Varoufakis's more polite finger.

Photographer: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

Real or Fake, a Greek Video Rattles Germany

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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As Greece drifts again towards a Euro exit and German Chancellor Angela Merkel prepares to make another last-ditch attempt to find a compromise, Germans are discussing one of the more bizarre aspects of the crisis: Did Yanis Varoufakis, now Greece's finance minister, really give Germany the finger during a speech two years ago?

The question came up late last month, when someone posted a YouTube video of Varoufakis talking at an event in Zagreb, Croatia, in May 2013. It didn't make much of a splash until last Sunday, when Guenther Jauch, one of Germany's most influential TV hosts, aired a clip from the video, in which Varoufakis makes the obscene gesture and says, "Greece should simply announce that it is defaulting, stick the finger to Germany and say, well, you can now solve this problem by yourself."

Jauch proceeded to show footage of Varoufakis angrily protesting that the video had been doctored and that he had "never given the finger ever." Then, guests of the show argued about the recording's authenticity.

Yesterday, Jan Boehmermann, the host of a satirical TV show, claimed he had faked the finger video:

On his program, Boehmermann showed a crew of video editors and an actor with an uncanny resemblance to Varoufakis working painstakingly on doctoring the footage, putting in the rude gesture and even making the shadows work. 

Germans have a complicated relationship with humor. Serious newspapers reported Boehmermann's "admission" as if it might be true. #varoufake trended on Twitter. Varoufakis himself tweeted late last night:

So today, ZDF, the TV station that carries Boehmermann's show, was forced to announce that the video of Varoufakis had not, in fact, been doctored. Varoufakis did indeed flip Germany the bird in Zagreb. Boehmermann is, after all, a satirist, so he was just doing his job -- laughing at how Jauch had missed the point. "Germany devastated Europe twice in a century, but when someone gives us the finger, we flip out," he said on his program. #fakevaroufake became the new Twitter hashtag.

This would all be just ridiculous if not for two facts: Jauch edited the Varoufakis video to make it more damaging, and Varoufakis lied about never having made the gesture.

Here's what Varoufakis said in the full video of the Zagreb speech (start listening at 39:53):

What we have done, what the Greek state has done, what the successive three different governments have done since the debt crisis -- the debt exploded in early 2010 -- was a crime against humanity. So I don't defend the fact that we stayed in the euro following the prescriptions that were coming to us by Brussels and Frankfurt and so on. My proposal was that Greece should simply announce that it is defaulting, just like Argentina did, within the euro in January, 2010, and stick the finger to Germany and say, "Well, now you can solve this problem by yourself."

Saying that Greece should have defaulted five years ago, instead of taking on massive debt to Germany and the other architects of its bailout, is not the same as suggesting Greece should not pay those debts now. Jauch's edit made it look as though Varoufakis was suggesting the latter. That was unfair, and it played to many Germans' anti-Greek sentiments -- at a time when Merkel needs political support for an understanding with Greece that would keep the euro area together.

Varoufakis's barefaced lie on the Jauch show was just as troubling. How does one negotiate with a partner who has no problem denying on camera what can be easily proven? After all, it was Varoufakis himself who later tweeted out the full video.

Then there's the matter of the broader context in which Varoufakis's middle finger shot up. The event at which he spoke was called the Subversive Festival, and other guests included conspiracy-theorist filmmaker Oliver Stone and Aleida Guevara, daughter of Che. Current Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was there, too. How does one talk seriously to this crowd about billions of dollars in debt and quantifiable economic goals?

The cultural gap between the German establishment -- Jauch comes from an old, wealthy Hanseatic family -- and the Greek radicals is so wide it may turn out to be unbridgeable. One can only hope that Merkel, with her modest East German roots, can find a sensible way to talk to the likes of Tsipras and Varoufakis. She has handled tougher negotiating partners, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, and has demonstrated an ability to look beyond appearances, beyond macho swagger, beyond manipulation. If anyone can prevent the whole thing from deteriorating into a personality clash, it is Merkel.

(Corrects name of German TV host throughout.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net