Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

The Sick Man of Europe

by Victor Davis Hanson

Defining Ideas

Why are the Greeks such whiners? Look to their tragic history and geography. 

Not long ago, European Union bankers gave the Greeks a €110 billion bailout — along with stern recommendations to stop cooking their books, to go after tax cheaters, to trim fat public payrolls, to reform ludicrous pensions, and to open up the economy to the private sector.

The money men were answered with riots, strikes, and defiance in the streets of Athens. Even as the government has nodded that it would enact prescribed austerity measures, it found ways to delay or subvert them. The Greek message, whether deliberate or not, came off as either, “Don’t tell us how to spend your money,” or “We owe you so much that we dare you to try to collect.”

After all, every Greek man, woman, and child now owes about $40,000 to the northern Europeans, with almost no means of paying that huge sum — 160 percent of annual GDP — back, given the sorry state of Greek manufacturing, agriculture, and a tourist industry plagued by consistently bad publicity. In the last two years, the Greek economy steadily got worse. The problem was not that it downed all of its tough-love medicine, but that thousands of collective work days were lost to strikes, taxes were still not collected, and the public preferred defiant noncompliance to reform.

Now the German-led banks, terrified of the domino effects emanating from Mediterranean Europe after the massive Greek default, are haggling over another €130 bailout for Athens. And once again the Greeks are leveling now tired threats, hitting the streets in protest, and continuing to slur the Germans as Fourth Reich Nazis, concentration camp guards, and Gautleiters — as if Hitler’s occupation of Greece, which occurred some seven decades ago, happened just yesterday

To outsiders, this biting of the proverbial feeding-hand seems unhinged. The alternative of default and a return to the drachma would destroy contemporary Greece as we know it. Bankruptcy would lead to political isolation, a scarcity of fuel and medicines, exorbitantly expensive imported consumer goods, the inability to purchase key military hardware, and a virtual cessation of overseas travel — in other words, a return to the impoverished Greece of the 1960s.

Rioting in the streets of Athens, the Greeks prefer defiant noncompliance to reform.

To be fair, the Greeks are not entirely to blame. German companies kept selling billions of Euros worth of products to Greece on the wink-and-nod expectation that European Union-backed banks would ensure that these dubious credits would be paid back. Many Greeks believed their lying politicians that the deficits on their cooked books were no worse than those common elsewhere in Europe. And there certainly was a widespread utopian notion that all of the countries were going to be recast as one, unified Europe, bound by a covenant of mutual help and dependency.

All that said, it is still hard to understand why Greeks teetering at the brink whine and complain when asked to pay back the huge sums that they eagerly borrowed. As Laos Party Leader George Karatzaferis put it when he recently threw a tantrum and walked out on settlement talks, “We were robbed of our dignity, we were humiliated. I can’t take this. I won’t allow it. Greece could do without the German boot.”

Much of the money Greece finagled went to new freeways, light rail, subway lines, airports, bridges, and infrastructure that to the casual observer transformed Greece, physically, from Turkey into France or Holland. The Greeks likewise accepted that for the last twenty years, they produced far less goods and services, and retired much earlier than most of those who lent them the money. They may have lived like Germans, but they surely did not produce like them. So why, then, the sudden outrage at this ending of the borrowed good life — other than the obvious explanation that the daily threats and violence are good preemptory strategies to reduce the amount of the payback?

Greek schizophrenia, alternating between victimhood and braggadocio, is a product of both the nation’s unfortunate history and its geography. Few countries have known such historical gyrations. Ancient Athens birthed Western civilization; even today, most of the philology of the Western mind remains Hellenic to the core, whether we are talking about democracy, technology, or philosophy. When Rome fell, a Greek-speaking Byzantium in the east, almost alone, kept Western thought alive for another millennium. There may be only 11 million Greeks today, but there are still traces of a vast ancient Hellenic diaspora. Vestigial communities of Greek speakers in the Crimea, Asia Minor, North Africa, Sicily, and throughout the Eastern Mediterranean offer a tiny glimpse of the former scope and influence of a now lost Hellenism. In other words, the Greeks have lost forever a once magnificent history and, in their reduced position today, they feel both the pride and pain of former glory hourly.

The people of Greece feel the pride and pain of their former glory hourly.

The collapse of classical Greece, the end of the Byzantine Empire, and the final destruction of Hellenism abroad in the 1920s have made Greeks feel more victimized by their losses than exalted by their past accomplishments. For the last twenty-five-hundred years, enemies have appeared everywhere. The list of foreign occupiers of the Greek mainland, unmatched by any other country, includes the Macedonians, Romans, Ottomans, Franks, Venetians, English, Italians, and Germans.

