The country of Greece finds itself yet again at the vortex of the euro zone debt crisis that threatens to explode all over the remainder of Europe and perhaps spill across the globe.
After fractious parliamentary elections on May 6 that failed to grant any one political party a majority, party chiefs have since repeatedly failed to form a unity government that would deal with Greece’s massive debt problems. The deadlock has led to Athens calling for yet another election and has raised fears that Greece will soon have to exit the euro zone – a scenario that could lead to unprecedented, but largely unknown, changes in Europe.
However, there is another issue to be considered here – is Greece really part of Europe? Are the Greek people themselves really “European”?
Although Greece is considered the “cradle of Western Civilization,” the nation has had a vastly different history and trajectory from the dominant countries of Western Europe.
Indeed, unlike most Western European nations, Greece was under foreign rule for centuries under the Ottoman Turks, who, at one time, commanded an empire that stretched from Northwest Africa to Persia to Hungary (with large tracts of Southeastern Europe and the Near East in between).
The Modern Greek state was only one small part of this vast Turkish Empire.
Greece did not emerge free of Turkish domination until 1829 -- by which time; the Industrial Revolution had already taken hold and created powerful, wealthy states in the U.S. and Western Europe, who were building their own global empires.
Meanwhile, Greece remained poor and largely agricultural.
For the next 150 years, the country embarked on an erratic course, marked by foreign intervention, political strife, a civil war, waves and waves of emigration, and even more foreign occupation (by Nazi Germany during World War II -- a period of such hardship and mass starvation that Greece lost 10 percent of its population and was also deprived of much-needed infrastructure -- as well as Britain’s lengthy presence in Cyprus).
Dr. Artemis Leontis, associate professor of Modern Greek at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said: “Greece was not a colonial or occupying power during the modern period. It also never really shared in the Industrial Revolution.”
Greek is indeed a ‘European’ country, but she added some qualifications.
“Greeks feel they are ‘European,’ in the sense that ‘Europe’ is an ancient Greek word for the continent, and the Greek peninsula is part of this European continent,” she said.
“Greece has been part of the European Union (EU) since 1981, though not always part of the European ‘club,’ which tends to be dominated by countries that are traditionally Catholic or Protestant; and [dominated] by the west and north over the east and south.”
Moreover, Greece’s contemporary culture was largely shaped by the trends and conventions of Southeastern Europe and the Near East – which are wildly different from Western European norms.
“Greece shares common cultural and ethnic traits with other southern European countries and also with other Eastern European countries, especially the Balkans that were part of the Byzantine Empire, which were traditionally Eastern Orthodox and then part of theOttoman Empire, where Muslims and Christians lived side by side,” Leontis noted.
“[Greece] also shares cultural and ethnic traits with countries in the Middle East and with countries all around the Mediterranean. These are dimensions of Greece’s political and economic culture separating it from Britain and Germany, which are closer to the centers of power and wealth in the world.”
Religion also distinguishes Greece from Western Europe.
The Greek Orthodox Church (as part of the broader Eastern Orthodox Church) split ten centuries ago from Roman Catholicism, when Pope Leo IX and Eastern Patriarch Michael I excommunicated each other.
There were many factors behind this historic rupture – including differences in the ecclesiastical languages (Greek in the East, Latin in the West); and disputes over Papal authority.
It was not until the late 20th century when Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Christodoulos Paraskevaides of Greece met to commence reconciliation.
“The Greek Orthodox Church is more open and has embodied elements from Greek life since antiquity,” Dr. Maria Hnaraki, director of Greek Studies at Drexel University in Philadelphia, said.
“In contrast, the Roman Catholic Church has a rather secular power. Throughout the years, several attempts have been made by major religious leaders to bridge what once used to be ‘one faith’. The religious dialogues continue, of course.”
Leontis commented: “There is now goodwill at least. Whether the churches will ever be in communion is another question.”
So, with all these underlying differences, is Greece truly European?
Hnaraki commented: “Greece is at the borders of the so-called East and West. That is exactly where its uniqueness lies. It has served -- and still does so -- as a crossroads amongst three continents and, historically, peoples of various socio-cultural backgrounds. Thus, Greek identity is an amalgam of all those elements.”
Indeed, this ‘schism’ between Greece and Western Europe has manifested itself in the financial crisis the continent is presently embroiled in.
Hnaraki explains that she views Greece as being part of a “Mediterranean entity,” which significantly differs from the so-called “Anglo” mentality.
“Of course, there are substantial differences between Britain and Germany whereas France seems to bridge the European ideal,” she said.
In 1979, when Greece joined the European Economic Community to much fanfare, Greek television commentator Zachos Hajifotiou sneered to the Associated Press: “What? Greeks European? Never! Greeks have made tremendous material progress in the last years to push their way into Europe. But they will never be genuine Europeans unless they correct their Oriental manners.”
As a humorous example to illustrate his point, Hajifotiou said: A Greek will wear his French-made suit while driving his luxury limousine, push the button that automatically lowers the car window, put his head out in a busy center street, and throw out his cigar and litter while spitting on the ground.”
Greek society – not unlike Sicily and Southern Italy -- is also characterized by sensitivity to power inequalities, a general distrust of all kinds of institutions, and hyper-attentiveness to history, Leontis noted.
“Greeks are attentive to politics, and tend to analyze things in term of conspiracies,” she said. “At the same time they may also put a lot of blame on themselves, speaking self-critically when they are among themselves.”
Greece has only had a parliamentary, presidential democracy since 1974, after a right-wing military regime was toppled and a referendum rejected the return of the monarchy.
