Five hundred years of foreign rule, followed by a century of war and atrocities... is it any surprise that the Greek economy today is in crisis?
By Michael Hanlon
DAILY MAIL 21/06/2011
Greece, everyone increasingly seems to agree, is a basket case. As its economic crisis deepens, politicians and pundits are queuing up to demand its expulsion from the Euro, even the EU itself, and let this nation of work-shy orientalist scroungers, whingers and layabouts go to the third-world hell where it belongs.
There is an alternative view. Greece is not perfect. Its politicians have indeed been corrupt, useless and lazy. But having lived in the country for a short time in the 1980s and having got to know a little of its people and history, I can see another side of Greece that needs to be taken into account – one which makes the current wave of hostility seem laughably unfair.
First, some history – not ancient history, of which Greece has aplenty, but the more recent, relevant stuff of which it has, sadly, rather too much as well.
By early 1941 only one major nation still stood free, shoulder to shoulder with the British Empire and actively fighting against the Nazis. That country was not America , which was still sitting on the fence, nor the USSR , which was still on the wrong side, but Greece – a country parts of which, remember, had only won their independence from the Turks in the 1920s.
When Mussolini invaded in 1940 his large, organised and hi-tech Italian army was soundly thrashed by the Greeks, whose soldiers may have been poorly equipped (they actually had no tanks at all and only a few ancient aircraft) but fought like dragons.
This was the first Allied victory in the War, and was hugely damaging to Axis morale – so much so that some historians argue that the Greeks gave Hitler pause for thought in his plans to invade the USSR . Nobody derided Greece as a nation of feckless layabouts then; as Churchill said, 'Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks.'
Greece was, in the end, invaded by the Wehrmacht. And this is where things get really nasty. The behaviour of occupied nations and their peoples during WW2 remains hugely controversial. Who collaborated and to what degree, who protected ‘their’ Jews, whose resistance was most effective – these are questions that are open sores in the European psyche to this day and will keep historians busy for centuries.
What is not controversial is that Greece put up fiercer resistance to Nazi occupation than just about anywhere else, and paid a terrible price.
Throughout the War, groups of Andartes (resistance fighters) ambushed German supply lines, killed and captured senior Nazi and Italian commanders and generally made life hell for the occupiers.
When they could, the Germans exacted a terrible revenge – go to the village of Kandanos in western Crete and you can see the plaque in memory of the massacre that took place after one well-executed resistance operation.
Greek resistance, notably matched by that put up by anti-fascist partisans from Bulgaria and Yugoslavia to the north, was fierce, unrelenting and well-organised across all classes of society from the clergy to the aristocracy to the humblest peasants.
Greek collaboration certainly existed, but to a far lesser extent than was seen in just about any other occupied European country.
Some 300,000 civilians died in Athens alone during the years 1942-43; in the occupation, between 5 per cent and 10 per cent of the entire Greek civilian population perished, with the bulk of the casualties among the young, economically active classes. More than 80 per cent of Greek Jews were murdered by the Nazis and again these people formed a substantial part of the Greek professional, intellectual and entrepreneurial class.
By 1944, Greek industry was in ruins, the nation’s wealth looted, its fields untilled and its livestock starving; a million people homeless and the economy plundered. Along with Poland and parts of the occupied Soviet Union, Greece can lay claim to have suffered more than any other nation during the conflict.
Then, after Liberation, came a ghastly civil war, which killed another 50,000 and made a million more homeless. Then a brief period of democracy followed by a US -backed military coup and finally, in the 1970s, a democracy again.
That’s a lot of history in a short time. Many individual people will have lived through it all; indeed, a handful may be still alive today. Five hundred years of Turkish rule, followed by a century of war, occupation, atrocities, superpower meddling, self-inflicted misery and coups.
So it is not surprising that the Greek economy today is not in the best of shape.
Last year, two German MPs suggested ‘helpfully’ that Greece might consider selling a couple of its islands to help pay off its debt. I can only imagine how this advice was received by the ancient widows of Crete who, to this day, can remember all too well what happened the last time northern Europeans thought it might be a good idea to grab the Greek archipelago.
You may not buy the line that Greece is the birthplace of Western Civilisation or democracy. You may go there on holiday or business and be struck by the contract between the supposed ordered meritocracy of Classical Athens and the shambolic, corrupt chaos of today’s Hellenes.
World War Two was a long time ago and no one can hark back to past glories or injustices forever. Greece has been borrowing money at German interest rates and not matching it with German productivity and you can hardly blame today’s Germany , or anywhere else for that matter, for today’s Greek woes.
All fair enough. But do not forget that this tiny, relatively poor, rural nation of argumentative monks, shepherds, fishermen and a few intellectuals kept fascism at bay along Europe’s southern flank for a few precious months and, if this really did stop Hitler invading Russia until it was too late for him to win, we may have the Greeks as much as anyone to thank for the fact that we are not speaking German. We owe them more than they us, and let us not forget that.