Greece and Europe: a troubled relationship

On March 25th 2013 I was invited at the Catholic University of Lille to give a lecture on Greece and Europe (see my slides above). My lecture explored some of the ideas in my Washington Post article.

March 25th is Greece’s National Holiday commemorating the Uprising against the Ottoman Empire in 1821. My talk attempted to provide a historical insight to the lack of trust between Greece and Europe. This lack of trust has become evident during the crisis. It plays very strongly nowadays in the Cyprus crisis. Since 2009 German media, and German voters, subscribed to the narrative of Greeks being untrustworthy, liars, lazy, embezzlers of other people’s money, etc.; and that they should be punished. Greek media, and Greek voters, adopted an equally hostile stance against their German “saviors” by portraying Chancellor Merkel as a female impersonation of Hitler and claiming that Greece is under a new German Occupation. This decoherence persists five years later and getting worse. Why?

In my talk I tried to give a historical perspective to this uneasy relationship between Greece and the West. It is often that the actions of people and nations are conditioned by cultural stereotypes. Indeed in times of crisis, when rational thinking and analysis is in short supply, automatic behaviour takes over. The engine of automatic behaviour is heuristics based on stereotypes. Cooler minds wishful to understand what is really going on, are advised to analyse the roots and source of stereotypes. And that was the objective of my talk.

My talk began by introducing three persons whom I consider important in the different ways that Greeks and Europeans regards each other: East Roman Emperor Alexius I Comnenus, German historian Jakob Philliipp Fallmerayer, and English naturalist Charles Darwin.

I went on explaining the idea of “Hellenism” in archaic and classical Greece; i.e. the idea of a cultural unity of people sharing the same language, religion and customs – and explained how it resembled the modern idea of “nation” but also differed, since for ancient Greeks it made no sense to have a “nation-state”. Greek city-states had a long tradition of fighting with each other.

Alexander changed that by uniting the Greeks and invading the Persian Empire. The result of his expedition was that Hellenism transformed from an exclusive to an inclusive idea: the Near East adopted the Greek language as lingua franca. The Hellenistic era was also responsible for geographically (re)positioning, and lodging, “Hellenism” from the Aegean and “Europe” (Southern Italy and Sicily were as Greek as Asia Minor and Greece proper) in the Near and Middle East and thus away from the West. (Interestingly, Alexander’s next military goal was to attack Rome and expand to the West, but he died before embarking on that plan).

Then came the Romans. In the centuries starting from the sacking of Corinth in 146 BC leading to the closure of the Athens Academy and the cessation of Olympic Games, and all the way to the reign of Emperor Heraclius, Hellenism gradually (and sometime violently) dies. The Eastern Roman Empire becomes a place of Greek-speaking Romans worshiping the One God Jesus. Inhabitants,  rulers and ruled, consider themselves to live in God’s kingdom upon Earth. As the Western Roman Empire is run over by Goths and other barbarians, the Eastern Romans feel that they are the only true descendants of Rome.

The Greek-speaking Roman Emperors of Constantinople get their first great shock that something has changed in the “barbaric” West when Charlemagne becomes Roman Emperor in 800AD. From this point on the Latin-speaking West is seen as an adversary by the Greek-speaking East. Things become progressively worse with Otto the Great’s coronation in 962 AD and arrive at an open, ideological, conflict with the Great Schism of 1054 AD. And then, only a few years later during the reign of Alexius I Comnenus, the First Crusade arrives in the East…

Alexius I Comnenus was the man who convinced the West that “Greeks” were not to be trusted when he failed to support the crusaders during the siege of Antioch. This was not due to Alexius being untrustworthy but because of the different world views between him and his western allies. For Alexius what was important was the integrity of his kingdom; this took precedence before supporting his Christian allies.

Interestingly, by then the West used to call the Eastern Romans “Greeks” not only because of their language but because westerners wanted to diminish easterners; by calling them “Greeks” they suggested that they were not “real Romans”, and not “real Christians”. Alexius’s daughter the historian Anna Comnena, accepted the characterization and turned it on its head: the Eastern Romans were indeed “Greeks”! “Hellenes”! The descendants of ancient Hellenes! Thus Anna, to counteract the rising military and political power of the West rediscovered Hellenism. The “Greeks” of Constantinople, as the Hellenes who founded civilisation, were now once again “superior” to the western barbarians. If there was any love left between East and West it was lost completely in 1204 AD when the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople and replaced the Greek-speaking monarchy with a Flemish one.

The Greeks reoccupied Constantinople and the Empire survived for a little while longer, till the arrival of the Ottomans in 1453. For the next four hundred years the Ottomans provided a safe haven of the crystallization of Hellenism as the dominant idea of Greek-speaking people within the Ottoman Empire. The antagonism between Greeks and western Europeans was thus further attenuated.

In 1821 Greeks fought for independence and in 1830 a Greek State was created in southern Greece. But who were these “new Greeks” that inhabited it? And how close were they to the ancient Greeks?

