From The Financial Times
March 20, 2019
To what extent is Greece’s still not fully resolved debt crisis self-inflicted, and to what extent does it reflect imbalances and design flaws in Europe’s currency union?
In the concluding chapter of Greece: Biography of a Modern Nation, Roderick Beaton quotes a Greek former government minister as saying in 2017 that the homegrown causes included “poor governance, clientelism, weak institutions [and] lack of competitiveness”. For his part, Beaton observes: “Systemic problems . . . combined in a toxic way with structural weaknesses in the European project, particularly the systems devised to oversee the single currency without a single fiscal authority for the eurozone.”
It is hard to disagree with either the Greek minister or the author. However, the crisis, in its origins and tumultuous course, was always much more than a financial or economic phenomenon. The most impressive achievement of Beaton’s book is the way that he captures the full dimensions of Greece’s recent troubles by setting them in the context of the two centuries since the 1821-32 war of national independence.
Beaton sheds light on recurrent patterns of political conflict, social change and economic upheaval to which most non-Greek policymakers and commentators during the 2010-18 debt crisis were too busy or — less forgivably — too ignorant to pay attention. He demonstrates that the crisis broke out along a set of interconnected historical faultlines relating to the contested nature of Greek identity, the role of the state and the nation’s place in the modern world. These deep-rooted aspects of the crisis have by no means gone away. In some form or other they are likely to generate fresh challenges in the future.
Few scholars are better qualified to treat such themes than Beaton, one of the English-speaking world’s leading authorities on modern Greek culture. He is the author of Byron’s War (2013), an examination of the English poet’s life through his devotion to Greek independence, and of George Seferis: Waiting for the Angel (2003), a biography of the Greek diplomat-poet who won the 1963 Nobel Prize for literature. Beaton was also, until last year, professor of modern Greek and Byzantine history, language and literature at King’s College, London. His new book — judicious, well-researched and commendably up-to-date — deserves to be the standard general history of modern Greece in English for years to come.
Although Beaton does not quite put it this way, the book’s overarching themes are, as I see them, threefold. First, he interprets Greece’s history since the early 18th century as an “evolving process of collective identity” in which westernising, European elements have gradually come out on top against eastern, Byzantine-oriented features. Second, foreigners — especially, in rough historical order, the British, French, Russians, Americans and Germans — have on numerous occasions played a decisive role in determining Greece’s fate. Lastly, the history of Greece since independence is the story of a creative nation with a vibrant culture and increasingly strong democratic traditions, ranged against a state that has often been weak and inefficient, not to say patronage-ridden, corrupt and pillaged by its own people.
The idea that modern Greece had a European destiny in its soul owes a great deal to western intellectuals and travellers who, in the 18th and 19th centuries, portrayed Greek-speakers as “modern Hellenes”, descendants of the ancient Greeks to whom western civilisation owed an incalculable debt. “We are all Greeks,” wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Romantic poet, after the outbreak of the war of independence.
Beaton describes the struggle against the Ottoman Empire — known to Greeks as “the Revolution” — in harrowing detail. It was “a paroxysm, a manifestation of collective rage and fear . . . Both sides routinely murdered prisoners and hostages, of all ages and both sexes . . . After a skirmish, both sides would collect the severed heads of their victims as trophies.” Similar atrocities occurred in the 1940s, first when the Nazi occupiers and their collaborationist allies fought the Greek resistance, and then in the 1946-49 Greek civil war.
In the 1820s the chances of independence hung in the balance until the military and diplomatic intervention of the British, French and Russians. Their forces annihilated the combined Ottoman and Egyptian fleet at Navarino Bay in 1827. “It was one of the very few set-piece battles in the whole of the Revolution. Navarino changed everything. And not a single Greek took part,” Beaton writes.
Yet this internationalisation of the conflict intensified domestic tensions that had burst into civil war — a “war within the war” — in 1823-24. As Beaton perceptively argues, this split foreshadowed the National Schism of the first world war, when Greeks divided over whether or not to side with the western Entente powers, as well as the more ideologically defined rifts of the 1940s civil war and the cold war, when the choice was between the US-led, western capitalist camp and Soviet-led, eastern communism.
“Every lasting political decision, just about every official action and every democratic choice made since the 1820s, has affirmed the western alignment of Greece,” Beaton writes.
However, it has sometimes appeared a close-run thing. Most recently, the radical leftist Syriza government that took power in January 2015 fiercely opposed the strict bailout conditions of its eurozone creditors. It did not seem inconceivable that the government’s wilder elements might seek to realign Greece with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Nothing came of it, perhaps because Putin did not regard Greece as of major strategic concern to Russia.
Greeks can count themselves fortunate that Stalin saw matters much the same way in 1944. When Churchill visited Moscow and proposed his “percentages agreement” for south-eastern Europe, under which the UK would have 90 per cent influence in Greece and the Soviet Union 10 per cent, Stalin ticked Churchill’s piece of paper. Thereafter he did not break his word, and Greece joined the western alliance.
Yet the historical record shows that western governments have rarely held back from pushing Greece around. In the debt crisis of the early 21st century, the creditors’ hard line has precedents stretching to the earliest years of Greek independence, when the new state amassed large, unrepayable debts in order to keep alive the flame of national freedom. Recounting the details of a western financial rescue arranged in 1843, Beaton writes: “Both the circumstances and the conditions are uncannily similar to those of the so-called ‘third bailout’ in July 2015.”
Beaton makes the important point that no matter how severe Greece’s recent difficulties, there has been no collapse of public order, no triumph of political extremism and no rise of separatist movements. Greece’s democracy and international alliances are intact. I, for one, would like to think these successes will enable Greeks to celebrate the forthcoming 200th anniversary of independence with confidence.