With creditors at the door, Greece hovers on the brink of bankruptcy, is finally declared insolvent and then has to be bailed out by an international financial authority. No, not 2015, but 1893. I’ll refrain from saying the more things change, the more they stay the same, but you get my drift.
For a nation that was (as we are constantly reminded) the birthplace of democracy, Greece in its post-Ottoman incarnation – as of 1832 – has certainly experienced moments in which democracy has been in short supply. The Great European Powers of Britain, France and Russia declared the newly independent nation a monarchy and parachuted a Bavarian Prince into Greece to rule as its sovereign. King Otto reigned for thirty years, though he did somewhat test the patience of the ‘natives’ during his three decades in charge and was eventually forced to abdicate. Despite their dislike of a foreigner on the throne, the Greeks nevertheless requested one of Queen Victoria’s sons, Prince Alfred, to be shipped over to replace Otto. This request was vetoed by France and Russia, so a compromise candidate in the shape of a Danish Prince was selected.
In some senses, late-nineteenth century Greece was something of a British satellite state, with the self-styled King George I forging close ties with the UK and the country racking up debts with the prominent London banking houses. Greek politics were controlled by a small elite of wealthy families, and the gap between the few grown fat on the profits of shipping and the far greater peasantry was vast. Although the country’s eventual insolvency necessitated the intervention of the era’s equivalent of the IMF, it still managed to revive the Olympic Games in 1896. This link to Ancient Greece can be viewed as emblematic of a wider yearning for past glories, one that often looked upon Ancient Greek territories in the same way that Vladimir Putin today looks upon Crimea and Ukraine as belonging within the historical boundaries of Russia. Greek-speaking people in the likes of Crete and Macedonia were prone to rebellions encouraged and supported by Greece, and one such rebellion drew the mother country into a war against its old overlords, the Ottoman Turks, in 1897 – one that ended in humiliating defeat.
King George reigned for almost fifty years until his assassination by an anarchist in 1913. The pro-German leanings of George’s son, Constantine I (he was married to the Kaiser’s sister) made initial neutrality difficult for Greece at the outbreak of the First World War, especially since the King’s Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos favoured the cause of the Allies. The Great War and its messy aftermath played havoc with the Greek constitution, causing Constantine to twice abdicate before his short-lived successor was forced out and a republic declared in 1924. A pro-monarchist coup ended this arrangement eleven years later and royal rule was restored. In the 1930s, as the country’s government lurched towards Italian-style fascism, Greece nonetheless retained strong ties to Britain and could rely on British support at the outbreak of the Second World War. However, the country fell to the Nazis in 1941, something that led to a terrible famine the following winter that cost 100,000 lives.
It’s no wonder Greeks resent the current German domination of the EU and how their very survival seems to depend on the whims of Frau Merkel. Nazi atrocities during the German occupation of Greece were as appalling as anywhere in Europe, with a death toll of around 70,000 attributed to the occupiers and their axis colleagues, Italy and Bulgaria. Even when liberation was achieved in part by both a British-backed resistance movement and a parallel Communist one, peace didn’t come to Greece. A Greek Civil War between the two ideologically opposed resistance groups followed the close of WWII, one that didn’t end until 1949. But thanks to financial input courtesy of the Marshall Plan, post-Civil War Greece began to experience an economic resurgence that brought a degree of stability to the country. Fractious political differences were never far from the surface, however. A right-wing military junta seized power in a 1967 coup and introduced a repressive regime that gradually resulted in the final abolition of the monarchy and the proclamation of yet another republic.
The military junta finally collapsed in 1974 and democracy was restored, though a referendum saw the Greek people reject the return of the monarchy. Six years after the inauguration of the current democratic republic, Greece joined the EEC. This slowly spawned the most affluent era in modern Greek history, with huge profits derived from both shipping and the tourism industry and a standard of living unprecedented for the majority of the Greek population. It was no surprise when Greece embraced the Euro in 2001; the return of the Olympic Games to Athens in 2004 was taken as confirmation that Greece had emerged from Civil War and military juntas to become one of Europe’s great success stories. And then came 2008.
This past week, on the orders of the Greek Government, the banks closed their doors, with a limited trickle of money available to be withdrawn from cash machines; they only reopened to enable pensioners without cash cards to get what little they’re entitled to over the counter. A couple of days ago, a former Greek Finance Minister suggested the banks currently have perhaps no more than a week left before their reserves run out. Large public gatherings in the centre of Athens mean there are many empty houses probably containing mattresses stuffed with savings. A chemist interviewed on TV earlier in the week claimed Syriza is only interested in public sector workers and aired her fears that her shop’s contents would be a prime target for burglary if the situation deteriorates any further. At the weekend, a rushed referendum that could determine the future of this troubled nation will be held and Angela Merkel has hinted she won’t enter into any further talks with Greece until the outcome is announced.
What has struck me as perhaps symptomatic of the dignity of the Greek people is that the huge anti and pro-EU demonstrations to have swamped Athens all week have been largely trouble-free. The familiar and tiresome infiltration of anarchist groups that have a habit of disrupting such get-togethers hasn’t really occurred. Police have been present in riot gear, but they’ve been passive observers. Whilst the Greek Government has been striving for eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth hour solutions to avoid defaulting on debt repayments, the people have waited and waited. Yes, they’ve debated amongst themselves in that animated Mediterranean manner, but large-scale brawling hasn’t broken out. Perhaps the people are just so tired after everything they’ve endured over the past half-decade and simply don’t have the energy or inclination to engage in ultimately futile fisticuffs with either each other or their institutions.
We’ve had it hard over here for the last five years, but compared to some of our continental neighbours – Spain and Portugal as well as Greece – we’ve had it pretty easy. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the financial recklessness that led Greece into this dire situation, it would take a mean-minded soul not to hope they can drag themselves out of it – not for the sake of the bloated, lumbering leviathan that is the European Union, but for the sake of a nation that has already suffered enough from being a member of an organisation that bears little resemblance to the one it joined as a newly reborn democratic country with such high hopes in 1981. I for one wish them well. Europe owes more to Greece than Greece owes to Europe.