Book review of Ioannis D Stefanidis, STIRRING THE GREEK NATION: Political Culture, Irredentism and Anti-Americanism in Post-War Greece, 1945-1967. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishers, 2007

Robert Kagan has frequently manifested opinions that do not usually see eye to eye with many of my own views on unfolding events. Especially his Russia – bashing attitude which gives ammunition to Washington alarmists and career post - Yeltsin Kemlinologists annoys me as recurrently politically motivated and unfair. His basic thesis however that history has not ended and is rather back with a vengeance (The Return of History and the End of Dreams, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008) is pretty well founded and justified. History never really faded away. It gave way instead for a short time to overt optimism caused by the fall of communism. The basic trends however of nationalism, historically indebted racism and strong attitudes of irredentism were always there.

The Greek experience is a living example of the Kagan thesis. An established democracy, founding member of the North Atlantic Alliance and a mature partner of the Brussels led European Union, Greece nevertheless could not contain ethnic identity phobias and feelings of encirclement by avowed enemies after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. It became quickly evident that deep convictions of an eminent victimization by powerful international actors and a future assault by hostile neighbours could at any time be vindicated. Political leaders asked for vigilance against possible questions over national territorial rights. The official church warned of globalization’s aim to subvert the nation’s exceptional character and pulverize its distinctive identity. The return of history was beyond doubt the new political reality.

It is without doubt that the book under review by professor Stefanidis will stir quite a fuss in Greece when it becomes widely known. By turning upon their head many a politically correct assumptions in Greek politics, Stirring the Greek Nation reveals facts hitherto kept close to chest by talkative Greek pundits. Tracing the roots of post-war Greek irredentism and juxtaposing them to attitudes of anti-americanism the study reveals uncomfortable truths about feelings of nationalism and suppressed outwardly aggression.

It is obvious that the latest Balkan imbroglio concerning the impasse between Greece and the so-called Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia motivated the author to explore the Greek national psyche. What he discovered does not appear to be pretty. Emanating from the establishment of the modern Greek state the official reading of history nurtured convictions of racial supremacy and unjust treatment by neighbours and big powers. Historical reality was constructed by ethnocentric authors like Paparigopoulos and Marxist historians like Svoronos to represent a unified nation extending in an unbroken line back to classical times and tastelessly exploited by global capitalists and regional imperialists.

Inevitably, a “victim culture” developed portraying the nation as the object of designed subversion. It is indicative if the idiosyncracy of modern Greek culture that in the language of politics foreign policy pursuits are not labelled national interests but national rights. Implying of course that history has assigned certain inappropriate rights to Greeks exclusively. It goes without saying that Greeks consequently cannot possibly be wrong. Whatever failure may have suffered in their post-independence political history cannot possibly be the outcome of bad policies or faulty decisions. They have to be the result of foreign conspiracies or the product of treacherous acts by indigenous misinformed or bought out individuals.

Greeks claim to never have nourished expansive schemes against any of their neighbours. They justify, however, acts of aggression and the occupation of new lands, mainly during the so-called Balkan wars and the Asia Minor expedition, as initiatives to restore national territorial integrity. On the basis always of deeply held historical convictions of self-righteousness. Greece “liberated” Thessaloniki although the majority of its inhabitants were non-Greek. Greece demanded its right to fullfill the aspirations of Meghali Idea (Grand Idea) by invading Asia Minor and punishing the offending Turks. All in the name of historic rights and the national duty to revive the glory of the Byzantine Empire.

It is strange that Turkey is always portrayed in Greek political rhetoric as the expansive neighbourhood aggressor, while it is Greece that during the last hundred years has been gaining territory at the expense of its manifestly larger Nato ally and neighbour. Irredentism has been a bad word in Greek political vocabulary. Up to the Asia Minor entanglement however it was exactly irredentism that dictated Greek foreign policy actions.

It is quite impressive that Stefanidis decided to study irredentism in Greece after the end of the second world war. Allegedly Greece had abandoned ideas of territorial growth after the disastrous termination of its Asia Minor adventure. Although Greek politicians and historians never acknowledged Greek presence on the lands of the demised Ottoman Empire as an act of military invasion they however had to abandon dreams of conquest vis a vis modern day Turkey. This was not true though for Cyprus (or for northern Epiros – southern Albania, for that matter). The aim of unification with the national motherland, although Cyprus had never been in the past part of a unified Greek state, was again viewed as being dictated by historical destiny. The Greek state as a whole got wholeheartedly involved in the new national vision.

As it was to be expected, the final failure of such a grandiose national scheme could not be attributed to inefficient planning, usual Greek infighting, amateurish statesmanship and ill thought out policies. Bullish practices by Greek Cypriot guerrillas, actively encouraged by clandestine Greek military men from the mainland, polarized the Turkish minority on the island. The British seized the opportunity and created a counter revolutionary popular sentiment. Inevitably, Turkey was finally involved. Not long afterwards it was evident that the Enosis (Unification with Greece) vision was dead.

