In 1849, patience with heavily indebted Greece began to run thin in the southern German Kingdom of Bavaria.
“You will certainly not want me to lose the larger part of my own capital because of having saved Greece,” King Ludwig wrote in April that year to his son Otto, the Bavarian prince who became the unlikely first monarch of
“Couldn’t you pay back the interest on the loan at least.... things are becoming impossible for your mother and your siblings.”
While Greece’s historical tendency to high-indebtedness is notorious, with its first recorded default in the fourth century BC and more in the late 19th and early 20th century, it is less well known that Germans have come to Athens’ aid before, as the little-known correspondence between royal father and son
Some in Bavaria even say that their long shared history has created a special empathy for Greece’s plight.
“We know very well that Greece had to start from nothing... and there is the view here that it would be good to see Greece helped on its feet once and for all,” said Jan Murken, founder of a museum about Otto in Ottobrunn, a small town established outside Munich in 1955 at the spot Otto departed for Greece.
Bavaria’s ruling Christian Social Union (CSU), part of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Conservative bloc, has taken a tough line in the present euro zone debt crisis, calling for countries who repeatedly flout the rules to leave the single currency.
But it has also stressed its solidarity with Greece, so far the member worst hit in the crisis, and said that it is a fundamental part of the European Union, with a shared European history.
During the 19th century newly independent but penniless Greece was bankrolled by Europe’s Great Powers of France, Great Britain and Russia. King Ludwig of Bavaria supplemented these loans to help his ill-fated son.
Otto was named King of Greece as a 17-year-old in 1832, with no better qualifications for ruling than that he was the “spare” second son of minor European royalty, and that his father had penned a few philhellenic poems, none considered noteworthy.
The Great Powers believed establishing a monarchy in Greece, which they had helped liberate from Ottoman rule, would be the best form of government, but they wanted a second-tier royal family without much ambition and which wouldn’t pose a threat.
“Otto arrived with a team of Bavarian bureaucrats, only one of whom had ever been to Greece before. They thought they were going to the land of Sophocles and Plato. What they found was a war-torn former Ottoman province financially on its knees,” said Werner Helmberger, a director at the institution which manages Bavaria’s palaces.
Bavaria’s royal export – exiled from Greece in 1862 after 30 years’ rule marked by uprisings, his failure to produce an heir and refusal to convert to Orthodoxy from Roman Catholicism – leaves a mixed legacy.
In Greece, King Othon, as he was known, marked the start of a long period of Western meddling, spawning a resentment that continues to this day. His former palace became the modern Greek parliament, scene of daily and often violent protests against the government and its painful spending cuts.
The square before the palace, Syntagma (Constitution) Square, was named after the popular revolt against Otto in 1843, when crowds gathered, demanded and finally got a constitution -- something Otto had been warned about by his father.
Syntagma Square has also been the focal point for modern-day demonstrations against austerity measures that the EU and International Monetary Fund want in return for helping Greece pay off its debts.
Greeks acknowledge that Otto pioneered the study of archaeology, gave the state its first public institutions and moved the capital to Athens from Napflio.
“In Greece there is an almost unanimous view that he meant well,” said Stavros Arvanitopoulos, chief curator at Athens City Museum. “But he was ineffective.”
“After he was exiled he tried to remain loyal to Greece for the rest of his life. He never abdicated and asked to be buried in Greek traditional dress. To Greeks that was very touching.”
In Bavaria, Otto helped forge an affection and empathy for Greece, which has held up at a time when many Germans are incensed at the euro zone bail-outs and stirred by media characterizations of Greeks as lazy and corrupt.
“We see here that Greece still has the same problems it always had. A lack of industry and regulation,” said the King Otto Museum’s Murken.
Otto ended his days insisting that his court in exile in Bamberg back in Bavaria speak Greek for two hours a day. His Greek-themed rooms are still open to visitors.
The King has been largely forgotten in most of Germany, lost, Helmberger believes, in the complicated twists and turns of modern Greek history. In Bavaria, one of Germany’s richest states and one where local patriotism is very strong, Otto is better remembered.
“He left us with a friendship for Greece, which is not a rational thing – but based on feeling, and on a love of our image of Greece from history,” said Murken.