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Greek CommunityCultureGreek Independence and the Crisis in Europe

Greek Independence and the Crisis in Europe

Hellenic News of America
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By Robert Zaller

March brings spring—an appropriate month for any people to celebrate its independence. For Greeks, the anniversary is its 203rd. Freedom isn’t easy, and democracy doesn’t come all at once. It hasn’t been the case for modern Greece. For three-quarters of its independence, Greece had a foreign monarchy initially imposed on it by the Great Powers of Europe. It is only in the last fifty years that it has fully shaken off the last tatters of its nineteenth-century birth.

Of course, other states with monarchies have been considered full-fledged democracies. Britain and parts of Western Europe and Scandinavia are regarded as democratic despite having royal families, their monarchs being emblems of sovereignty rather than actual rulers. Such rulers have devolved into symbols over time, and their functions are understood as ceremonial. This process has often been protracted, sometimes involving struggle and even revolution. In Britain, it required two revolutions—those of 1640 and 1688, with two serious rebellions in 1715 and 1745, and that of the Thirteen Colonies’ against King George III in 1776—to bring about parliamentary sovereignty in the Great Reform Act of 1832. (It also no doubt helped that George III was mad for the last thirty years of his life.)

Not dissimilarly, parliamentary government also grew slowly in Greece in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially with the strong personality of Eleuftherios Venizelos, who not infrequently displayed autocratic tendencies of his own. The first Greek king, Otto of Bavaria, was deposed in 1862, but his successor, also Germanic, was also imposed on Greece by foreign powers although retroactively confirmed by Parliament. A second insurrection in 1924 again deposed the monarchy, leading to a decade of political chaos, but a restoration in 1935 resulted only in the dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas. The postwar return of the monarchy in 1947 did not produce stability, as the Crown and the military continued at odds with parliamentary politicians. Not until 1974 was the monarchy formally abolished by constitutional referendum. Only since then has Greece truly been a parliamentary democracy.

If the first century of Greek independence was characterized by foreign intervention, financial instability, and the uncertain growth of governing institutions, its one consistent impulse was territorial expansion, largely at the expense of the waning Ottoman empire. From this perspective, the decisive moment in modern Greek history—and in many ways still the most traumatic—was the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-22, when a Greek expedition to Anatolia failed, leading to the catastrophic destruction of Smyrna and its age-old Greek community. The consequence of this was a mass population exchange, as some 1.5 million Greeks were transported to northern Greece while a lesser number of Turks were repatriated to Anatolia. In effect, it was the end of Greek history in Asia Minor, where Hellenic culture had flourished for three thousand years.

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The next quarter century brought the most turbulent period since the Revolution of 1821. The fall of the monarchy, largely a result of the fate of Asia Minor and the immense strain, social and economic, of integrating the huge influx of its refugees, tried the political system to the breaking point. The emergence of the Metaxas regime in the late 1930s came at the cost of a ban on political parties and civil liberties. Metaxas himself would be challenged by the approach of World War II, and he himself died shortly after calling for Greek resistance to the Italian invasion of October 1940—the famous moment of Oxi! The unity and heroism of the Greek people, whatever their politics, wrote a page of glory that inspired the cause of democracy across Europe and the U.S.A. that remains imperishable, and comparable only to the ancient Battle of Marathon and the last defense of Byzantium. But it was followed by an occupation of Greece all the more brutal for the defiance of Fascist conquest that the Greeks had shown. Liberation in 1944 was a brief celebration, for Greece was soon divided again by the civil war that erupted within a year between largely Communist Greek partisans and the returning Greek monarchy in exile, backed by America and Britain. This made Greece the first battleground of the Cold War, and one of its bitterest.

The partisans’ diehard resistance in the civil war reflected the place they felt their sacrifice against the Nazi occupation as well as their hopes for a Communist nationalism entitled them. In reality, their cause was doomed from the beginning as the Soviet Union, concentrating on its postwar position in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, had written Greece off as a critical outpost in the Mediterranean that Anglo-American naval power would not readily surrender. This would be confirmed by the Truman Doctrine in 1947, which proclaimed Turkey and Greece as within the American sphere of influence. This was confirmed by the joint entry of both countries into NATO in 1952.

