By Professor Robert Zaller, Ph.D., Distinguished University Professor at Drexel University, Special to the Hellenic News of America
Each country celebrates its independence in a different way. The United States does so on July 4, honoring the Declaration of Independence signed by representatives of the thirteen colonies, established by individual charters binding them in perpetuity to the British Crown. The colonies did not become independent of Britain for seven years, and did not sign a federal compact until a Constitutional Convention persuaded each state to join in a Union. That compact created the United States of America, a commonwealth based on a careful separation of powers. No one could safely predict how it would function in practice, or in relation to thirteen individual states each with its own executive, legislature, judiciary, militia, and taxing power. It was no safe bet that this system would work. It ruptured in fact after seventy years in a civil war that cost some 700,000 lives, and which in many ways reminds unsettled to the present day. The American system of government has stood, in and out of battle over itself, for 234 years, creating the most powerful nation in the world. Yet it is still an experiment daily tested.
In France, independence day is celebrated on July 14, honoring not the creation of a newly independent state—France was hundreds of years old when, on that date in 1789, a mob of citizens broke into a prison in Paris called the Bastille and, after a bloody battle, freed seven prisoners. The French have had five republics since then, a dictatorship, two monarchies, and two foreign occupations. The Bourbon dynasty reigning in 1789 still has its adherents today.
Independence is not a guarantee, nor are the governments it establishes. Greece had not been functionally independent in nearly two thousand years when it rebelled against the Ottoman Empire on March 25, 1821, and, although the center of a great medieval empire, it had never been organized as a single state in its history.
What Greece did have before 1821 was a civilization never before or since equaled on a territory of its size. It climaxed in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E. in the city-state of Athens, whose splendor and influence has never been eclipsed. Greek independence is not a single day or event. It is a story unfolding over thousands of years, and still in progress. It is a legacy unique in the world. It is also a heritage that is challenging to bear.
Modern Greece, the Greece of 1821, was born in the springtime of nationalism. Europe was then still governed by imperial monarchies, with those of Britain, France, and Russia rising and that of Spain declining. A monarchy was imposed on liberated Greece by the great powers of Europe, only burying its last, deposed monarch, Constantine II, several weeks ago. Monarchy sat uneasily with the Greeks, but there was one aspect of the modern nation-state that accorded with its aspirations: expansion. Greece in 1830 was only a portion of what it had been in its days of ancient freedom: mostly Attica and the Peloponnesus, some islands, and part of what is today central Greece. Successive Greek governments had added to this on the mainland and the islands of the Ionian and Aegean Seas. The lands of what had once been Byzantium and, before that, the city-states that had hugged the shores of western Anatolia in ancient times, were coveted. By 1948 the borders of modern Greece were essentially set, although irredentists still hoped to incorporate Cyprus into the homeland. And Greeks, having suffered genocidal massacres and the destruction of long-standing Greek communities in Asia Minor in the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-23, were forced to abandon their hopes to retain, let alone expand their presence there. In northern Greece, meanwhile, where Greece had fought for expansion in the two Balkan wars of 1912-13 and during World War I, borders remained disputed as they do up to the present.
As these events were unfolding, modern Turkey was born on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. That empire, the successor to medieval Byzantium, had taken full control of Greek-populated territory in the mid-fifteenth century, possessing it until the Revolution of 1821. The Ottomans themselves had collapsed a century later, leaving its oil-rich remnants to be disposed of by Britain and France. Anatolia, under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk, had been created as the Turkish state on the blood of millions, and with imperial ambitions of its own. Those ambitions have included regular claims to eastern Aegean islands recognized as Greek by the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), as well as borderlands in Thrace.
Greece has, of course, a substantial Diaspora, with major communities in the United States, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere, and, until this past year, peacefully on the northern shores of the Black Sea in Ukraine. This latter community was shattered in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, and has largely been dispersed. That war, having entered its second year, has now become the major international conflict on European soil since World War II, and, having affected every continent to one extent or another, may thus be regarded as a (so far) miniature Third World War. Greece is profoundly concerned in it.
“Independence,” therefore, is a situational condition, and even as it is celebrated it may simultaneously be challenged. Dozens of national borders are at issue today, most obviously in Russia’s claims to Ukraine and China’s to Taiwan. Since the birth of the atomic age in 1945, not merely the territorial extent of the world’s two hundred-odd nations but their very existence has been under threat. Even nature has taken a hand, as rising seas compromise low-lying or small island nations in the Pacific and Indian oceans. Nor does this count internal political divisions in many African nations, in Britain, Ireland, and Spain, and even in Russia and (at least rhetorically) the United States. China, with its claims to Taiwan and other island territories in the South China Sea, would put itself in this category as well. India and Pakistan continue to war over Kashmir. The existence of Israel has been challenged since the day of its birth.
To celebrate an independence day, as most nations do, is therefore to make an annual assertion of national existence, sovereign authority, and cultural integrity. Greece, in effect, celebrates two such days, the second being Oxi Day, the commemoration of Greece’s refusal to bow to Mussolini’s invasion of October 28, 1940. And Greece remembers many other such days, going back to the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.E.
