Sunday, February 15, 2015

Some Recent Greek History (as in, WWII)

This article has some interesting comparisons between Greece's current economic crisis and Argentina's turn-of-the-millennium crisis.  Short version: It is pointless to squeeze Greece's economy any more; all squeezing will do is keep Greece depressed.  Europe should relax Greece's fiscal burden to allow a recovery; Greece should take advantage of the recovery to implement structural reforms to its deeply dysfunctional economic and political system.  All quite conventional.  It would prefer a negotiated settlement to the Grexit.  But given the history of Argentina, the authors appear to regard the Grexit as the lesser evil compared to continuing the status quo.  The authors appear to be speaking primarily in the context of a negotiated settlement allowing Greece to recover when they urge, "The new Greek government should not use the European Union – or Germany – as a scapegoat."  To this, I reply, if there is a negotiated settlement that allows the Greek economy to recovery, no scapegoat will be necessary.  But if creditors refuse any concessions and, if Greece holds firm, force the Grexit, then, then even if Greece bounces back as fast as Argentina, the short-term results will be an economic catastrophe of the type much easier to endure if there is a convenient scapegoat handy.  If the EU needlessly imposes such hardship, it will be an entirely appropriate scapegoat.

Put differently, people are more likely to endure that sort of hardship if it is accompanied by chest-thumping nationalism and seen as a necessary sacrifice to reassert sovereignty against a foreign power that wants to take it.  In Latin American, the usual scapegoat is the IMF, although everyone knows that the IMF is really just the front man for Yankee imperialism.  In the Baltics, it was Russia. And in Southern Europe today one can blame the EU, but you are likely to get more traction by treating the EU as a mere front man for Germany.

It also occurred to me that if you want to drum up nationalism to endure coming hardships and treat them as necessary sacrifices to endure in protecting one's sovereignty, it helps to have plenty of national history to draw on about your country's past glorious heroic sacrifices in protecting its sovereignty from earlier imperialists.  And, of course, a country as old as Greece has a lot of history to draw on.  But it also occurred to me that if you want real resonance, the best choice not be anything so distant as Classical Greece resisting the Persians, or Byzantine Greece resisting the Turks, or even modern Greece winning its independence from the Turks.  If you want Germany as your scapegoat and want to drum up hatred of Germany, the best point of comparison might be last time Greece was at war with Germany.  I must admit that I knew very little about Greece's role in WWII, except through the eyes of its next-door neighbor Yugoslavia (or, perhaps more accurately, Serbia).  What little I knew was that Mussolini invaded Greece and ran into trouble, that Hitler had to bail him out, that Hitler cut a deal with Yugoslavia that would allow German troops to pass through into Greece, and that this proved so unpopular in Serbia as to provoke revolution and extreme German retaliation.  But I knew very little about Greece, other than that if the Nazis behaved there the way they behaved everywhere else, they would make drumming up hatred of Germany easy.

So, with no more than a Wikipedia-level knowledge of Greece in WWII, I can say that there is some useful history there, but it will require selective editing.  The useful history is roughly as follows:

Ochi Day
By fall of 1940, the Axis seemed fully triumphant.  Hitler had swept up Poland, Czechoslovakia, and much of France.  Most of Central and Eastern Europe was scrambling to make the best accommodation possible.  Britain had not fallen, but seemed in imminent peril.  The Soviet Union was neutral and not even thought of.  Mussolini had seized Albania and was engaged in systematic provocation against Greece.  On October 28, 1940, Mussolini made an intentionally unacceptable ultimatum, which the Greeks indignantly refused.  The refusal is celebrated every October 28 in Greece as Ochi Day (NO! day).  Great outpourings of patriot fervor ensued.  The Italians invaded. The Greeks drove them back, and advanced well into Albania.  These were the allies' first victories in Europe, and inspired many who had begun to despair.  Greek courage was uniformly admired, even by the Germans.

It was also in vain.  When Hitler came to his ally's assistance, the Greeks has moved so much of their army to fight the Italians in Albania as to leave their northern border almost unguarded.  The Germans easily overran them.  The Nazis proceeded to behave as endearingly in Greece as they did everywhere else.  They requisitioned great amounts of food from Greece and plundered outright, as well as forcing huge payments from the government.  Famine ensued.  Tens of thousands starved.  Hundreds of villages were destroyed, sometimes with the execution of their entire male population.  A million Greeks lost their homes.  The Germans even executed thousands of Italian soldiers who attempted to limit such atrocities!  But such brutality did not break the Greek will to resist.  A regular guerrilla movement broke out that the Nazis were never able to crush, and persisted to the very end.  Mass protests and strikes even occurred in urban areas, despite the danger.  Special honor is due to Damaskinos, Archbishop of Athens, who proclaimed all Greek Jews to be equal fellow-citizens and called on all Christians to protect the Jews in their midst.

All right, so it should be easy to fire up anger against the Germans, celebrate the Greeks' heroic resistance, call for a new Ochi! and remind the Greeks that no matter what they suffer this time, it will not compare with what their forebears endured.  But a lot of selective editing will also be called for.  The story of Greece in WWII is a controversial one that remains divisive to this day.

Salute to Metaxas
For starters, the leader who told Mussolini Ochi! was the controversial Ioannis Metaxas, a right wing dictator who used a fascist-style salute and called his regime the "Third Hellenic Civilization."  And while WWII in Greece was a time of Nazi atrocities, great suffering, and heroic resistance, one thing it was not was a time of unity.  Although outright collaborators were few and universally despised, the resistance was split between pro- and anti-Communist factions, who fought each other as much as they fought the Germans, sometimes to the point of arranging a truce with the Nazis to concentrate fire on each other.  As German defeat became more and more certain, the resistance focused less and less on fighting the occupiers and more and more on fighting each other.  Once WWII ended, a Greek civil war ensued, marked by atrocities on both sides, that left the country in even worse shape than it had been at the end of the German occupation.  This war left scars.  True reconciliation did not begin until the 1980's.  Suffice it to say that all of this history is well known to the Greeks and remains highly controversial and not helpful.

Nonetheless, we all tend to view the past through rose-colored glasses.  And if you are trying to stir up patriotic defiance and hatred of the Germans . . .

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