With the Corfu summit at the end of June Greece’s presidency of the European Union came to an end. Although the dire predictions that during it Greece would attempt to pursue a Balkan policy in flat contradiction to that of the other members failed to be realised, Andreas Papandreou’s imposition of a blockade of Macedonia in a so far fruitless attempt to force the former Yugoslav republic to change its name, amend its constitution and drop its national emblem caused quite a storm. The embargo has been almost universally criticised and has led to Greece’s arraignment before the European Court.

Even before its imposition, Greece had been subject to a barrage of press criticism, and nowhere more vehemently than in Britain. One recent Times leader urged Greece to ‘grow up’; another remarked that Greece is the ‘least pleasant’ country in Europe in which to live – not a view that would be universally shared. The right-wing press here has a traditional pro-Turkish and anti-Greek bias, but even the Guardian regarded the prospect of a Greek presidency under Papandreou as absurd and argued that if Greece were not already a member of the Union, then she would scarcely qualify for admission.

Greece’s European partners are both baffled and irritated. Brussels bureaucrats mutter in private that Greece should never have been admitted to a Community which she looks on as little more than a milch-cow. The Greeks, for their part, feel hurt and abandoned. Like the Serbs, for whom they have a strong sympathy, they feel themselves to be a ‘brotherless’ nation in a volatile and threatening world.

They have sought refuge in a nationalist fervour which embraces much of the political spectrum. This is nothing new in Greece. Some years ago, Greek and Turkish dignitaries gathered at the birthplace in Salonica of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, to celebrate his centenary. An imaginative gesture of rapprochement was ruined, however, and the episimoi, as the Greeks term them, were sent scurrying for cover when the pilot of a light plane, thought to be packed with explosives, threatened a kamikaze attack on the house, which is now the Turkish consulate. The pilot was later acquitted after the public prosecutor argued that those inflamed by patriotic sentiments could not be held responsible for their actions.

It was the Greeks who, in the early 19th century, introduced nationalism to the Balkans, with their ‘Great Idea’ of uniting within the bounds of a single state, with Constantinople as its capital, all the compactly settled Greek populations of the Near East or, to use the evocative Greek phrase, ‘Our East’. Today, the other countries of the Balkans, whose national movements were both inspired by, and in part developed in reaction to, the Greek, are no less in thrall than Greece is to the rampant nationalism that has had such destructive consequences in the former Yugoslavia and which threatens further havoc. But membership of the European Union has focused the spotlight, and much abusive comment, on Greece.

Mishellenic venom has existed alongside cloying philhellenic hyperbole since the earliest days of the independent Greek state. In the 1840s Palmerston railed against a Greece governed ‘corruptly, illegally, prodigally, unconstitutionally and tyrannically’. When a party of English aristocrats was murdered by brigands at Dilessi in the 1870s, the British press had a field day, and the Athenian newspapers gave as good as they got. One proposed that Englishmen should be banned in perpetuity from the sacred soil of the Acropolis.

Misunderstanding, and the potential for serious mutual disenchantment, was built into the relationship between Greece and Europe from the time of the struggle for independence in the 1820s. The fact that the Greeks were perceived, and perceived themselves, to be the heirs to a civilisation that was universally revered contributed to the relative precocity of their national movement. Few in Europe knew or cared about the antecedents of the other Balkan peoples. The Greek cause by contrast generated passionate enthusiasm (and not a little obloquy). But a glorious past proved to be a double-edged blessing. The ardour of a number of armchair philhellenes cooled when they met Greeks in the flesh. Pushkin, for instance, initially viewed the Greeks as the ‘legal heirs’ of Homer and Themistocles. But, following an unhappy encounter with the Greek merchants of Chishinau in Bessarabia, he wrote that it was ‘unforgivable childishness’ that enlightened Europe should be raving about ‘a nasty people made up of bandits and shopkeepers’.

