Greece faced a rolling financial implosion from 2009, and Merkel and her ministers demanded huge budget cuts, civil sector layoffs and drastic tax hikes in exchange for their support for bailouts of more than 300 billion euros.
At the height of the crisis in 2012, she was greeted by protesters brandishing images showing her with a Hitler moustache, with German tabloid Bild describing her as “one of the most hated women in Greece”.
“I’ve always stressed my awareness of the impositions and challenges that the Greek were faced with related to the euro question,” Merkel said after meeting Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
But the chancellor insisted that the adjustment would have been less brutal had Greece and several other EU states undertaken key reforms during times of prosperity.
Der Spiegel magazine wrote on Friday that the Greek crisis was “a period of hysteria” where EU solidarity began to fray.
Greece admitted in 2009 that it had massively underreported its public deficit, leading to a panicked sell-off of government bonds and rising costs of borrowing that spread to several other eurozone countries.
“I think we were all very shocked about the susceptibility of the euro for external speculation,” the chancellor admitted Friday.
She said the Greek-German relationship had always had a “good basis” but that it had gone “through difficult times during my tenure”, vowing to visit Greece again as a private citizen
‘Voice of reason’
Mitsotakis said on Friday that the Greece of today was “no longer a source of crises and deficits”.
He called Merkel “the voice of reason and stability” and pointed out that she had gone against the advice of her ministers during a turbulent 2015 and “refused to ostracise Greece from the eurozone”.
Starting in 2010, Merkel began to urge Greece’s then Socialist prime minister George Papandreou to implement austerity to cut burgeoning public deficits.
Pensions were slashed, the minimum monthly wage fell to less than 600 euros and a wave of privatisations was set in motion.
In addition, staffing levels in public services and hospitals were reduced and there were shortages of medicines and other materials.
After leftist radical Alexis Tsipras was elected prime minister in January 2015, tensions became almost palpable.
Months before he became leader, Tsipras had memorably told Merkel to “go back”.
Greece was on the verge of being kicked out of the euro at the time, but Tsipras finally submitted to pressure from its creditors and agreed to fresh austerity measures.
Tsipras wrote in Die Zeit news magazine last month that “honesty” had created “the building of trust” with the German chancellor despite their political differences.
Merkel worked with eight Greek prime ministers from across the party spectrum, including technocrat PM Lucas Papademos, a former European Central
Bank vice-president who survived a 2017 letter bomb attack.
Merkel had been the intended recipient of a similar explosive device sent by a Greek far-left group in 2010. It was intercepted at the chancellery and deactivated.
As she bows out of office after 16 years, Merkel’s stock remains low in Greece.
A Pew Research poll conducted in 16 different countries found that, in Greece, only 30 percent of people had confidence in her, compared with an average of 77 percent elsewhere.
For Alexander Kritikos, at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), Merkel’s farewell visit to Athens “is an important signal indicating that the very difficult past years of economic crisis in Greece can now be considered as well on the way to being successfully concluded.”
He said that the German leader had been able to establish amicable relations with the current conservative Greek government which “finally signifies normality” returning to ties between the two countries.
The visit “marks a turning point for Greece which has advanced out of the crisis,” said a Greek government source.
By Marina RAFENBERG, John HADOULIS