Modern Greek history revisited in an erudite, often controversial book

In his classic study «What is History?» E.H. Carr argues that «we can fully understand the present only in the light of the past. To enable man to understand the society of the past, and to increase his mastery over the society of the present, is the dual function of history.» It is a tall order that has consistently been met with failure when the subject matter has been modern Greece. Preconceived notions about what Hellas ought to stand for, combined with serious ideological prejudices and a dramatic, traumatic and always complicated historical record, have customarily defeated the efforts of even accomplished scholars. As a result, Greek historiography has primarily produced partisan polemics or (at best) surveys for the casual general reader or undergraduate student (of which Campbell and Sherard is the most commendable) and highly specialized studies that are, however, intended for a miniscule audience. Paradox Thus a paradox: Perhaps the most «historical» place on earth has not received an adequate historical treatment of its modern phase. Modern Greeks have not been left unaffected by this state of affairs. Many of the inconsistencies, passionate reactions and problems that are experienced by contemporary Hellenic society stem at least partly from the misunderstanding and ignorance of the recent past. There have been exceptions, of course, to the aforementioned lamentable historiographical situation. In the 19th century, Constantinos Paparrigopoulos produced his monumental «History of the Hellenic Nation» and established himself as the greatest of modern Greek historians, setting the standards for all those who were to follow. More recently, professors John S. Koliopoulos and Thanos M. Veremis (from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and University of Athens respectively) have published «Greece: The Modern Sequel.» This is a remarkable, perhaps unique study that deserves the utmost attention, for it possibly offers the best historical guide to understanding modern Greece. Reference source Its structure is thematic and there are sections on politics and statecraft, institutions, the economy, society, ideology, foreign policy, national geography and culture. This calls for some repetition, but the study is not meant to be read only (or even primarily) in a linear fashion. Rather, it should be seen as an intellectual reference source for Greece. For example, if one wishes to comprehend the recent tensions in the relations between the Greek State and the Orthodox Church, the relevant chapter in this study gives invaluable background information and argumentation. The book offers a tour de force of an introduction, in which all of its defining elements are in play: erudition, density of thought (that on occasion rivals even works such as Garrett Mattingly’s «Renaissance Diplomacy») and, above all, intellectual courage. Consider the following statement: «Modern Greece has seldom been accepted for what its founding fathers aimed to make it… Perhaps this is because the modern Greeks themselves have not really accepted that they are a modern nation constructed like all others, or appreciated what they have achieved as a modern nation.» Accordingly, the construction of the modern Greek State and identity emerges as one of the book’s major themes. For example, it is in this light that the decision to select Athens as the new state’s (second but lasting) capital is to be understood. Turning to another aspect of «Greece: The Modern Sequel,» it should be first kept in mind that the language utilized in the writing of modern history usually suffers from all the ills and abuses that George Orwell had warned about in his classic essay «Politics and the English Language.» This does not apply to this study, however, since various sections and chapters culminate or conclude with epigrammatic flourishes that can rival the best of historian Barbara Tuchman’s work and often have an unmistakable Churchillian tone. A few examples: ‘Hardworking, profoundly devoted to the reconstruction and regeneration of a devastated Greece, and deeply convinced that his paternalistic rule was what the modern Greeks needed to heal the wounds of war against the Turks and vicious civil strife, Kapodistrias was cut down by assassins who knew that he was a far greater threat to their interests than the Turks had ever been»; «Modern Greeks entered the civil service as marauding invaders in enemy territory: to plunder, pillage and bring the spoils back to the haven of the family»; «The populism of the 1980s and the ideological charade of the Left aping the nationalism of the Right, while the Right espoused the statism of the Left, with the Center impersonating both Left and Right according to circumstances, delayed the return of a liberal Center»; «If the British bore the ‘White Man’s Burden’, the French their ‘mission civilisatrice’, and the Americans their ‘Manifest Destiny’, the Greeks could not be denied a similar mission.» Turning point It should also be stressed that this study presents the full tragedy of modern Greek history. Of the