With these maneuvers, Greece again became part of Great Power politics, as America became the dominant factor in its affairs. Military figures, as often in Greek politics, were for a time its chief operatives, and Leftist figures, including the poet Yannis Ritsos, found themselves interned on prison islands such as Makronisos. By the mid-1950s, the atmosphere had settled enough for a civilian prime minister, Konstantine Karamanlis, to assume a substantial tenure (1956-63). This ended, however, with the sensational assassination of the MP Grigoris Lambrakis, to which government and security officials were linked. The underlying tensions of Greek public life reemerged with this, and, with the monarchy and the military again embroiled, a coup led by a hitherto-obscure colonel, Giorgios Papadopoulos, seized power in 1967. This inaugurated a seven-year dictatorship marked by terror and torture, with Karamanlis himself among other prominent figures going into exile. Despite ritual pronouncements, the hand of America in this was widely seen, and the U.S. maintained diplomatic and military relations with Greece for the duration. While the full details of American participation in the coup by what was popularly known as the Junta are not yet fully known, the public apology issued by Bill Clinton in 1999 made its nature clear:

When the junta took over in 1967 . . . the United States allowed its interests in prosecuting the Cold War to prevail over its interest—I should say its obligation—to support democracy, which was, after all, the cause for which we fought the Cold War.

Unpacking this language, what America was not prepared to permit in Greece was any resurgence of Leftist sentiment, whether linked to Russia or not. Such sentiments were widely shared (and linked) in the turbulent 1960s, as exemplified in the unprecedented international success of Costas-Gravas’ film, Z, about the Lambrakis assassination. The student uprising of 1973 that with the Junta’s failed adventure in Cyprus led to its fall in July 1974 once again focused Western attention on Greece. The U.S. brokered the return of Karamanlis from France, where he immediately resumed office as prime minister. Karamanlis was still a trustworthy agent of American interests, but he proved a patriot too in guiding a return to a centrist democracy that again legalized Leftist parties. The left-leaning Panhellenic Socialist Party (PASOK), led by the charismatic Andreas Papandreou, succeeded him in 1980. The peaceful transfer of power to an opposition party signified the full restoration of democracy in Greece, along with the abolition of the monarchy that took the Crown at last out of politics. Karamanlis would serve two further terms as President of the Republic (1980-85; 1990-95), where in a largely ceremonial role he served as a check on Papandreou’s rhetoric—mostly talk—about removing American naval bases from Greece.

By the 1990s Greek governance had settled into an alternation between two major parties, the Karamanlis-derived New Democracy and Papandreou’s PASOK. American influence remained steady, and stronger with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe. A new political actor had emerged in the European Union, however, a federation covering most of the Continent and, effectively, the political cover of NATO. Greece had joined it in 1982 with the hope of attracting capital for modernization; it did so, chiefly from Germany, the Union’s strongest and soon dominating member. Money did follow, and also corruption. By the end of the 2000s, a major financial crash had embroiled Europe, trapping Greece in an artificial debt crisis that enabled EU creditor nations, notably Germany, to impose a crippling austerity program that would plunge the country into economic freefall. The world’s oldest and only recently restored democracy found itself stripped of its sovereignty, with state assets pillaged and unemployment impoverishing much of the nation. PASOK collapsed as a major political party, and its successor on the Left, Syriza, was forced into concessions that would leave it too in disarray. For a decade, Greece would be treated as a defaulting colony by its supposed European peers. Only slowly have its constraints been eased. Meanwhile, New Democracy has been left as the only political party capable of forming a parliamentary coalition, a safe bet for creditors pleasing to Berlin but whose illicit surveillance of journalists and political opponents has left its commitment to democratic process dubious at best.

For a time, it thus seemed that Greece would be serving two masters: an American one, whose interest was in securing the Eastern Mediterranean as it shifted its attention from containing Soviet Russia to conflict and terrorism in the Middle East; and a European one, where Germany had secured a hegemonic position in the EU that, through control of the euro, seemed poised to give it a dominion over the Continent denied it in two world wars. The linchpin between the two was NATO, the now thirty-two member military alliance originally forged by the U.S. at the beginning of the Cold War and overlapping the twenty-seven member EU, substantially Europe’s civil government federation. As a military force, NATO has been deployed only once in its seventy-five years of existence, as a contributor to America’s war in Afghanistan after the attacks of 9/11. It has been, in essence, America’s military presence in Europe, expanded since 1991 up to the borders of present-day Russia. In effect, it has also been the EU’s own defense force, since although member states have their own militaries there is no central command. Without NATO, in short—that is, for all practical purposes, without America—the European Union, with a collective population of 448 million, is the largest political formation in the world without an armed defense of its own, and which by charter cannot take military action without the consent of all its members.