In the current crisis, some Greeks have openly expressed anger and frustration with the EU’s aggressive and somewhat chauvinistic attitude towards Greece, particularly with respect to the EU placing inordinate pressure upon Athens to impose a very harsh austerity program on the populace in exchange for huge bailout money.
Moreover, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy even suggested that Athens may have exaggerated (or lied) about the country’s financial strength when they initially sought membership into the currency bloc. Sarkozy also declared, on the other hand, that Europe is constructed as a “family” with Greece as a member, a place where solidarity is essential for economic and moral reasons.
“There is a general sense of deep frustration, first, that this crisis was blamed on ‘Greeks’ as if every Greek were equally responsible for it -- lazy and profligate every one of them, without an effort to find out where all the money went,” Leontis said.
“Greeks feel that the international press has framed them as universally corrupt, as if this applies to an entire society and as if there was not corruption or laziness in other places in Europe or the world.”
Leontis added: “[Greeks] feel that the more powerful countries have cast aspersions on them as a way of deflecting attention away from their own lack of leadership. And they observe that the bailout is about saving the banks and not about finding a solution that moves in the direction of social, political, economic stability and recovery, let alone pays attention to well-being of people.”
Also, Hnaraki noted that due to its location and other factors, Greece has issues far different from western Europe.
“Greece’s island geography is unique in Europe and demanded costly infrastructure -- not comparable to that of other countries -- to be built in service of the people, as well as defense expenditures to protect national sovereignty,” she said.
However, Leontis suspects that many Greeks now likely regret having joined the Euro zone.
“Their experience of the Euro zone has been one of mass inflation, and little growth,” she said.
“Economists will argue whether this would have been the case also if they had remained on the drachma. The biggest problem is that they’re now in a state of economic crisis that they have no tools in their hands to solve their problem. Also, they are not part of a political unity or republic in the way that our states are part of the United States which would allow them to participate in a solution. Meanwhile the leaders of the most powerful countries in the EU have shown themselves unwilling to come to terms with the problem of Europe, which is that Europe created an economic unity without creating a political unity.”
Leontis added gloomily: “Greeks today feel trapped and hopeless. There have been many suicides. And at the same time they are trying to create new forms of exchange so as to rebuild their society.”
Hnaraki colorfully concluded: “It is not accidental that Greeks invented tragedy, namely the exaggeration, the extravagance of life. But tragedy is not the end of the road; it leads to a cathartic new reality.”
The perceived differences (real and imagined) between Greeks and Western Europeans have also manifested themselves through the experiences of the Greek Diaspora.
Historically, Greeks who emigrated westward, particularly to the United States and, in recent decades, to Australia, endured significant amounts of prejudice and discrimination – much like Italians, Jews and other Southern Europeans have.
Peter Boudoures (born Epaminondas Voudoures) was a prominent member of the Greek immigrant community in San Francisco. In memoirs that he wrote as an old man in 1965, he recounted various incidents in which he was abused over his Greek heritage.
“In the early years there was much prejudice against Greeks and other Southern European peoples,” he recalled.
He indicated that as a young man he was often referred to as a God-dammed Greek.
“This expression was commonly use at the time and it irritated me more than anything else, “Boudoures wrote. “To me it was the ultimate insult, something I could not understand or tolerate. It hurt me deeply. To call me, or anybody, a name as an individual, that I could understand. But to call my race names, the race of which I was so proud and which had given so much to the world was something that I could not take. It made me so mad and furious and upset that if I'd been in a financially liquid position and able to dispose of what little I had I would have grabbed it and gone back to Greece.”
Leontis cited her own family’s history in such matters.
“My parents, both born in 1917 in the U.S., were placed in the back of the classroom and told by teachers that they should not expect to go to college,” she said. “Of course, the prejudice was not as harsh as that experienced by African Americans, but it was visible and ongoing. There were many individuals who did not treat them with prejudice, and over time they found a place in American society.”
She added: “My uncle, born in 1920, only felt proud of being Greek for the first time when he heard of the Greece's defeat of the Italians on the Albanian front in the late fall/winter of 1940-1941. Until that time what rang in his ears was ‘dirty Greek.’”
Looming over the question of Greece is its large eastern neighbor (and historic enemy) Turkey, whose economy is booming. Turkey is rightfully peeved that it has been blocked from Europe, while Greece was (at least initially) embraced.
However (not unlike India and Pakistan), Turkey and Greece have much more in common than is conventionally believed. In fact, Greece is now one of the biggest investors in Turkey, according to Hnaraki.
Indeed, the Anatolian peninsula was once part of ancient Greece and the Byzantine Empire, while modern Greece formed part of the Ottoman Empire.
Many Greeks trace their ancestry to the land that now comprises modern Turkey. In fact, two of the most famous Greeks of the 20th century – film director Elia Kazan and billionaire Aristotle Onassis – were both born on land that is now in Turkey. Conversely, Gamal Ataturk, the father of the modern Turkish nation, was actually born in Salonika, Greece.
The Turks largely feel that the EU is prohibiting their entry into Europe because the country is overwhelmingly Muslim (while Greece is Christian).
Moreover, despite a long span of enmity, Greece actually supports Turkey’s arduous bid to join the EU.
“Greece came out officially in support of Turkey's bid to join the EU in 2004,” Leontis noted.
However, there were certain conditions, Hnaraki added, including demands that Turkey respect the territorial integrity of several Greek islands and their exclusive economic zone; and finds a viable solution to the Cyprus issue.
Now, as alarm bells indicate that the Greeks will soon exit the euro zone, Greece enters another lengthy period of uncertainty and perhaps a re-evaluation of what it really means to be ‘European.‘