many calamities, the authors emphasize that the turning point in 20th century history was the year 1922 and the Asia Minor Catastrophe. However, it is the Civil War that receives the most extensive treatment, and will undoubtedly provoke controversy, since it amounts to a vigorous rebuttal of the reigning intellectual orthodoxy. Noteworthy is the vigorous condemnation of the Greek Communist Party’s (KKE) policies, although right-wing excesses and terror tactics are often highlighted and always condemned. Thus, the KKE is portrayed as dishonest in its application of the Varkiza agreement, hiding the better weapons and transporting rebels to Bulkes in Vojvodina. The party’s opportunistic relations with Slav-Macedonians are particularly castigated, and the latter’s role during both the occupation and the Civil War is exposed and condemned. Furthermore, the KKE is criticized for initiating the 1944 December Events (Dekemvriana) and for boycotting the 1946 general elections. KKE, the bete noire Eventually, the KKE, «a party like no other» emerges as this study’s bete noire, although absent is a discussion of the (partial and perhaps inadequate) self-criticism and condemnation of past policies that was undertaken by the KKE in the decades after the Civil War. At any rate, the Communist Party eventually receives a vitriolic send-off: «Anti-American and anti-European, the KKE seems at the start of the new millennium to be hopelessly anchored in the past and unable to play a serious role in Greek politics – destined perhaps to shrink first into a political curiosity and then into final oblivion.» As regards the question of who is responsible for the outbreak of the Civil War, the authors adopt a refreshingly measured approach, explicitly condemning the efforts of most writers «because they serve ends other than those of Clio.» They conclude that the role of the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, although far from negligible, was not instrumental, despite the arguments of both right- and left-wing historiography. The Civil War began because the government failed to rein in right-wing terror and the KKE opted for complete power. The latter assertion would have been stronger had the authors decided to confront the thesis, more recently advanced by Thanasis Sfikas, according to which the KKE aimed to return the party through the pursuit of a war policy only to its pre-Varkiza position in Greek political life. The refutation of this position, although far from impossible, is necessary in this reviewer’s opinion, in order to provide a definitive conclusion on the KKE’s culpability as regards the Greek Civil War. One of the great delights in reading this study (and at the same time another of its major themes) is the meticulous expose of all the intellectuals and statesmen who dreamed, contributed to and eventually achieved the vision of a liberal democratic regime over the course of almost 200 years. For example, in the 19th century Adamantios Koraes (the pre-eminent modern Greek intellectual) admonished his compatriots to shape their political institutions keeping in mind that «the ‘Anglo-American’ constitution was by far the most attractive: It provided for an elected president and allowed its citizens… to ‘enoble their own persons’, but ruled out a ‘hereditary nobility’.» A 20th century example is provided by George Theotokas, who in his book «Free Spirit» «praised the symbiosis of the worthy and contradictory elements that comprise Greek tradition, the legacy of folk and scholarly achievement of the self-taught warrior Ioannis Makriyannis and the sophisticated bard Cavafy alike.» And of course, the actions of the three great modernizing statesmen, Harilaos Trikoupis, Eleftherios Venizelos and Constantine Karamanlis are stressed. The first began Greece’s modernization in the 19th century. Venizelos dominated the political landscape of the early 20th century, managed to double the state’s territory and initiated much-needed reforms. However, it was only with Karamanlis after 1974 that Greece established a meaningful and comprehensive liberal democratic regime, and entered the mainstream of European politics by joining the then European Economic Community. Thus, «Greece: The Modern Sequel» concludes with a happy ending of sorts. Contemporary Greece has managed to become a functioning liberal democracy, the most prosperous state in Southeastern Europe, and firmly anchored in the West through its membership in the European Union and NATO. Perhaps it is the case that only when states and peoples feel comfortable about their security, achievements and identity, studies such as the one by Koliopoulos and Veremis can be produced, confronted and even welcomed. At any rate, by being erudite, well-argued, unusually well-written, often controversial and always thought provoking, «Greece: the Modern Sequel» represents a major achievement: It will now be impossible to study, write or think about modern Greece without its prior consultation. (1) Dr Aristotle Tziampiris is a lecturer in international relations at Piraeus University and research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).