There is still another and critically important aspect of national celebration. Modern nationalism arose in conjunction with political democracy, the self-rule of nations based on popular government. America determined to become a nation and a republic within a short generation. It was far short then of what we understand today as a democracy, with a fifth of its population enslaved, women unenfranchised, and the determination of voting eligibility left in the hands of the several states. Nonetheless, nationalism as a doctrine implied democracy in its fullest sense as an end—what Abraham Lincoln called government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Even obviously authoritarian regimes pay lip service to this idea, although it has been increasingly under attack in recent decades.
Greece, of course, is the source of democracy. Its own road to modern democratic forms has been a rocky one, beginning with the monarchy imposed on it. That monarchy was briefly overthrown during World War I, only to be restored; then forced into exile after its resistance to the Junta; and abolished with its fall. It never fully adapted to constitutional government in its nearly 150 years as a parallel institution, and yet still had covert support even down to the internment of Constantine II. Democracy itself was overthrown in 1936, to be replaced by the quasi-fascist government of Ioannis Metaxas, who abolished all political parties but his own. This was followed, of course, by the Nazi occupation, and then by a civil war between Communist and Rightist forces, culminating in the seven-year tyranny of the Junta. Not until the last quarter of the twentieth century was democracy restored, subject (then as now) to the maintenance of American influence and control.
A new factor developed with the formation of the European Union, to which Greece was admitted in 1981. The E.U. itself, although comprised of states meeting specifically democratic criteria, was not a democratic institution, being run by an unelected, Brussels-based bureaucracy operating largely at the behest of a reunified Germany and its compliant allies. This system, readily open to exploitation and corruption, suffered financial collapse in 2008, leaving an overextended Greece insolvent. In a similar situation, the federated system of the United States avoided bankruptcy by funding state governments bound by law balance their annual budgets. The E.U. recognized no such obligation among its member states, requiring dictated conditions to offer new loans or modifications of existing ones. The severest of these were imposed on Greece, including the forced sale of national assets for a pittance of their value. Here was not a military invasion but a fiscal one, with bonds taking the place of bullets, and creditors of armies. Such racketeering had been routinely inflicted on Third World states, lured into loans whose repayment they sooner or later could not make. Greece found itself in similar duress after 2010. Under such circumstances, democracy—and sovereignty itself—became a mockery.
These events bring us to the present. On February 28, 2023, a train with 350 passengers was derailed by collision with a freight train near Tempe, killing 57 people in the greatest rail disaster in Greek history. Some of the dead were so badly burned and mutilated that they could only be identified by their DNA.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who faces an election, pronounced the disaster the result of “human error.” An outraged public responded with riotous demonstrations throughout the country, including more than 60,000 protesters in Athens and Saloniki, the transit points of the fatal journey. The resignation of the Minister of Transport did nothing to calm the nation’s anger. The tragedy has been terrible enough and Mitsotakis’ response to it was sufficiently witless and obtuse, but there is more to it than that, a response more of rage than mourning. It suggests a Greece profoundly disillusioned with the leadership offered it in the past two decades as well as the abuse inflicted on it by its so-called European partners.
The train system that ran the fatal crash is called the Hellenic Railways Organization, not in fact the property of Greece but of a dubious Italian consortium, the Ferrovie dello Stato Italiene, which had acquired it for the paltry price of 45 million euros in 2016 at a time when the Greek government of Alexis Tsipras was being forced to divest itself of much of the national patrimony. When a country finds itself in such a posture, “independence” has a hollow ring. Greece is in fact not a member of the European Union at present, but a dependency.
Of course, the story is not a simple one. Noting that millions of foreign tourists use Greek trains and roads (most Greeks can no longer afford to tour their own country), subventions have been made to upgrade what is universally recognized as the worst rail system in Europe. Contracts were signed, funds disbursed. Repairs, renovations, and improvements were not made. Warning lights for rail tracks were so erratic that station engineers tended to dis regard them. That was what happened on February 28. Human error was not the responsible factor. Human theft was. Successive Greek administrations will have much to answer for when (or if) called to account.
So, should Greeks forgo Independence Day this year? Of course not; they will celebrate it as they always have, and always will. Independence is not merely the commemoration of a fact, but a commitment to the future. No failure in the present, no shortcoming in the past, can alter the journey begun on March 25, and whose promise is renewed each year on that date. That is true, too, of July 4 and July 14. We must all strive to live up to our best selves. As Greece sorts out its present difficulties and braces for whatever may come, the celebration is real. March 25 is always the same moment. What Aeschylus fought for with spear and shield at Marathon, what Pericles honored for the citizens of Athens in the midst of war and plague, the martyrdom Archbishop Kyprianos suffered on Cyprus, is still alive for all Greeks and philhellenes. Independence is the way. Freedom and self-determination is the goal.