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Understanding modern Greece: a Q&A

Depending on who you are, you may think of Greece as the country that we know today or you may think of that ancient conglomerate of city-states from long ago. In arguing that Greece—or modern Greece—is, in fact, a trailblazer of sorts, Stathis N. Kalyvas, author of Modern Greece: What Everyone Needs to Know, gives us some very compelling insights for us to consider in the following extract.

What is Greece’s lesser-known record of achievements?

Greece has frequently innovated, overcoming disasters and performing above expectations. It has a consistent record of punching above its weight. It was the first “new” nation to emerge out of the Ottoman Empire and it spearheaded an early democratic revolution, ushering in a long stretch of stable parliamentary rule. Military coups did take place, but the country experienced only three relatively short breaks in democratic governance from 1864 to the present: 1922–1929, 1936–1945, and 1967–1974. Despite difficulties, democracy was sustained by an egalitarian social structure, which was itself the outcome of a remarkably comprehensive and successful land reform. Greece was alone among its Balkan neighbors to escape communism. Its economic takeoff in the 1950s was so impressive that it became known as the “Greek economic miracle.” The 1974 transition to democracy set an example of how to peacefully exit autocracy and prosecute its leaders. Despite its current problems, Greece is a prosperous democracy and arguably the most successful post-Ottoman state.

What explains the love-hate relationship between Greece and the West?

The most sensitive issue in the relationship between Westerners and Greeks was the link between ancient and modern Greece. Every attempt to challenge this relationship—most famously by the Austrian writer Jakob Philipp Fallmerayer, who suggested in 1830 that modern Greeks were the descen­dants of Slavic peoples—caused an intense emotional reac­tion in Greece. The link between ancient and modern Greece remains a sensitive issue in Greece today, as it is simultaneously a cornerstone of Greek national identity and an expression of the nation’s pronounced insecurity.

How did democracy come to Greece?

Like most of its European contemporaries, the Greek state began life under a regime of absolute monarchy. Therefore, it is surprising to observe how quickly and smoothly democratic institutions were introduced and adopted in Greece. To be sure, these institutions did not emerge under ideal conditions. Greece lacked a well-functioning state, a sizable bourgeois class, a tradition of aristocratic representative institutions, an industrial working class, a strong liberal intellectual milieu, and a vigorous urban culture—all factors associated with the rise of democracy in nineteenth-century Europe. However, it did enjoy an important advantage, one that has been linked to the rise of democratic regimes: a relatively egalitarian social structure asso­ciated to the absence of a large landowning class.

Greek flag. Photo by Trine Juel. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.
“Greek flag.” Photo by Trine Juel. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

What was the impact of the Great Depression?

In the economic history of Greece, the period between 1928 and 1932 stands outs as a time during which the drive for modernization gained substantial momentum. Under the premiership of Venizelos, the Greek government implemented a forceful “developmentalist” program that continued where Trikoupis’s program had stopped, turning the state into a much more force­ful and proactive economic actor. The creation, for instance, of the Agricultural Bank of Greece in 1929 was a key element in the modernization of agriculture. The achievements brought by these measures were substantial, but their promise was only partially fulfilled because Greece was hit by an economic tempest unleashed by the 1929 US stock market crash and the Great Depression. Despite this, Greece managed to orchestrate a surprisingly effective response to the disaster, one largely based on eco­nomic autarky and the stimulation of the domestic market.

What was the effect of populism on social norms and behavior in Greece?

Greek society has always been highly suspicious of the state, which is seen as a hostile, extractive, and repressive entity. “Regulations, whenever they happened to interfere with indi­vidual and family self-interest, were obstacles to be overcome, not rules to be obeyed,” historian W.H. McNeill observes. “The more formi­dable the regulation, the more energetic the effort to escape its incidence and the greater the occasion for bribery.” As a result, society sought to deny state resources both by withhold­ing them (e.g., evading taxation) and appropriating them (e.g., taking over public land). This behavior made sense in times of scarcity and limited political representation, but it is much harder to explain, let alone justify, under conditions of democ­racy and relative plenitude.

Image Credit:”Oia, Greece.” Photo by Jon Rawlinson. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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  1. […] Greece appeared to be politically secure and economically healthy. As Professor Kalyvas explains (Understanding modern Greece: Q&A) Greece has frequently innovated, overcoming disasters and performing above expectations. It has a […]

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