Travel to the Peloponnese, and there are easily identifiable ruins of Greek temples, Roman roads, Byzantine churches, Ottoman mosques, Frankish castles, Venetian quays, and nineteenth-century European villas — along with the occasional Nazi pillbox. I remember that during a six-hour walk through the Attic countryside in 1979, I found amid the olive orchards a Roman oil lamp, an Ottoman bowl handle, and a German World War II helmet — the flotsam and jetsam of two millennia of foreign occupation.

Like other endangered, but proud and unique peoples — Armenians, Kurds, and Jews — the Greeks have somehow preserved their religion, language, and ethnicity amid military occupation, forced assimilation, and coerced religious conversion. For these homogenous but fragile groups, fierce pride and unapologetic chauvinism were often requisite to their very survival. Greeks understandably both look for foreign succor and then almost instantly fear the repercussions of such dependency, a national characteristic that explains much of their present nonsensical behavior of resenting the Germans who have lent them so much — and who now alone can keep Greek bankruptcy at bay.

Geography, of course, accounts for much of the Greek historical tragedy. Greece is Europe’s finger into the turbulent Eastern Mediterranean, and yet it is cut off from its northern brethren by the rough terrain of the Balkans. In other words, it was always far easier for sea-borne Muslim invaders to reach Greece than it was for the Greeks to travel to most of Northern Europe. Greece is the closest of the European countries to the battleground of the world’s religions in the Middle East, and often Orthodoxy has lost out to Islam and Catholicism in such existential struggles.

The Greeks still remember historical grievances as few other people do. The sacking of Greek-speaking Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade (1204) by fellow Western and Christian Crusaders might as well be modern history — as attested by Pope John II’s 2004 apology on the eight-hundredth anniversary of the attack. May 29 — when Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453 and the thousand-year-old Byzantium Empire ended — is still a black day among Orthodox Greeks.

Why had Greece, once the cradle of Western civilization, become a cultural backwater?

I once lived on Asia Minor Street in Athens for a year, amid elderly refugees from the Greek holocaust brought on by the ethnic cleansing of Ionia by Turkish forces in 1922. Their talk of the “sell-out” by Great Britain, who “pulled the plug” on the Greek army’s advance to Ankara, sounded like the morning news. So ended their irredentist “Great Idea” (Megali Idea) of a Greek-speaking eastern Mediterranean commons — amid a sense of betrayal, conspiracy, and Big Power machinations. Foreigners, xenoi, supposedly once again foiled that early twentieth-century pipedream of reformulating a new Byzantine Empire ringed with Hellenic centers of learning and culture in Alexandria, Athens, Beirut, Constantinople, Heraklion, Nicosia, and Smyrna.

Why had Greece, once the cradle of Western civilization, become a cultural backwater by the fifteenth century, as the West’s center shifted to the formerly tribal and wild northern Europe? To that question, Greeks have a different answer from the standard historical explanations about the value of Northern Europe’s Atlantic seaports facing the rich New World or the dynamism of the Protestant work ethic. Someone, they remind the Europeans, had to be Christendom’s shield against an aggressive Ottoman Islam. And for nearly a millennium, Greek-speakers kept Muslim conquerors away from Northern Europe, paying a terrible and mostly thankless price for it.

That sense of both geographical and historical victimhood continued throughout the Cold War to the present day. For a half-century, NATO and American bases in Greece were not so much appreciated for deterring communist aggression as they were resented. The Greeks complained that they would suffer first and worst from an American-Soviet showdown in the Middle East, or, being 100 percent oil dependent, could face a far more immediate payback from oil-producing Arab states for collective Western support of Israel. The terrible Civil War of 1949 that took a million Greek lives is not seen as the wage of a Greek blood feud, but rather the callous fallout from the new Soviet-American rivalry. The Cyprus tragedy of 1974 only cemented the notion that America’s realistic politics had favored not its old ally, but the more powerful, Islamic, and aggressive Turkey.

To a rational disinterested observer, Greece’s shrill scapegoating and obnoxious xenophobia — a good Greek word — are inexplicable. Now more than ever, eleven million Greeks need the financial support of Germany, the political unity of Europe, and the military allegiance of the United States. Poverty is not Greece’s only contemporary worry. A new Ottomanism in Turkey is once again ascendant. The future of Cyprus seems more in Ankara’s hands than in those of the European Union or the United Nations. Muslim theocracies may well sprout up right across the Mediterranean in North Africa, and the Balkan mess on their northern border is still not settled.

Yet, given twenty-five-hundred years of Greek tragedy, Greece considers the present financial mess to be neither novel nor its own fault. And not even the most rational and exacting German banker could ever prove otherwise.

©2012 Victor Davis Hanson

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

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