As recently as 1980, a junior Foreign Office minister declared that Greek entry into the EC would be seen as a ‘fitting repayment by the Europe of today of the cultural and political debt that we all owe to a Greek heritage almost three thousand years old’, while the French President, Giscard d’Estaing, spoke of France as the daughter of Classical Greece and welcomed the modern country into the Community as a sister. Is it any wonder that the Greeks, having been placed on such an exalted pedestal, feel affronted by the abuse currently being heaped on them? The burden of history has proved almost too much to bear. Progonoplexia (‘ancestor obsession’) and arkhaiolatreia (‘the idolising of antiquity’) have distorted the country’s cultural, educational and, to a degree, political life.

It is entirely characteristic that so much effort should have been expended in the campaign for the restitution of the Elgin Marbles while successive Greek governments have turned their backs on a problem that lies on their doorstep and which, unlike the Marbles, they can actually do something about – namely, the National Library in Athens. Its current state is a disgrace, despite the fact that its extremely rich holdings constitute, in large degree, the collective memory of the Greek people in modern times. But the Library is hopelessly under-funded; the catalogue is totally inadequate; more often than not books cannot be found; priceless periodicals and newspapers are crumbling to dust. Any politician who could secure the return of the Elgin Marbles would achieve instant immortality, but there is little political mileage in tackling a radical overhaul of the Library that would take years to complete. Much of Greece’s costly cultural propaganda is concentrated on the Ancient World. But its net result is to reinforce the all too prevalent view that Greek history and culture have been in continuous decline since the 5th century BC.

Nowhere are the results of this tunnel vision more apparent than in the current propaganda war over the fledgling state of Macedonia. Greece regards herself as having an exclusive copyright in the name Macedonia, bitterly resents the expropriation of the 16-pointed star of Vergina, found in the tomb of Philip of Macedon, for the national flag of the new Macedonian Republic, and fears that its constitution implies irredentist ambitions at her expense. Hence, the English-speaking visitor is bombarded by not entirely felicitous slogans such as ‘Macedonia is Greek 4000 years’. The emphasis of this propaganda is very much on Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great: essentially on the question of who got to Macedonia first, the Greeks or the Slavs. Very little is said about much more recent events which go a long way towards explaining Greek attitudes, even if they do not excuse the bullying stance adopted by recent Greek governments towards the small and desperately poor state that they stubbornly refuse to call Macedonia.

During World War Two, a sizeable chunk of northern Greece, including part of Greek Macedonia, was in the grip of a vicious Bulgarian occupying force, which engaged in ‘ethnic cleansing’ at the expense of the Greek population. The bulk of the million or more refugees who had flooded into Greece in the Twenties had been settled in Greek Macedonia: some were from Bulgaria; some were fugitives from post-revolutionary Russia; most, however, were Greeks from Asia Minor (many of them Turkish-speaking) caught up in the compulsory exchange of populations that followed Greece’s catastrophic defeat in the war with Turkey of 1919-22. Many of the present inhabitants of the region are the descendants of these uprooted populations.

Then, at the end of World War Two, Greece was wracked by a ferocious civil war which itself can be seen as a struggle for Greek Macedonia. By the closing stages of the war in 1949, as many as half the combatants in the communist Democratic Army were Slav-speakers from Greece’s northern provinces. At one point, the Greek Communist Party advocated self-determination for the Slav Macedonians, which would have meant detaching a large part of northern Greece that had been won from the Turks during the Balkan wars of 1912-13. It is events such as these, many well within living memory (President Karamanlis, after all, was born an Ottoman subject), that lie at the root of what to outsiders appears to be an excessive sensitivity over the issue of Macedonia and its name. Progonoplexia, however, has ensured that recent horrors are downplayed in favour of arcane disputes about the ancient past of the region.

A similar hyper-sensitivity characterises the issue of minorities. As a consequence of successful policies of assimilation, Greece is, by Balkan standards, remarkably homogeneous in its ethnic make-up. It is some forty years since censuses recorded details of religious affiliation or mother tongue, but something like 97 per cent of the population is Greek-speaking and, at least nominally, Orthodox by religion. The Slav-speaking minority numbers no more than a few thousand. But when a Greek anthropologist recently had the temerity to draw attention to negative aspects of official policy towards the Slav speakers, she received threats of death and rape and was subjected to vicious attack in the ultra-right-wing newspaper Stokhos and to verbal harassment in more respectable publications.

