Monday, November 14, 2011

Rethinking Greece

Greece has been in the news a lot recently, and not in a good way. This article, by George Zakardakis, puts the crisis in historical perspective--always a refreshing touch.

I have a good friend who enjoys traveling in Greece as much as I do. She is something of a militant atheist, which means she goes for the broken columns. What happened since Late Antiquity, i.e. Christian/Byzantine Greece--the "real" Greece, I would say--interests her not at all. In 2010, she convinced me to visit King Philip's Tomb at Veroia. I'm glad I did, but I have to admit that I did so only because I happened to be in the neighborhood. This Disneyfied version--the Greece of the tour groups--is at the root of the current crisis, which, as Zakardakis points out, goes much deeper than the financial.

He writes:

Sinking deeper into the gravest economic crisis in its postwar history, Greece is no nearer to finding an exit from its woes. A toxic mix of anxiety and fear hangs in the air in Athens. The ordeal shows that living up to lofty idealism is never easy. Modern Greeks know that well for we are, in many ways, the imperfect reflection of an ideal that the West imagined for itself.

When the Greek crisis began two years ago, the cover of a popular German magazine showed an image of Aphrodite of Milo gesturing crudely with the headline: "The fraudster in the euro family." In the article, modern Greeks were described as indolent sloths, cheats and liars, masters of corruption, unworthy descendants of their glorious Hellenic past.

The irony was that modern Greece has little in common with Pericles or Plato. If anything, it is a failed German project.

In 1832, Greece had just won its independence from the Ottoman Empire. The "Big Powers" of the time, Britain, France and Russia, appointed a Bavarian prince, Otto, as Greece's first king. Otto arrived with German architects, engineers, doctors and soldiers and set out to reconfigure the country to the romantic ideal of the times.

The 19th century had seen a resurgence of Europeans' interest in ancient Greece. Goethe, Shelley, Byron, Delacroix and other artists, poets and musicians sought inspiration in classical beauty. They longed for a lost purity in thought, aesthetics and warm-blooded passion.

Revisiting the sensual Greece of Orpheus and Sappho was ballast to the detached coolness of science or the dehumanizing onslaught of the Industrial Revolution.

Otto ensured that modern Greece lived up to that romantic image. Athens, then a small hamlet, was inaugurated as the capital. The architects from Munich designed and built a royal palace, an academy, a library and beautiful neoclassical edifices. Modern Greece was thus invented as a backdrop to contemporary European art and imagination, a historical precursor of many Disneylands to come.

Otto was eventually expelled by a coup. But the foundations of historical misunderstanding had been laid, to haunt Greece and its relations with itself and other European nations forever.

Of course, it is easy enough to blame all your problems on the West. But Zakadarkis maintains that this romanticized Western fantasy of Greece locked in place a real division within Greek national identity, which has yet to be resolved. Unless it is, he believes even worse headlines lie ahead.

No matter what Otto may have imagined, the truth was that my forefathers, the brave people who started fighting for their freedom against the Turks in 1821, had not been in suspended animation for 2,000 years....they were not walking around in white cloaks with laurel wreaths. They were Christian orthodox, conservative and fiercely antagonistic toward their governing institutions. In other words, they were an embarrassment to all those folks in Berlin, Paris and London who expected resurrected philosophers sacrificing to Zeus.

The profound gap between the ancient and the modern had to be bridged, to satisfy Europe's romantic expectations of Greece. So a historical narrative was put together claiming uninterrupted continuity with the ancient past, which became the central dogma of Greek national policy and identity.

[The Greeks] despise the loss of their sovereignty as well as the bitter medicine prescribed by their European brethren for their "rescue." Austerity enforced by unelected officials from the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank is perceived as not remedy but punishment, a distasteful concept to the orthodox Greeks whose core value is mercy.

The Greek financial crisis is a crisis of identity as much as anything else. Unless the people redefine themselves, this could become the perfect catastrophe: a country designed as a romantic theme park two centuries ago, propped up with loans ever since, and unable to adjust to the crude realities of 21st-century globalization.


Ingemar said...

I had the same impression of what people "really" think Greek history is when I went on an excursion in Athens (I was on a cruise). Our trip ended near the Metropolitan cathedral of Athens (which is in a state of disrepair, and apparently has been for quite some time). No mention was made of the giant statue of Constantine XI until I pointed it out. It seems as though after Alexander the Great, Greece pretty much disappeared until Lord Byron made it cool again.

Anonymous said...

This article helped me confirm my understanding of my childhood country--I have always known that the Greeks are a bridge between the East and the West,with a precious but not easily lived identity. Europe in the last century seemed to be in the business of re-making others into their own image: a business the US has taken over slowly but surely. It is nothing more than spreading your ego all over others and not allowing them to have an identity that might threaten yours. I hope Greece will find her way.