yet for Bolz, who has run the Goethe-Institut for the last six years, there is no mystery: his Greek pupils are happy to side-step politics and face up to harsh economic realities by acquiring new skills.
“Most of those coming to us are young students or academics and they are doing all they can to improve their professional qualifications,” Bolz said in his office at the state-run agency, which like the British Council or French Institute has the job of promoting national culture and language.
“No doubt some of them have plans to leave Greece but most of them just think they will stand a better chance of getting a job if they have a foreign language - in Greece or elsewhere.”
Greek unemployment has soared to over 20 percent largely due to the global slowdown and a first round of budget cuts demanded by lenders as the price for a first debt bailout in 2010 to save Greece from a chaotic default.
One youth in two is out of a job in Greece - and that rate will not improve as a result of the austerity cure imposed alongside the new 130-billion-euro ($172-billion) rescue package agreed by countries in the 17-nation euro zone on Tuesday.
That deal was won after Germany’s finance minister had likened the Greek public purse to a “bottomless pit” and Greece’s president, Karolos Papoulias - a veteran of resistance to Nazi World War Two occupation - bristled at German “insults.”
One Greek tabloid printed a computer-generated image of Chancellor Angela Merkel in a Nazi uniform, while the head of German manufacturer Bosch called for Greece to be kicked out of the European Union. A Greek electrical union has hit back by calling for a boycott of Bosch products.
Opinion surveys often indicate a certain Greek mistrust of Germany. A study this month by pollster VPRC released by Epikera magazine on Thursday showed 76 percent of respondents thought Germany was “rather hostile” towards Greece.
Bolz said the row had mostly passed his office by.
While youths torched dozens of Greek-run businesses across Athens during protests this month, the modern concrete-and-glass building that houses the Goethe-Institut - which in 1952 became the first of around 150 such outposts of German culture around the world - was unscathed.
“We get one or two stupid emails a month, often anonymous,” said Bolz. “But all of our events are going on as usual.”
Brochures in Bolz’s office pay testimony to Greece’s long ties with a country that vies with China as the world’s top exporter. One shows an 1884 advert by an Athens restaurant boasting of its Bavarian beer, while another advert invites Greek gamblers to take part in a 1878 German-run lottery.
One blot in the German-Greek relationship came in 2000 when an Athens court ordered the seizure of the Goethe-Institut and other German state property in Greece to satisfy reparation claims by war-time victims. But a Greek minister stopped the order after a two-year legal wrangle.
Downstairs in the institute’s cafe, conversations inevitably turn to the privations felt by Greeks at the hard end of the budget cuts - the higher taxes on wages and the whittling away of the pensions of parents and grandparents.
Lisa Hamuzopulos, the German-speaking Swiss who has run the cafe for 13 years, said clients were spending less and that discussions on the crisis had to be handled with care.
“Not everyone accepts they bear some responsibility for this. As long as they don’t get that, it will be difficult for them,” she said. “But there isn’t any hostility to us - if anything, people are friendlier.”
Bolz, who has a Greek wife, said he has encountered no anti-German sentiment in Greece and says the more common feeling is that of hurt pride at the measures imposed from on high by the “troika” of EU bodies and the International Monetary Fund.
While admitting to having gone at least partly native after 25 years of close ties to the country, he said foreign lenders must accept that there is no quick fix to problems which most ordinary Greeks knew had been building up for years.
“I think the process has started now,” he said. “Greece is on the right path but it will take longer than we think.”
Editing by Elizabeth Piper