Monday, July 30, 2012
The Greek Tragedy
Greece is a country that cannot be ignored. That is true in terms of current events but is also just as true when taking a broader, historic view. Alongside ancient Rome, probably no other culture in the world has had so great an impact as Greek culture, much of which was adopted by the Romans. All of our founding ideas about good government, philosophy, reason, medicine, history etc were all built on Greek foundations. Christianity as well, first grew up in the more Greek-dominated half of the Roman Empire and Christianity would have had a much harder time in its formative years were it not for Emperor Constantine the Great who later founded the city of Constantinople and more or less established what became the Greek Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire. After the fall of Rome, it was the Eastern Empire, the Greek Byzantines, who continued to hold on, who defended the Church, fought off the invasions that came from every side and under rulers like Emperor Justinian or Emperor Heraclius, even managed to somewhat rebuild the crumbling edifice that was Imperial Rome. But, in a way, the Greeks were TOO successful. The Byzantine Empire became such a tempting prize that coups became commonplace and even the word “Byzantine” became synonymous with intrigue.
Rather than fighting foreign enemies, the Byzantines fought each other for power and external warfare was increasingly left to hired mercenaries while Constantinople became wealthy and prosperous as the hub of all trade with the near and Far East. It is ironic that, during this period of decline, the Turks, who ultimately became the arch-enemy of the Greeks, were actually invited into the Empire by the Byzantine Emperor to help suppress rebellions in the Balkans. Calling in outsiders to deal with internal enemies ultimately proved to be an unwise policy. If the assumption was that the Turks could be easily manipulated and expelled later, they were very much mistaken as to Turkish strength and determination. Unfortunately for the Greeks, once the Turks had their foot in the door, the combined powers of Christendom were never able to force them out again. One also cannot help but notice the difference with today, when Greece is so indebted and in such dire financial difficulty, that the city of Constantine was once the most fabulously wealthy city in the world. How things change. The Greeks spend several hundred years under Turkish rule but, eventually, that changed too. The Greek War of Independence attracted volunteers from across Europe and moral support from countries across the western world. The war was finally won in 1829.
In 1913, King George was assassinated by an anarchist and was succeeded by his son, King Constantine I. Due to the fact that he was the first king born in the independent Greece, and the first to be Greek Orthodox, he was proclaimed by many of his subjects as “Constantine XII” heir to the legacy of the last Byzantine Emperor. Greek pride was still alive and well. However, the reign of King Constantine I was soon overshadowed by the outbreak of World War I in which many wanted to enter the war on the allied side in order to attack Turkey, but in which the King, knowing how exhausted the army was since the Balkan Wars, wanted to stay out of. His preference was to remain neutral but it was a neutrality that the allies did not always respect. Factions emerged, for and against the war, with some Greeks acting on their own to occupy parts of southern Albania. Pressures increased and eventually King Constantine abdicated in favor of his son and Greece did enter the war on the allied side which won Greece some more territory, though they never regained the highly symbolic prize of Constantinople. In the following war with the new secular government in republican Turkey, Greece lost some of her prior gains which caused a great deal of dissatisfaction and government turmoil, opening the era of conflict between the liberal republicans and the conservative monarchists.
A great deal of negative material has been written about Metaxas and his government, many referring to him as a dictator. However, he never encouraged the sort of cult of personality seen in most dictatorships. Everything was done in the name of the King and the monarchy was always given pride of place in national life. His aim was not to transform Greece but to strengthen the Greek kingdom, defend Greek culture and restore a sense of patriotic national pride among the people. The need for a strong country was clearly felt with the outbreak of World War II in which King George II naturally favored Great Britain and the allied powers. This caused tension with the Fascist regime in Italy and when Mussolini demanded certain privileges from Metaxas he refused and Italy invaded Greece from Albania. Mussolini had expected to make short work of the Greeks but after coming to power Metaxas had greatly strengthened and modernized the Greek military and they were stationed in the right place in excellent defensive positions.
King George II was finally able to return home but it was to a homeland torn by civil war, with a shattered infrastructure and facing economic crisis. Less than a year later George II died and was succeeded by his younger brother King Paul. In many histories today, King Paul is subject to a great deal of unfair criticism. The fact is that during his reign the Kingdom of Greece came roaring back to life with American aid from the Marshall Plan, a surge in tourism and the good relations with foreign countries established by King Paul on his many tours. During his reign, one of the few times there were no major problems with rebels but a period of peace and stability in which the people could enjoy their constitutional monarchy, Greece rapidly recovered, rebuilt and prospered. It was a great success story. But, of course, republicans never take “no” for an answer and they continued to try to encourage discord and to spread every sort of slander against the King and the Royal Family. When economic growth began to slow they were quick to point to the monarchy as the cause of the problems. In fact, King Paul had shown financial common sense and had actually cut his own salary, cut his own expenses and even handed over to the government valuable royal properties. To republican ideologues, of course, none of that mattered.
King Constantine II finally came into open opposition to Papandreou over his effort to take control of the army by naming himself defense minister as well as prime minister. The King offered to appoint anyone Papandreou might choose for the post but refused to allow him to fill it himself. Papandreou refused the offer, ultimately resigned and a succession of weak governments followed as both sides tried to enlist the support of government officials. Papandreou took the radical step of openly trying to rally the people in opposition to the King. The results were mixed but this populism frightened the other politicians and made it impossible for the King to form a stable government. All of this worked together to create a fear by members of the army that the communists would take advantage of the situation to seize power. In 1967 a military coup was launched led by a brigadier general and two colonels. Within a few hours the whole country was under their control with leading problematic politicians and subversives arrested and troops stationed outside the royal palace.
After only about a year of life the military regime came to an end in 1974 and the republican constitution was declared illegitimate. King Constantine II expected to return to Greece but, again, he was betrayed and yet another referendum was organized with the usual troublemakers in favor of keeping the republic but, most troublingly, with many supposed monarchists refusing to take a stand. Again, the outcome was less than honest. The King was not allowed to return to Greece to meet his people face to face and campaign on his own behalf. Not surprisingly the result was 69% in favor of a republic and the King has remained a monarch-in-exile ever since. Since the birth of the new republic, Greece has often resembled a power-sharing enterprise between the Karamanlis and Papandreou families. The socialists have held most political power from the beginning and over the years turned the country into a very top-heavy bureaucratic state. In 1981 Greece joined the European Union and in 2001 adopted the Euro. With easy money on loan from the EU, the Greek government plunged down the road to economic ruin as politicians bought votes by promising more government spending, more subsidies, more lavish pension plans and so on which put the country into massive debt.
Can Greece survive this current disaster? The country has certainly survived worse, however, it will require some honesty and hard decisions. The people will have to admit the mistakes that have been done, such as getting rid of the monarchy or thinking one can get something for nothing, and then press ahead with hard work and determination. It will be difficult, but it can be done. If the will exists, there is a way.