Until February 24, 2022, this peculiarity was not of immediate concern. On that date, Russia invaded Ukraine for the purpose of conquest. Article V of NATO’s Charter requires all members to come to the defense of a member state if attacked—not, in itself, a formula for prompt and effective action—but Ukraine, though clearly vital to Europe’s security, was neither a member of NATO nor the EU. Under American impetus, NATO members, contributed aid, supplies, and weapons to Ukraine, but with little coordination. American aid itself, stymied in a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, has ground to a halt, and even if resumed has cast the American commitment to NATO in doubt.
The crisis this creates is, obviously, not for Greece alone. But the case of Greece is both more complex and more acute. Geographically, Greece is closer by land and sea to Ukraine than any but the frontline states of Eastern Europe that border Ukraine directly. Demographically, Greeks are an important minority in Ukraine, particularly along the Black Sea coast and in the now-devastated and Russian-occupied port of Mariupol. Any Russian advance into its former satellite states in the Balkans would raise the specter of a Greece cut off from its NATO allies. Any nuclear accident or provocation by Russia—as Vladimir Putin has repeatedly threatened—could spell environmental disaster for it as well as neighboring countries.

But Greece also has a problem unique to itself. It is the only state in Europe in conflict with a major neighbor other than Russia, a conflict not born of the Cold War but many centuries old. That is with the nation now known as Turkey. The Greco-Turkish war out of which modern Turkey was born was only the climax of a decade in which the expulsion of the Asia Minor Greek community was preceded by a genocide, begun in the last years of the Ottoman Empire, in which hundreds of thousands of ethnic Greeks perished. American interest in both Greece and Turkey as strategic partners in NATO has mediated between them on various questions—land and sea boundaries; resource exploitation; overflight issues; and, since 1974, the bitterly contested division of Cyprus. It has, thus far, contained direct and open conflict between them, both sides being dependent on the American alliance system. Should that system no longer be reliable, however, Greece would no longer be safe. At the moment, it cannot be said that this is so.

This is clearly not a problem for Greece alone, but all Europe. At such, it suggests a security impasse not seen on the Continent since the end of World War II. Then, America was withdrawing its troops from the European theater, while the Soviet Union was consolidating its hold over Eastern Europe and threatening the West as well. America’s return to the arena was signified by the Truman Doctrine, and the first entirely European country affected by it was Greece. It was soon expanded by the Marshall Plan, and solidified by NATO. NATO became the prime institution for the protection of what was called Free Europe, and, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the fateful decision was taken not only to retain but expand it. It would be, henceforth, America’s Fortress Europa, and the newly proclaimed Russian Federation, stripped of all but one of its former members, a vaguely delimited Central Asian power as Barack Obama described it—Russia as it had been, in short, before the Westernized polity created by Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century.

Such a decision seemed to entail not only the maintenance of NATO but its permanent expansion. It meant, should Russia accept its demotion from a world to a regional power, American hegemony on what appeared to be a global scale. Should, however, that hegemony be challenged by a rising or recuperating power, it could mean that the Cold War had not been definitively won, but only paused for a new chapter. This in fact occurred. The rising power was China, soon to be the world’s second largest economy and, under Xi Jinping, to exhibit worldwide ambitions. The recovering one was Russia, which under Vladimir Putin, openly sought to reestablish its former empire.

The tensest period of the Cold War had been the temporary alliance between the Communist behemoths of Russia and China, which between them controlled most of the world’s single largest landmass in Eurasia. On the map, their position seemed formidable. But their interests soon clashed, and Richard Nixon succeeded in completing the division between them in the most successful diplomatic coup since the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact had enabled Hitler to conquer most of Europe in the early days of World War II. So matters stood, until Putin’s invasions of Ukraine brought Russia and China back together in an alliance of convenience if not ideology.