Because Greece could not possibly be wrong or inefficient, somebody else had to be blamed. The culprit was discovered in the persona of the mighty power of the day. With the exception of Britain, who was suspicious anyway due to its perceived treacherous behaviour during the Asia Minor catastrophe and she was nonetheless the official adversary on the Cyprus issue, the perpetrator could only be the United States. The fact, for example that the Greeks themselves, at the heat of the military campaign in Asia Minor, had outvoted Venizelos and brought back the King that the allies detested did not even for a minute register in the collective conscience of the nation. Neither did the fact that the French, the Italians and Stalin’s Soviet Union openly assisted Kemal Ataturk in his efforts to throw the Greek forces out of Turkish – Ottoman lands played any role in the way the Greeks viewed the world. The British were to blame for the Asia Minor disaster. And the Americans, along with them, were responsible some decades later, for the failure of Enosis in Cyprus.

The prevailing difficulties with the Turks on the island and the inevitable involvement of the USA as a central NATO arbiter, convinced Greek politicians that their schemes were constantly frustrated by Washington. Conspiracy theories unbound, the church strongly warning about the inevitable deceitfulness of the infidel Asians and a strong cultural trait of supporting the underdog and distrust the powerful produced an anti-western near hysteria.

The meticulously researched analysis of Stirring the Greek Nation depicts beyond any shred of doubt that Greek anti-americanism is not a product of the imposition of the Greek junta or of the consequent Cyprus tragedy. Feelings inimical to the United States were amply displayed during the days of George Papandreou when his so-called clash with US President Johnson over the Cyprus question convinced Greeks that they could prevail by mere unwavering conviction. Inevitably, the following sad events in Greece itself and in Cyprus later (clash between Papandreou and the Palace, dismembering of the Center Union majority party, the military coup, the collision between the Greek colonels and Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus) convinced Greeks that all were the result of American vengeance against their righteous nation.

Tragedy has always been a co-inhabitant along with, usually unfounded, jubilation during unfolding events in the course of modern Greek history. Unsuspected souls have suffered horrendously as a result of nationalistic aspirations and unfounded optimism. Louis de Bernieres in his Birds Without Wings (London: Vintage, 2005) and Bruce Clark in Twice a Sranger: The Mass Expulsions that Formed Modern Greece and Turkey (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006) have accurately described numerous personal calamities. These were caused primarily by run away nationalism that had clouded sound judgment and common sense moderation among neighbouring states. What Stefanidis has been successful in doing is to explain that deep routed hubris of a nation may ultimately lead to similar dead ends.

Although the study culminates shortly before the colonels’ coup of 1967 it is not difficult for the knowledgeable observer to see in later events the confirmation of Stefanidis’s observations. The legalization of the Communist Party, after the collapse of the Greek dictatorship in 1974, and the rise to the forefront of politics the ideas of a hitherto suppressed left strengthened the anti-imperialist views in Greek politics. Likewise, the USA and western capitalism in general became the obvious target of hate for any misfortune or failure. The continuation of the occupation of Cyprus and whatever referred to the colonels’ access to power was straightforwardly blamed upon the Americans. In the same way, the Greek public remained aloof from common western engagements in the Gulf or in Kosovo. It goes without saying that the invasion of Iraq by the USA and certain of its allies, surpassed in the anti-american reaction it generated in Athens any previous American undertakings.

The USA, as the strongest country of the epoch, attracted hatred and distrust for most of its actions. In Greece there were some loud voices of “they went looking for it”, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. The late Archbishop Christodoulos claimed that God punished wrongdoings. Moderate Greeks could not believe their compatriots’ vitriolic anti-americanism. The Left’s dislike of free market capitalism got together with the Right’s qualms about globalization’s cultural assimilation capabilities and of USA tolerance towards previous foes and of multi-culturalism to form an explosive anti-western mix.

They are without doubt useful tools of self awareness when studies such as the work of Ioannis Stefanidis find their way to publication and to the bookshelves. No matter what the reactions may be about the arguments and the assertions of the author the guiding spirit will be an inevitable upturn of tables. Greeks need to be told about the shortcomings of deep nationalist beliefs. The complicated world in which we live does not allow for simplifications and introvert visualizations of bloated national self-importance. A nation today needs to build its strength not on the shining glory of its ancestors but on the merits of its current achievements. Modern education, technological attainment and innovation in business and in academia comprise today the proper blend for national success.

History is for the historians. Politicians and social leaders should concentrate in building a nation’s creative reflexes to contemporary crucial challenges. Stefanidis’s Stirring the Greek Nation may actually inspire students and leaders alike in admitting faults and working hard for new relevant outcomes.