Greek Tragedies

Violent reaction to bad news in Greece is unique but not surprising given its past.

by Victor Davis Hanson

Wall Street Journal Online

Draping the Acropolis with a hammer-and-sickle banner might seem a stupid public relations stunt — especially as a bankrupt Greece seeks to reassure foreign capitalist investors to save Hellenic socialism.

But then the news coming out of Greece these days gets a little more bizarre each day — fire-bombings, murders, riot, and mass shutdowns of all government services. All this chaos, of course, is streamed live to the world on the eve of the life-saving tourist season.

Indeed, no one can quite figure out the Greek enigma. Necessary austerity measures may well ensure recession. Yet any slowdown precludes enough economic growth to pay off exorbitant public debt. High interest is necessary to attract risk-prone investors, but will probably ensure that some $140 billion in loans — over $12,000 for every Greek in the country — can never be wholly serviced. Strikes and demonstrations come at just the time when workers need to be more productive on the job. Greek officials talk of reducing, not eliminating, annual deficits, at a time when budget surpluses, not further borrowing, are needed to restore financial sanity.

And the more the world learns about the peculiar financial culture of this tiny nation of 11 million — 14 monthly pay periods, a retirement system that can be conned to draw pensions in one’s 50s, endemic tax-cheating — the more it is baffled by the fiery rioting and protests of those in the streets who want others to ensure they keep getting their bonuses.

Greece, of course, is not quite unique. Britain and the United States are running historically unprecedented peacetime deficits and imploding their retirement and healthcare systems. In California, we see the same Greek phenomenon of extravagantly paid and pensioned public employees demanding higher taxes from a shrinking private sector that is fleeing an overtaxed state.

Elsewhere in Europe, sun and socialism are having a rough go of it as well in Portugal, Spain, and Italy. The late-night dinner, the double commute to ensure siestas, and a laid-back “tomorrow” joy of living seem to lead both to lower worker productivity and greater claims on entitlements.

All that said, the violent reaction to bad news in Greece is unique. But it is not so surprising given Greece’s own turbulent past. Hundreds of insular valleys, 6,000 islands, and jagged coastlines, often cut off by mountains, help to explain the original emergence of 1,500 independent city-states rather than a unified nation — and a fierce tradition of agrarian independence as well as the birth of democracy. Given the mountainous Balkans and a prominent position in the southeastern Mediterranean, a European Greece itself was always especially vulnerable to the whims of the great, and usually hostile, eastern empires.

Greece inherited a tradition of top-heavy secular and religious bureaucracy as part of a millennium-long Byzantine Empire. But four centuries of Ottoman occupation gave to Greece an abiding disrespect for its government, a sense that the state was an adversary. Istanbul’s western, Christian, and European colony kept its language, its sense of nationalism, and its religion largely through a strong sense of tribal solidarity — and often by moving up into the inaccessible mountain refuges to escape Muslim tax-collectors and recruiters.

Greece has always had an ambiguous relationship with Western Europe. The Franks, remember, sacked and nearly ruined Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. Greek frontline opposition to Islam meant that a beleaguered and nearly extinguished Orthodox Christianity could not afford to experiment with a Reformation. And the vast distance from Gibraltar ensured that the Greeks, an adventurous sea-faring people, nevertheless missed out on the great age of maritime exploration, which was driven by the Europeans with accessible Atlantic ports.

History and geography were no kinder to Greece in the 20th century. The Great Powers that emerged victorious from World War I both encouraged and betrayed the ill-fated “Great Idea” of restoring Hellenism to Asia Minor, which ended in the savage slaughter at Smyrna in 1922.

Mussolini invaded Greece in October, 1940, and stalled in the face of fierce Greek resistance — only to be bailed out by Hitler, who looted and starved Greece during the ensuing brutal Axis occupation. And when the United States drew the line at Turkey and Greece to halt postwar Soviet expansion into southern Europe, communist infiltration from the north prompted a savage civil war that killed even more people than the famines of World War II. To NATO’s American realpolitik planners, an unpopular, authoritarian, anti-communist government was preferable to a socialist, neutral, and democratic Greece.

Geography is fixed, and so even in the post-Soviet era of globalization, Greece is not quite free of foreign turmoil. The ongoing Islamization of a once secular Turkey threatens again to turn formerly somnolent territorial disputes out in the Aegean into a regional crisis — especially as the Greek population ages and shrinks and the demography of its neighbors to the east and south grows and becomes younger. A divided Cyprus is only temporarily dormant. Greece still struggles with the aftermath of Yugoslavia — both its own past unpopular sympathies with the brutal Milosevic regime in Orthodox Serbia and running disputes with the new Muslim and Slavic nationalist states on its northern borders.

In all these crises, as those in the past, conspiracies abound. A nefarious, but nebulous foreign “they” seems in the Greek mind always to be lurking in the shadows. And in such a Manichean national landscape of villains and heroes, either the government, the Church, or the “rich” — or, alternatively, the “communists” and the “agitators” — hoodwinked the noble people into doing what they in retrospect should not have.

The sum of all that tragedy is sometimes greater even than its parts, and explains in part why today Greeks are both dependent on and suspicious of foreign “help”; why they both complain about, and yet demand, a cumbersome bureaucracy; why they rage at northern Europe and the United States, even as they seek to become integrated within the West; and why such a creative, rational, and capable people so often turn feisty and full of misdirected rage at its own self-inflicted miseries.

Will Greece survive as a modern, prosperous European state? In one sense, it is hard to see how — given the overwhelming debt, the structural flaws now apparent in the European Union monetary system, and the violent rather than rational popular responses to the crisis. And yet, given its tragic past, the current financial meltdown of 2010 pales in comparison to the Ottoman occupation. It certainly is minor when seen against the slaughter of a million Greeks in Asia Minor, the endemic starvation during the German occupation, the savagery of the civil war, and its frontline vulnerability during the Soviet-American standoff.

Greece survived all that, as it will the present crisis, because in the end Greeksin extremis so often prove an heroic people. That is hard to remember in our present exasperation with the ongoing depressing spectacle in Athens, but it is nevertheless a historical truth.

©2010 Victor Davis Hanson

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