Op−ed | The Greek economic crisis in proper perspective
Published: Monday, September 10, 2012
Updated: Monday, September 10, 2012 07:09
“It is certainly desirable to be well−descended, but the glory belongs to our ancestors,” Greek philosopher Plutarch once said.
Many who have studied Greek history have made the following observation: that the Greeks of the present vary greatly from their predecessors of antiquity. Most of those who provide such commentary present it in a highly negative light – that the Greeks of the present are but a shadow of their ancestors, or that the only thing modern Greeks share in common with their ancestors is their name. I tend to believe that the Greeks of present aren’t very different from their forefathers. Plutarch would support this argument, as he observed in antiquity what many others including myself have observed today: that Greeks of all eras valued their place in history to such an extent that the past often obscures the present.
If you’ve ever listened to a Greek cab driver discuss historical matters, you will understand exactly what I’m talking about. He will talk about Plato as if he saw him speak in a televised interview yesterday, and will tout Alexander’s conquests as if they happened a few months ago. The past, no matter how far removed, is always of the utmost relevance.
Greeks undoubtedly have a right to be proud of their historical inheritance, but this seeming obsession with the past strikes many in the West as over the top while begging the question, “well, what of the present?”. Yet, in reality, this obsession is completely understandable and right, while simultaneously constituting something Westerners may have great difficulty in fully understanding. It is the fact that Greeks, like many modern successors to ancient civilizations, have a vast breadth to their historical memory that informs their present−day mentality on the societal level and their decision−making on the political level.
The implications of this reality are significant when juxtaposed and applied to the present economic crisis afflicting Greece. Many commentators and Greeks themselves see the crisis as a dark tunnel without a ray of light at the end. Yet, if one maintained a worldview informed by a historical memory along Greek lines, the economic crisis would seem like a mere hiccup when considering the disasters that befell Greece in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In fact, Greece’s present standing in the world should seem remarkable given what this small country has endured in “recent” times.
When Greece concluded its struggle for independence in 1832, it was emerging from an Ottoman rule that had decimated its economic competitiveness and prowess in the Eastern Mediterranean. The industrial revolution bypassed the highly rural and decentralized Ottoman Empire, and Greece was virtually without a means to sustain its fledgling state outside of the agricultural sector. Political turmoil coupled with the intervention of the Great Powers resulted in the importation of its political leadership from Northern European monarchies, and Greece slowly paced towards more representative forms of government as the century progressed. Misguided in its priorities and driven by irredentist ideology, the political class of Greece set the state on a collision course with the Ottoman Empire and, to a lesser extent, Bulgaria – the result being four wars from 1897 through the First World War.
After launching a disastrous invasion of the Ottoman Empire in 1919, Greece was compelled to carry out a population exchange with the newly founded Republic of Turkey in which its population of roughly four million was to absorb over two million refugees. Less than two decades later, Greece would become engulfed in the Second World War. Despite defeating Italy, Greece was eventually conquered and brutally subjugated by Germany; and after managing to rid itself of the Nazi yoke, a bloody civil war ensued through 1949 and Greece became a proxy battlefield of the Great Powers yet again. After about two decades, Greece fell under the control of a right−wing, U.S.−backed military dictatorship that lasted through 1974.
Though a quick stroll through modern Greek history may seem tedious, it is highly necessary when it comes to understanding Greece’s present condition and crisis. When most people think of Greece, they assume some level of continuity and stability in its history by nature of its association and inclusion with the camp of the industrialized, first−world nations of Western Europe and North America.
Yet, even the cursory historical glance that this article provides inevitably leads one to the conclusion that Greece has endured nearly two centuries’ worth of subjugation, war, famine, poverty, oppression and decimation prior to the adoption of its constitution in 1975. To put it in comparative perspective, Greece has been a free and democratic society a mere decade and a half longer than the states that comprised the former USSR.
Despite this reality, Greece is continually set against the standard of Western Europe and North America along economic lines, both in the world media and in the European political arena. While this is only natural to an extent given its membership in the European Union and its inclusion in the Eurozone, Greece is unfairly compared to countries that have been more privileged in history. Remarkably, it has succeeded in many ways. Greece is firmly within the camp of first−world, high−income industrial countries when it comes to its citizens’ quality of life, educational attainment, literacy rate, infant mortality rate, life expectancy and other such key indicators.
None of the content in this article is groundbreaking or new information. Nevertheless, world media and the political leaders of Europe have been highly critical of Greece to the point of coercion. Is it the only country that is undergoing a financial crisis at present? Is it the only country that has engaged in irresponsible economic and political practices in recent times?