ATHENS, Greece — Venturing into the most hostile territory in Europe, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany visited Athens on Tuesday, telling Greeks that she understood their suffering but urging the country to stay the course on reforms and budget cuts.
But even as Merkel said that she had come as a "good friend and a real partner," not a "taskmaster or teacher to give grades," the approximately 40,000 Greeks who took to the streets in protest (a rather modest number, by Greek standards) treated the visit as a provocation by the arch-nemesis in the euro crisis whose austerity medicine is obliterating the Greek middle class.
Some banners read "Don't cry for us Mrs. Merkel" and "Merkel, you are not welcome here." A small group burned a flag bearing the Nazi swastika, while a handful of protesters dressed in Nazi-style uniforms drew cheers of approval as they rode a vehicle past a police cordon.
About 7,000 police officers, many brought to the capital from the provinces, were on standby, along with rooftop snipers.
"This is pure provocation, we have to answer back," a nurse, Christina Amanti, 37, said about Merkel's visit. "It's like she's visiting her protectorate. What's she going to do, pat us on the back and tell us to keep getting poorer, that it's good for us?"
Merkel came to Athens, a city on security lockdown for the visit, to offer support to the coalition government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. It is struggling to agree on a $17 billion austerity package demanded by Greece's troika of foreign lenders — the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — as a precondition for releasing a $40 billion installment of aid that the country needs to meet expenses.
Merkel's visit, the first by a major European leader since the start of the debt crisis in 2009, capped her recent efforts to show a renewed dedication to European solidarity after years of harsh words about Greece and Europe's other laggard economies.