The difficulty that emerged for the U.S., however, lay within its own leadership. Donald Trump, the dubious real estate speculator and sometime television personality who, with Russian assistance, ascended to the American presidency in 2016, had little use for NATO but a seemingly boundless admiration for Putin’s authoritarian style. He soon questioned the utility of NATO as such, suggesting that EU security had gotten a free ride from American taxpayers and that member states which did not pay their full dues were not entitled to American protection in case of attack—this, despite the fact that America was the only member that had previously invoked NATO assistance. At the same time, Trump began to cozy up to such dictators at Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jung Un as well. Equally disturbing was his cavalier attitude toward democratic principles and procedures, and his disregard for the law in general. Rather, his conception of it was not one of settled rules and procedures, but the shark-like world of late capitalism, in which achieving a desired result was the sole consideration, and law was to be not legal, but transactional.
Clearly, this approach applied to alliances too. American hegemony rested on a projection of power, but also, at least in theory, on the world of freedom made possible by democracy: personal liberty, political equality, and the rule of the majority by free elections. America had been born as the first modern state to seek these ends, however imperfectly they might be realized in practice, and as such the nation anointed to embody them for mankind. Its empire, however much it may have resembled others, always rested on this promise. And Europe, the Europe it had saved from fascism, was its crown jewel. For an American leader to scorn its values seemed not only a betrayal of that Europe, but of itself.
Donald Trump was defeated for reelection in 2020, and with the accession of Joe Biden, it seemed that all might be well again. But Trump had tapped into a deep isolationist strain in American life, and, galvanizing supporters in a violent insurrection, attempted to remain in power. The insurrectionists were punished, but Trump remained untouched and seemingly untouchable, a strongman in the mold of populist dictators common enough elsewhere but hitherto inconceivable in the United States. And, for Europe, he was all too real. With Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, European security was challenged as it had not been since the Cuban Missile Crisis, and its fatal weakness revealed: Europe had no army. All, NATO included, depended on America.

For Greece, the consequences would be more immediate than for most. After securing major concessions related to the suppression of its Kurdish minority, Turkey has finally acceded to Sweden’s application for admission to NATO. In return, America immediately approved its long-withheld sale of F-16 fighter jets to Ankara, thus further tilting Turkey’s military advantage over Greece. What had NATO gained? The accession of a new member state with a population of ten million that had not fought a war since the early nineteenth century, and could not enter one without the unanimous consent of its thirty-one new colleagues. Of course, as long as America remained firmly committed to European security and Greece a part of its strategic interest, Turkish aggression was notionally constrained. But if Trump were to be reelected president of the U.S. and to carry out his former threats to leave NATO, the territorial integrity of Greece might be threatened, and that of the Greek Republic of Cyprus as well. Nor is it clear that NATO itself would survive an American departure. Even if it did, moreover, it could not be assumed that, NATO’s Article V guarantees notwithstanding, it would authorize intervention on behalf of a member state subject to military threat.

Greece’s condition is special; no other NATO state has a fellow member made claims on its territory and resources. But an American withdrawal from NATO would jeopardize the entire European Union. The Baltic states, long claimed by Putin, are in a panic, as is Poland, whose long domination by Russia is fresh in memory. Germany, too, is in a state of alarm, both from the Russian peril and the revival of its own nationalist and authoritarian Right. Above all, of course, looms the fate of Ukraine. Although out of power, Trump has been able to halt American aid to its embattled forces. Should he return to the White House, he will be able to kill it, thereby assuring Ukraine’s defeat and, in all likelihood, its subjection to Russia for the foreseeable future. In short order, the Cold War map of Europe would return. The difference would be the absence of a great power to restrain the ambition of a megalomaniacal dictator in the Kremlin.

The result of such an outcome would not be merely be an acute disturbance in balance of power relations on a global scale, but a threat to democracy itself. Europe has not settled a war on its own soil since 1870. When France’s mercurial president, Emmanuel Macron, recently suggested a unilateral French intervention in Ukraine, it took only Putin’s threat of a nuclear reprisal to for its NATO partners to hastily rebuff the idea. Europe’s Western alliance has, for all practical purposes, abandoned the means of defending itself without America. In so doing, it has abandoned the will to fight as well. And democracies that have relinquished the task of defending themselves, whatever the reasons, can no more expect to survive than any other form of government.

Greece shares this crisis. It fought for its independence against great odds in 1821, and again in 1940. It gave Western civilization its first great light, and that light shines still. As the American poet Robinson Jeffers said, at another moment of peril almost a hundred years ago:

The love of freedom has been the quality of Western man.

There is a stubborn torch that flames from Marathon to Concord, its dangerous beauty binding three
ages
Into one time; the waves of barbarism and civilization have eclipsed but have never quenched it.
. . .
But in one noble passion we are one; and Washington, Luther, Tacitus, Aeschylus, one kind of man.

I have often quoted these words, but they are truer than ever, and they still apply. We will see whether we are still faithful to them.

The copyrights for these articles are owned by the Hellenic News of America. They may not be redistributed without the permission of the owner. The opinions expressed by our authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Hellenic News of America and its representatives.

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