States function a bit like humans; they are after all organized and institutionalized groups of people. To move forward and improve themselves, they set goals that can inspire and mobilize their citizens. These goals are inextricably linked with their national narratives. They are not just a wish list of public policy. In Greece’s contemporary history, one can discern two major narratives and two corresponding major goals.
The first narrative was prevalent during the 19th century. It is the “Megali Idea” (the Great Idea) which envisioned a territorially large Greek state, large enough to supplant the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, its goal was the territorial expansion of the Greek state and its means inevitably was war. This goal inspired and mobilized society, which pursued it with great sacrifice. One need only consider that young Greek men lived through 10 years of almost incessant warfare (1912-22).
The Megali Idea was largely brought to fruition, but it came to an end with the disastrous Asia Minor campaign of 1922. The existential vacuum it left behind was initially plastered over with pressing needs. The state had to successfully relocate a large number of refugees from the population exchanges with Turkey and simultaneously successfully integrate the territories won in the Balkan and First World wars.
It is approximately at this time that Greece’s new narrative was formulated. In a great speech given in Thessaloniki in 1930, Eleftherios Venizelos stated that Greece, now in its second century of independence, had fulfilled its national restoration and would pursue progress through peaceful competition with other nations. In other words, military expansionism was replaced by the peaceful pursuit of wealth.
The narrative of “Growth” did in fact mobilize Greek society just as definitively as the Megali Idea narrative had. The sacrifices required were of a different sort, but they were equally important. Within two decades the country was transformed and the Greece we live in today was born. Along the way, the narrative of Growth came to include the consolidation of political freedom and stability as well as Greek participation in the great political experiment of European unification. This is how Growth became “Modernization,” but its goal remained the same: the pursuit of greater wealth.
The 2010 financial crisis cost us a lot but did not nullify Greece’s important political gains. Maybe, somewhat reminiscent of the Asia Minor Catastrophe, it reminded us of the limits of our ambitions. Now, as then, the world around us is changing. Then, peaceful economic competition was gradually replacing military conflicts and economic development was taking the place of territorial expansion. This transition was neither immediate nor smooth as it was interrupted by the Second World War but there was change, both tangible and significant. Today, in a similar manner, the world around us is changing in a confusing and unclear manner that is no less crucial.
As Greece embarks on its third century of existence, the time has come to consider our new narrative and its interwoven goals. Obviously, the pursuit of economic prosperity will not be abandoned, just as safeguarding Greece’s territorial integrity was not lost with the Megali Idea.
But we are gradually moving past the narrative of Growth as it becomes clear that resources are limited and their unconstrained exploitation undermines the Earth’s future, and that increases in consumption leave humans unfulfilled and unhappy. These are the facts of our era and it is here that we must find our new national narrative. And as has happened in the past, this new narrative that will successfully inspire and move people will convincingly outline a new and attractive future.
* Stathis N. Kalyvas is the Gladstone Professor of Government at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford.