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Book Review: Koliopoulos, Veremis, Greece. The Modern Sequel. Reviewed by Vangelis Kechriotis

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    Balkan Academic News Book Review 16/2003 ... 1850654638.02.MZZZZZZZ.jpg John S. Koliopoulos, Thanos M. Veremis, Greece the Modern Sequel, From 1831 to the
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 11, 2003
      Balkan Academic News Book Review 16/2003


      John S. Koliopoulos, Thanos M. Veremis, Greece the Modern Sequel, From 1831 to the Present, London: Hurst & Company, 2002. xiii + 407 p. 14.95 GBP, ISBN 1-8506-5463-8 (softcover).

      Reviewed by Vangelis Kechriotis (BoaziciUniversity, Istanbul), Email: vkechr@....

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      By the very title of this book, outcome not only of a joint academic endeavor but also of a decades-long friendship, the authors make explicit their intention to build their narrative upon the notion of continuity. Moreover, they explain that they chose a thematic and not a chronological structure exactly because they draw on 'the premise that certain constant factors exist' (p.1). The most important among them is considered to be 'language' which mainly accounts for the 'choice' of the Christian Orthodox community which gained its independence through the war of 1821-29, to identify not with a medieval kingdom but with the ancient 'Hellas' (p.1). The authors describe this choice as 'the historical compromise between traditional church values and the importation of western modernity' (p.3-4).

      Three are the fundamental questions put forward by the writers, already in the introduction. Firstly, how can we define 'modernity', in order to be able to distinguish the ancient from the modern? Secondly, what is the significance of 'political emancipation' in the way that Greek intellectuals perceived their relations to a past of foreign domination, both the Byzantine and the Ottoman one? Thirdly, despite all memories of ancient glory, what were the 'generating forces' which contributed to national agitation (p.4-7)? These conceptual preconditions seem necessary in order for the broader issue, namely 'what is modern Greece', to be tackled. Before they embark, however, on their detailed account, they pinpoint to what they deem as Greek peculiarity. Although the modern nation-state was created as a 'sequel', that is in reference to an older glorious formation, it never managed to satisfy the expectations it bore. The reason behind this drama, according to the authors, lies in the fact that the Greeks never compromised with the idea that they are a 'constructed nation like all others' (p.9). They still consider themselves a unique nation.

      The book develops in eight parts. In the first part 'Politics and statecraft', they reflect on the relation between power and legitimacy. Firstly, they demonstrate how the assemblies which took over authority in post-revolutionary Greece never actually dismissed the local power structure which was based on personal bonds but the used it in order to secure the loyalty of the pre-revolutionary elites ('a regime to suit the nation'). The controversy among the local notables and the newcomers over authority took also the shape of dispute over the suitable regime which was not going to be democracy but rather 'a regime of 'prudent' liberty based on land property' (p.24). Following this section, the writers provide a comprehensive account of the ways broader social strata claimed their representation in power from the time of the first governor, Capodistria, until the 1980s ('politics and the public domain', 'government and people'). A key role in this procedure is attributed to the political parties ('political leadership') which despite their personified character 'contributed to the transformation of inert citizenry into a modern nation' (p.62) incorporating into the public domain broader strata of the population such as the peasants resulting at the same time at the consolidation of 'institutions representing urban liberal principles' (p. 67).

      As a matter of fact, they focus particularly on the post WWII Greek civil war, (Revolution and defeat: the civil war, 1943-9') offering an account on the nature of the conflict. They claim that 'Greece slipped into civil war because (the twos sides were) not so much unwilling as powerless to keep its own extremists in check' (p.85). However, whereas this argument is sustained for the government which unwillingly left the ground open for violence to the extent that 'the times favored right wing opportunists' (p.82), the Communist party is explicitly accused of building upon the 'long tradition of banditry' and favoring the notion of 'continuing struggle' (p.83).  This is a highly debatable issue, of course, and there are recent works which offer arguments opposing this view (see Giogos Margaritis, I Istoria tou Ellinikou Emfyliou Polemou 1946-49, Vivliorama, 2001). Even if they do not take them into account, the authors, in a concise and accurate way, pinpoint to the reasons which led Greek society to this split

      Following this section, the heritage of the civil war is traced throughout the turbulent post war political life ('civil war heritage and the post war politics') and culminates to a cross evaluation and comparison between Konstantinos Karamanlis, the major conservative figure of the period, 'who demanded continuous sacrifices from the Greeks' and Andreas Papandreou, the socialist leader, 'who appealed to their (Greeks) appetites and their insouciance' (p.109). A second subtle comparison between Papandreou and Simitis (his successor and actual leader), along the same lines, definitely and not surprisingly favors the latter. However, one could claim that the amount of social transformation which took place in the 1980s, parallel of course to demagogy and clientelism of the worst kind, is simply absent from such statements which offer rather a ready made answer than opening a debate. Equally aphoristic is the treatment of the Communist party ('the KKE, a party like no other'). While the writers rightly pinpoint to the lack of working class or of a political radical tradition upon which the KKE could build a large base of support, the language which is employed in statements such as 'the questions of Macedonia and the refugees were interconnected and required imagination and political flexibility both of which have been is short supply in KKE' (p.113) might undermine the otherwise thorough analysis of the political and social circumstances which led to its blossoming, heyday and defeat.

      Eventually, the writers offer an account of Greek political ideology after 1922 (Homo politicus). This year is considered as a threshold which marked the end of 'the Greek preoccupation with irredentist claims and territorial expansion, (with) the consolidation of parliamentary power and (with) the construction of a liberal democratic state' (p.126). The new era presented a new challenge which is depicted in the authors' fascinating account on the articulation of Greek national ideology. Whereas, up to 1922, as enacted by Paparrigopoulos, 'acculturation became the basis of 19th Greek irredentism, under the new circumstances any bond with the neighbors was doomed&and the emphasis was given to the danger 'from within' (p.136). However, even more interesting is the way the writers, relying upon the liberal intellectuals of the period, reflect, themselves, on the character of the modern Greek nation. Thus, individualism, one of the main characteristics of western political practice is considered 'absent from Greek politics, an absence to which both the reconstruction of a new fabric of networks among the refugee population but mainly the polarization of the civil war has not allowed' (p.140). Despite the fact that the victory of Simitis-led PASOK in the 2000 elections is considered as 'the return of a liberal center', the authors claim that during the years which followed there has been no 'discussion among politicians around the nature of liberal polity' (p. 140). Instead, the focus, as everywhere in Europe, remains on economic liberalism.

      In the second part, the authors investigate the trajectory of significant institutions within the Greek state. The first and most important is 'the Church of Greece'. Their main point is that the foundation of the Greek state marked 'the triumph of the lay state over ecclesiastical authority' (p.141). This relation was not an easy one and it implicated two major endeavors. On the one hand, the state, through the nationalist discourse, promoted or tolerated the construction of myths such as the one of secret schools, set up by the Church during the centuries of the Ottoman domination, legitimating thus its role as a latter-day Noah's arc of Hellenism or a pioneer of the Greek uprising in 1821 (p.142). On the other hand, the Church was mobilized by the state during the second half of the 19th c as a unique attack force serving state irredentist policies (p. 147). In more recent times, the fact that the Church lost any credibility due its advertising by the abhorrent junta regime (1967-1974) brought high in the agenda state-church relations, when democracy was restored. However, none of the governments ever since took a radical step, demonstrating thus the usefulness of the status quo for both sides.

      The second institution presented is 'the military', which, even if it has never been 'an agent of modernization in Greece, it has nevertheless been an important component in the institutional framework created by a modernizing elite' (p.155). Moreover, the authors situate the recent transformation of the military within the 'urbanization' of the Greek society between the 50s and the 70s and, thus, relate it to the shift to values more compatible with the middle class mentality. Church reappears during the elaboration of the third and most important of the institutions, namely education ('Education: the mighty Greek school'). The authors aptly stress 'the Church's attachment to Greek education and its dedication to its diffusion among non-Greek speaking Orthodox' (p.158), but they challenge the Church's contribution to the preservation both of the language and of the Orthodox faith. Instead, they argue, it was national education after Independence, and especially the University of Athens which contributed to the growth of Balkan educated elites (p.160) and supplied the impetus for the diffusion of Greek education (p.163).

      In the third part, which regards the economy, the authors offer an overview of the development of the Greek state, the most typical features of which were its agricultural character and the commercial rather than the industrial interests of the indigenous business circles. Even on the eve of WWI, the 65 % of the population was occupied in agriculture (p.168). However, despite the limited transformation of former Ottoman properties into small land holdings, the 'elusive promise of land redistribution' (p.165), due to political pressure exerted especially by the 'chiftlik' landowners, remained in the agenda until after 1922, when the massive influx of refugees urged for the implementation of land reform. Interestingly, the measures taken for the stabilization of the Greek economy by Kafandaris in the 1920s (p.170), Markezinis in the 1950s (p.173) and Papaligouras in the 1970s (p.175), all aiming at restoring state finance credibility, after three periods of national hardship respectively, are treated as modernising projects aiming at bringing Greece into the European family, something which was finally achieved by Simitis government in the late 1990s and the accession to the MEU (p. 178).

      In the next part, namely 'Society', the authors aim to deconstruct such favorable myths regarding the Greek peasantry such as the uniformity of their lives and values (p.183) ('land of peasants'). They provide us with a socio-anthropological account persuasive enough to support their conclusion that 'the peasants of Greece were not exactly the noble descendants of the classical sages and heroes whom foreign and Greek romantics hoped to see, but nor were they brutes either' (p.192). One wonders whether it would not reinforce their argument if they included what recent research has reassessed about the low taxation of the peasantry compared to the urban populations (see Giorgos Dertilis, Atelesfori i telesfori: fori kai exousia sto neoellhniko kratos, Alexandria, 1993).

       In 'the search for a middle class', the writers set forth two of the most important features of modern Greek society. The first is that, whereas in western Europe the bourgeois class 'developed in opposition to state authority& the Greek equivalent developed as a state appendage and thrived on state revenue' (p.196). The second is that the 'middle class' had always been open to new blood, perhaps because it never had an identity different from the rest of the people' (p.198). The underlying perception seems to be that in Greece, apart from the royal entourage, an unchallenged aristocracy never really existed and the social mobility especially during the last decades has been extremely high.

      This section is followed by the one regarding the long line of migration waves ('migrants, refugees and the diaspora'). Greece is considered 'as a land exporting more people than it receives' (p.200). However, this trend has been reversed during the last decades when people from several destinations have ended up to Greece facing the challenge of 'acculturation into a society which is culturally homogenous' (p.209). This account is followed by a short account on the Diaspora largely relying on the assumption that 'the individualistic outlook on economic activities of the Greek peasants' (p.211) helped them be easily transformed into American shopkeepers. However, this claim looks contradictory to an earlier statement about the luck of individuality among the cultural premises of the Greek nation. The part on 'Society' culminates with two sections on 'heroes and heroic deeds' and 'crime and impunity', where the authors touch upon the charm the 'clephtic' tradition of banditry exerts on social memory, suggesting, though, a preference 'for values better suited to for a society resting on and respecting law and order' (p.215).

      In the part on 'Ideology', the authors tackle the development of the nationalist discourse. In the 'shaping the new nation', they elaborate on the basic components of the neo-Hellenic identity and describe the clash between the modern and the traditional perception, where 'the former favored language while the latter insisted on religion' (p.228). This shift which is illustrated in the choice of the name 'Hellenes' instead of 'Graekoi' or 'Romaioi' pinpoints to the major dilemma of modern Greek nation-building, 'how could the Greeks possibly aspire to build a Western nation-state, with their own language as its primary determinant of identity, while at the same time aspiring to incorporate and accommodate the non-Greek speaking Orthodox Christians in it as their equals?'(p.232). 'Demarcating the past', brings us to modern considerations, since it refers to the conflict over the 'Macedonian question' in Greece, during the 1990s. The writers are stressing the fact that the embarrassment of the Greek public opinion can be probably explained by 'the absence of a new mission&that makes them regard their neighbors as scheming agents of conspiring foreign powers' (p.238).

      Eventually, in the 'Return of the Hellenes', the 'Of Greeks and others' and 'Europe in Greece', the writers elaborate on the ways the nation-state employed in the process of 'hellenisation'. In this respect 'history and geography went hand in hand with classics and archeology' (p.243), with the whole endeavor enhanced by the promotion of the study of folklore. The 'hellenisation' of the past with the subsequent marginalization of the pre-independence tradition seems probably not avoidable from our standpoint, they argue. However, one of the fundamental questions which are raised in the book is whether 'the modern Greek nation-builders could have chosen an alternative nation myth that would single them out from neighboring nations' (p.247). The criticism to the course that the modern Greek state has followed derives, according to the authors, both from 'conservative' critics of the western liberal tradition but also from 'progressive' critics of the centralized state. These critics rely on the myth of a pre-national paradise which was discarded by the state building process. The authors argue convincingly against the three variants of the Paradise-lost argument, namely the allegedly representative character of local self-government, the tolerant temporal and religious rule within the Ottoman administration system, and the adequacy and efficiency of the popular vernacular for the demands of the new state (p.265-267). They conclude that despite disenchantment with this and that power or 'the Manichean view of the outside world' most Greeks maintain, Greek leaders 'rarely, if ever, turned against the West as such' (p.270). This is probably the part of the book where we come across the most vehement support, against all odds, of the western European orientation of the modern Greek state. 

      In the part on foreign policy, they first provide us with a comprehensive overview of the major events until WWII, ('Greek foreign policy: from independence to liberation') and then ('the post-war legacy'), in a sophisticated manner, they tackle the issues of the period focusing however on two of them: The first one is the American interventionism, which they describe as 'guided by liberal principles at the beginning' (p.295), noting, however, that, soon, 'identification with the right wing and the monarchy after 1965 limited its flexibility and scope' (p.300). The second major issue, related to the previous one is 'the Cyprus question', where 'a mixture of traditional irredentism and contemporary anti-colonialism' (p.303), certainly with a strong dose of British encouragement opened the ground, to a gradual deterioration of Greek-Turkish relations. It is the unfortunate merging of those two issues in 'the US complaisance towards the Greek military regime and subsequent inaction during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus' (p.307) which would determine post-junta domestic and foreign policies, especially Andreas Papandreou's domination in the political scene, in the 1980s. Despite the pages the authors devote to relations with the other Balkan states, Greek-Turkish relations occupy the lion's share, understandably so, since in the post-junta Greek society 'a broad consensus was formed among Greeks of all political tendencies that the immediate threat to their national security no longer emanated from Greece's Communist neighbors but from Turkey' (p.308). 

      Part VII on 'National Geography' demonstrates how the boundaries constituted a new reality for the populations of the modern state ('The frontier and beyond'), boundaries which both protected them but also 'separated them from their brethren inside the Sultan's dominions' (p.328). However, major importance is attributed to the consecutive perceptions of Hellas in relation to its northern boundaries. The 'more realistic northern boundaries&on the basis of what was considered at the time (the 1820s) to be 'Greece proper' (p.334) gave its place to 'the Great Idea and the Greek Empire' which marked 'a departure from what till then had seemed to be the national policy' (p.336). As from then, in the course of the state expansion, the 'determinant of national identity' would not be culture, religion or language, but 'phronema', that is 'consciousness', a concept which would mainly be applied upon the inhabitants of Macedonia (p.337). This population thus became the major target of the 'mission civilisatrice' of the Greek nation (p.338), which frequently, as it was the case with the neighboring countries, took the shape of 'carving out of spheres of exclusive influence in these fiercely contested provinces' (p.345) if not of direct military action('War for land').

       The last part draws upon the cultural (in the ways of high culture) transformations of the nation-state. The major point is that the 'Greek state disrupted the continuity of the arts by interposing a wedge between the sacred content of painting and its own secular pursuits' (p.349). The authors provide us with an overview of the major figures and trends, which, while being highly informative, it once again reveals their preferences, when, for instance, the generation of the '30s is presented through 'their predilection for liberal democracy and political moderation' (p.358). The main corpus of the book is accompanied by a chronology and a very well informed bibliography.

      After we completed our journey in the pages of this important book, returning, as conscientious readers, to the very first page, we can better appreciate the picture of the little girl admiring her shoes, a picture very familiar for Greeks, indicative of the post WWII atmosphere. It was chosen, it is argued, as 'it has been thought to symbolize the attraction of the new, combined with reluctance to be finally parted from the old'. In any case, in their introduction, the authors clearly express their sympathy to the 'liberal principles which inspired the founding fathers of the Greek state' as opposed to 'the indigenous norms and practices' (p.9), thus vehemently adopting a modernist approach. In their conclusion, they return to the main theme: Did the renovated Greek nation fulfill the expectations of the founding fathers? In many ways it did while in others it failed' (p.361). The modernization of the Greek state has still not been completed and in certain cases 'indigenous' factors are held responsible for this. For instance, even if the PASOK hegemony of the 1980s is paid tribute for 'purging the Greeks from syndromes of victimization' (p.362), which probably, we would argue, contributed to the social consensus on a series of issues addressed by the modernizing agenda of Simitis-led PASOK in the late 1990s, it is still considered to 'have slowed Greece's advance to the West' (p.362). However, the insistence on dichotomies between reformers/ populists, order/ rebellion, modernity/ tradition, does not facilitate an understanding of specific time-bound phenomena. If such deviations from the stricto senso course of modernization are not taken into consideration, the danger of monolinearity looms on the horizon. However, the indispensability of this book is based on the fact that, apart from offering a highly informative and comprehensive overview of 180 years of historical developments, it challenges stereotypes and, relying upon such a criticism, also sets firm premises for a debate over modern Greek society, from a vantage point of view.

      Book Review Editor: Daniel Pennell. Email: dpennell@...

      © 2003 Balkan Academic News. This review may be distributed and reproduced electronically, if credit is given to Balkan Academic News and the author. For permission for re-printing, contact Balkan Academic News. 
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