The small Catholic minority feels apprehensive in the light of the widespread view in Orthodox circles that the Pope is arming the Bosnian Muslims as part of a dastardly Catholic crusade against Orthodoxy. All minorities, including Jews and Protestants, not to mention the one officially recognised minority, Muslims (consisting of Turks, Pomaks and Gypsies), feel uncomfortable about a recent decision to record religious affiliation on identity cards and about a leaked security service document which suggests that non-Orthodox Greeks cannot be considered as fully loyal citizens. The ban on religious proselytism, the definition of which extends to sending ‘heretical’ religious literature through the post, remains in force.

One of the most striking developments in the past few years has been the emergence of Orthodoxy as a political factor. It has found expression in the sympathy across the political spectrum for the Orthodox Serbs, seen – as they see themselves – as being in the front line of a struggle against, on the one hand, a Catholic resurgence in Eastern Europe that has manifested itself in the revival of the Uniate Church and, on the other, against Islamic fundamentalism, in the somewhat unlikely shape of the Bosnian Muslims. The main opposition party, the conservative New Democracy, has recently declared itself to be a Greek Orthodox party, while during a visit to Belgrade the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomaios pronounced it the duty of all Orthodox Christians to rally to the defence of the embattled Serbs.

This Orthodox resurgence has strong anti-Western undertones that go back a long way. During the twilight of the Byzantine Empire, Catholic Christendom sought to make acceptance of Papal supremacy the price of giving military assistance against the Ottoman Turks, leading one Byzantine notable to argue that better the turban of the Turk in Constantinople than the biretta of the Latin cardinal. Such blackmail has not been forgotten and the Orthodox cleric who, at the end of the 18th century, argued that the Ottoman Empire was part of the divine dispensation, that it had been established by God in order to preserve the Orthodox faith unsullied by Popery, ‘Louthero-Calvinism’ and other heresies of the West, was by no means atypical.

Attitudes such as these are a key aspect of what the political scientist, Nikiforos Diamandouros, characterises as the ‘underdog’ strain in the country’s political culture. Since independence this has manifested itself in fear of change and modernisation; in xenophobia; in a relish for conspiracy theories in which Greece is usually the victim; in a Manichaean division of the world outside Greece into philhellenes and a much larger group of mishellenes (with no intermediate category).

This mentality was neatly epitomised in the defence advanced during one of the trials arising out of the welter of scandals that helped bring down the first Papandreou administration in 1989. This particular scam involved false claims for EC subsidies on corn that had in fact been imported from Yugoslavia. Ripping off Brussels was justified as a patriotic duty and, in a wonderful progonoplectic non sequitur, it was argued by defence lawyers that while the Greeks were building the Parthenon, the Western Europeans were still living off acorns. Papandreou’s return to office in 1993, which must surely qualify as one of the more remarkable political resurrections of recent times, is a tribute both to his extraordinary charisma (when he first became ill, devoted followers offered their hearts for transplantation) and to his uncanny ability to articulate the frustrations, fears and resentments, no less than the aspirations, of the ‘underdog’ elements in Greek society.

As at the time of the Dilessi murders, the more virulent the criticism, the more defensive Greece’s posture has become. Bashing the Greeks has recently become the order of the day, but there has been little attempt to understand why so many (but by no means all) Greeks think the way they do about issues such as Macedonia. Greece, for her part, needs to realise that playing up the Classical merely reinforces a stereotypical image of Greeks as the poor relations of their ancient forebears. In the long run, putting the National Library in order would do a great deal more for an understanding of Greece’s place in the modern world than would the restitution of the Elgin Marbles.

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Vol. 16 No. 18 · 22 September 1994

Richard Clogg’s article on Greece (LRB, 18 August) does not mention that the European Court of Justice turned down the European Commission’s request that it rule to force Greece to lift its embargo on the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia till the case was properly tried. The Court upheld Greece’s position at this stage – the final ruling will not, apparently, be made for eighteen months – which means there must be some arguments in the Greek favour after all.

In the trial concerning the false claims for Brussels subsidies on imported Yugoslavian corn, the defence did indeed remark that the Western Europeans were still eating acorns when the Greeks were building the Parthenon; but the judges were not swayed by this argument and the defendants were duly sentenced to prison terms for their part in the scam.

Parina Stiakaki

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