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Reviled by Greeks, Merkel heads for Athens

| Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012, 9:40 p.m.

ATHENS — Amid a comprehensive security operation that locked down much of this ancient capital, German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday staged a gutsy foray into the heart of Europe's debt crisis. If her protest-plagued trip shined a spotlight on struggling Greece, it also highlighted a problem for Germany: its image.

As Europe's largest and healthiest economy, Germany has risen to the height of its post-World War II power over the past three years, effectively serving as the region's paymaster through a series of debt-crisis bailouts. As Germany has led demands for harsh cuts in exchange for cash, Merkel has emerged as Europe's symbol of austerity.

A country keenly attuned to any perception of itself as an aggressor, Germany witnessed the price of its rising clout as 7,000 police officers sought to contain tens of thousands of chanting demonstrators who at least partly blame Berlin for Greece's economic nightmare of soaring unemployment and cascading bankruptcies.

Berlin is also coping with the inevitable memories of the last time German influence reigned on the continent. Virtually no one in Europe fears a renewed military threat from Germany, a modern nation that largely clings to a cathartic form of pseudo-pacifism. Yet an undercurrent of distrust inflamed by the financial crisis is increasingly evident.

Nowhere is that more true than in Greece, where rising resentment underscores the obstacles ahead for Merkel's quest for a more thoroughly integrated European Union. With Germany's financial weight poised to grow even further, Merkel sought to show solidarity with the Greeks, hailing how far they've come and commiserating with their “suffering.” But with signs growing that Greece will not meet bailout demands without dramatically accelerated cuts or watered-down loan conditions, she gave no sign that Berlin was willing to be more lenient. If Greece doesn't deal with its debt problems now, she said, “they will only resurface in a more dramatic way.”

For left-wing parties that often rail against the United States, Germany has become the new target here. Anti-Merkel chants echoed through the streets of Athens on Tuesday, and the searing scent of tear gas lingered. A walkout by state workers temporarily shuttered schools, hospitals and transit stations. Some protesters carried banners depicting the German chancellor in a Nazi SS uniform, under the words, “No to the Fourth Reich.”

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