The New History of Greece

Originally published in 2009 and all the more relevant today in 2015… enjoy 🙂

The family and I are off to see the mythological contagion of Europe tomorrow… formerly known as Greece. We are all bummed we won’t be using the Drachma while we are there, yet we are all happy there won’t be too many riots while we are there as well. I sure wish that all the subsidized ferry’s were still operational though and all the taxi drivers weren’t going on strike all the time. There will still be plenty of history from the past and present to witness and plenty of islands and ocean to visit. So why Greece? Besides the fact that none of us have been, it is gorgeous, they could use our tourist money, and history is happening there….

It is important to note that Greece is not like the US, the UK, or even Canada. Most people in the U.S. don’t think of Greece as all that different, yes a bit more socialist…. But not drastically different than the US or Canada. This is mostly due to the way we are educated here in the US, we are taught about all the philosophers that came out of Greece, all the great vacation spots in Greece, and about their great shipping industry. Not to mention how great a Gyro tastes…

What we seem to skip though is that Greece has been in turmoil ever since the era of those philosophers. We skip that they have been fighting with one another, with Turkey, and have always flip-flopped between good and bad favor with their stronger German/French/British neighbors.  The fighting and turmoil over there has been going on so long that we have begun to skip this part of the curriculum in our schools. Most people don’t know that Greece as we know it is a younger country than the United States. Not surprising to anyone who has looked into it, but the school systems and the press rarely bring up this sort of thing.

So how can Greece be so different? We hear “Europe” and think Industrial Revolution, we think of the area of the world where the society we live in was born, and we think of the mythological and religious heritage that all of Europe brings us. We forget or were never taught that Greece wasn’t a big part of that society until the late 20th century. We usually aren’t taught that the government that is essentially operating in Greece today was founded in 1974 and that before that time there were so many versions of government and definitions of territory that we wouldn’t recognize what Greece was. We also forget that this spotted history has continually been bailed out and saved by all of the world powers (both good and bad) and has always found a way to come out on top despite these problems. Considering the history, Greece being in trouble in less than fifty years from their last bit of turmoil is not surprising. I know we focus on what is happening now and we think that during a time where technology and financial algorithms advance faster than we get kids through college that this historical pattern shouldn’t matter. In the larger macro view, I think that it does and despite “good politics” or “good central banking” or “good monetary policy”, Greece’s history will repeat itself here and rely on the powerful nations of the world to help it through another spot of trouble.

Greece and the Greek people have been in turmoil for hundreds of years. They did have their prime during the 8th century and that is the ancient Greece that we all recognize. The Greece of Odysseus and Achilles, the Greece that brought us the Olympics, Athens, Spartans, etc. After that time, it was an open door policy on rulers. Alexander the Great, the Romans, The Byzantines, and The Turks. By the early 1800s, the Greek culture was so disrupted and the Greek people were so mixed with these other invaders that what “Greece” should look like was not well understood by the people who lived there. The result was a period of internal turmoil and confusion.

These revolutions, internal mayhem, and changes in the sort of government that was in power didn’t make anything any easier. Each of the different groups that ruled the land made conflicting changes, sold out to different groups, and ultimately engendered a culture of chaos and dependency on other nations.

Without going through the history of the Ottoman era, we only need to look back as far as 1833 when Greece finally became independent again with ‘a democracy under a king’, this democracy carried no constitution, no votes, but plenty of leaders and taxes as had been in place under the mix of Ottoman/French/Greek orthodox/Russian/Turkish rules. Not having run a government, the reliance on German, French, & British systems was the norm and Greece struggled to strive on its own.

In the last quarter of the 19th century this struggle turned worse and Greece found that its economy was not large enough to support itself (no industry to speak of, peasants had at most 25 acres of farmland – and they weren’t farming tobacco yet). This meant there was no tax basis to support the government and by 1893, debt-service amounted to one-third of the national budget. Interest rates on mortgages and loans reached prohibitive heights. Unemployment or disguised under-employment presented an intractable problem, which only began to be alleviated after the turn of the century by large scale emigration, chiefly to the USA.

A mere 120 years ago Greece was dealing with something awfully familiar to what we are seeing today.

Of course, by 1908 there was another revolution (the Turks again), that wasn’t resolved until 1923 (The treaty of Lausanne). During this time Venizelos claimed himself leader and finally put together a Greek government system. This was great I guess for Greece, but by the end of the first quarter of the century, Greece already had a communist party (Communist party of Greece) that was associating itself with the efficient (but not Hitler run Germans), and had had found that Corfu was occupied by Mussolini and was rapidly expanding their reach. The British Military Mission took over sections of Greece so they could fight Mussolini. A wide array of grassroots liberal groups that comprised Greeks, Turks, etc. wanted to rebel against everyone.

Sounds like more of a melting pot than we had here in the U.S. – why isn’t what they did ever taught in the name of learning from other people’s mistakes? Wait, I know why…there is more to the story…

As soon as the Brits beat Mussolini a guy named George Papandreou organized the Lebanon Charter to have Greece run their own country again. Of course an organized and heavily communist country attracted some new friends, the soviets. With friends like that Truman Doctrine in 1947 had to include Greece and Turkey (that is a pretty key military region in the world btw). Think about it, between 1900 and 1952 Greece had the Turks try to take over, their own government, an assortment of disarray during the Mussolini invasion with no real ruling government, a communist government, and finally a U.S. backed semi-functional state.

Wait, 60 years ago and everyone is intervening to save Greece?

With the U.S. influencing and funding a guy named Papagos took charge to rebuild the economy and did the usual Greek version of rebuilding an economy (devalue currency, reduce government employees – retiring roughly 5k employees early – sounds familiar) and found that none of the usual tricks worked. The economy was still in shambles all the way through 1969 when it was finally kicked out of the Council of Europe on investigations of being ‘undemocratic, illiberal, authoritarian, and oppressive’. Despite the untold story of the Greek dictatorship, the U.S. wanted more Naval access in the area and setup port in 1972.

As with every other time a nation took a strong interest in Greece, turmoil ensued. Greece pulled out of NATO, tried to kick out the U.S., then ditched the dictatorship and adopted a new constitution and democratically elected government. The new constitution and democracy meant the U.S. was ok again and the country that we know today – the country that is a part of the European Union was born.

You can see why there is so much mis-understanding about what Greece is as a country and what their history is like. Looking at it in this perspective what has happened in their economy and what will likely happen during their recovery is much more clear. It has happened over and over again through history and there is no reason it won’t repeat itself.

As you can imagine, I have been doing a bit of research ahead of our trip. Too many websites to quote, but a lot of great facts from Modern Greece: A Short History. I am looking forward to the relaxation, the insights into the current history that is taking place there, and thoughts from readers. It will likely take a bit to get my thoughts into a post… if I choose to put it in long from here on the blog at all, if not follow me on twitter for the short form.

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