The dominant ideology in Europe at the time was race-based, and so the German historian Fallmerayer claimed that the new Greeks were in fact Slavs, Vlachs and Albanians. To oppose this idea Greece developed its national narrative based on race (“genos”); the narrative was institutionalized by the historian Paparigopoulos and persist to this date as the official history that Greek children learn at their school; i.e. that modern Greeks are direct, biological, descendants of ancient Greeks. This narrative is nationalistic, racist and unscientific – as shown by Charles Darwin and proven by evolutionary biology. Not surprisingly, Darwin is only taught at Greek schools as a “selective subject”, and even at Greek Universities biology students learn about evolution in their final year! I therefore consider Darwin important, indeed vitally important to this narrative decoherence, by his omission!

The racist, unscientific, historical narrative of Greece legitimizes the ideology of far-right party Golden Dawn and wins them popular support from Greeks who were taught exactly those things at school. It underpins the rhetoric of every other political force in Greece (excluding libertarians) who views Greece as a “victim” and  “under occupation”. For most Greeks who suffer a brutal recession “Europe” is once again the un-Christian (i.e. protestant, catholic) barbarian who wants to destroy Greece because of envy.

There can be no relationship of trust between Greece and Europe unless we all understand our history, and our biology, better.


  1. Konstantinos Floridis

    Πολύ καλή παρουσίαση.Καταλαβαίνω τους περιορισμούς του χρόνου ομιλίας,αλλά κι εσείς υποθέτω πως καταλαβαίνετε την ανάγκη να δοθεί μεγαλύτερη έκταση στο πως συγκροτήθηκε το ελληνικό κράτος,η αποτυχία εκσυγχρονισμού του,τα σφάλματα που οδήγησαν στο 1922,στον εμφύλιο και στη δικτατορία.Τέλος στην ανάγκη να επικρατήσει ο ορθολογισμός και οι οικουμενικές αξίες έναντι του ενδημούντος λαϊκισμού .Αυτά απαιτούν και μιαν ανάλογη διπλωματική διαφοροποίηση εκ μέρους των εταίρων μας.

  2. Mercade

    A very interesting column. I recently visited Athens for the first time and found it to be as exhilarating as it is tragic. Firstly (and this is something most two pence guidebooks comment on), most of the modern city looks like it was thrown up in haste after World War II, the classical core is surrounded by blocks and blocks, and yet more blocks, of uniform, graffiti-ridden apartments, resembling more tenement than studio. Most of the city looks terribly overcrowded, defaced and, frankly, dirty. Would that modern Athens had a Haussmann to redo it once over.

    The city seems an adrenaline rush mixed between the West and the Middle East. I arrived during Orthodox Easter (which American tourists seemed greatly confused by – “wasn’t Easter last month?”), and the pageantry of the Greek Orthodox Church was in full flight; the first time I heard a prayer billowing over loudspeakers (or what sounded like it at least) from a city centre church reminded me of my time in Casablanca surrounded by the muezzins; dutiful worshippers, young and old, flocked into chapel late at night all carrying candles (I am unsure as to the significance of this) and chatted merrily to one another. Every Greek TV channel I turned to upon reaching my hotel had a live feed of a long bearded, sombre looking priest intoning solemn invocations, some flanked by Greek and Cypriot state flags. It reminded me of what my parents described my country, Ireland, as 30 or 40 years ago; Greece appears on the surface to be a country where religion is a nationalized component to the citizens’ sense of identity – this is perhaps the major difference I felt with other places in Western Europe (but not North Africa) I have visited, where most have lost any connection with the church beyond baptisms, marriages and deaths.

    Aside from the Parthenon and the many museums dedicated to the glories of the ancients, it seems that too many of us foreigners treat modern Greece as a plaything; just as rich Romans travelled to Sparta after 146 B.C. to view the inhabitants living “as their great ancestors used to”; we revel in the idea that modern Greeks are the most recent installment of Sophocles, Solon and Plato and are bemused when they fail to measure up, forgetting of course that the intellectual glories of ancient Greece were the preserve of a small aristocratic minority.

    It’s an impossible burden to bear, which must make Greece’s current travails all the more crushing for its people; how inadequate must many feel if they are forever obliged to compare themselves to Pericles and Demosthenes whilst living off the proceeds of sun, museums, and liquid injections by the troika.

    The Irish approach to austerity has pretty much been one of, “let us expiate our sins by accepting our punishment”; I can’t think of one major nationwide strike in Ireland since the beginning of the crisis, despite the increasing hardship and bankruptcy of many house owners. We plod along as usual more in hope than confidence; still the memory that things have been much worse than this in the past (famines, mass expulsions by foreign landlords etc.) seems to anesthetize the anger of most. Europe enabled us to break free, in a way, from our old colonial master, so it’s Europe for good or ill; every Irish political party, save the far left, wants more Europe, not less, which would likely seem incredible to the average Athenian.

    Greece on the other hand visibly shows its scars. I was surprised, if not shocked, to find graffiti and general defacement had even penetrated to the upscale residential areas below the acropolis; fine houses and walkways marked with an anarchist “A” or other messages I could not decipher littered my trek.

    I see that the above comment has gone on much further than I originally planned, suffice to say that Greece is a wonderful country; perhaps the only way she can ever be at peace is to accept herself as she is, warts and all, not wishing to be as she once was.

    Thanks for your articles; they provide a framework for better understanding your country, its people and the challenges they face.

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