The Corner

Greek Tragedies

There are a lot of new twists to the old story of massive demonstrations in Greece. This is the first time in my life (I first went to Greece in 1973) that I can remember Greek rioting and demonstrations that were not anti-American. Oh, there have been a few contorted efforts to blame the Wall Street “Jews” for the 2008 meltdown that in turn supposedly called in Greek credit, but it is a half-hearted attempt, and for the most part the Greeks seem bewildered that they cannot properly fault the U.S. for much of anything in their present disaster — so unlike the old days of the 1967 coup, the colonels, the Cold War, the American support for Israel, the oil boycotts of 1973, the 1974 Cyprus disaster, the bombing of a kindred Orthodox Milosevic, etc. But it has been a generation since the Greeks have had much to do with the U.S. The Greek lobby is long retired from the Congress. The Obama administration is enthralled with Turkey. Former prime minister and U.S. citizen Andreas Papandreou long ago cut any remaining close ties with the U.S. in a flurry of anti-American and pro-Soviet rhetoric designed to appeal to popular anti-Americanism. The Greek diaspora in the U.S. is mostly third-generation, intermarried, and assimilated, and the net result is that we are now spectators, not players, in the present tragedy.

The end of utopianism is certainly causing far more furor than had the utopian dream never materialized, so the anger against Germany in the popular press (“Gautleiters,” “The Fourth Reich”, “Dachau!”, etc) is far greater now than had the Germans and their friends never loaned the Greeks nearly $400 billion in the first place. What is strange to watch is the nature of the Greek furor: that the Germans are probably eventually willing to forgive hundreds of billions almost seems to enrage Greeks all the more — for their debtors’ unwillingness to go all the way by forgiving the entire huge sum. The thinking is almost, “Well, if they have that much money to forgive, why not forgive it all?”

For the Greeks, this is the Ottoman occupation, the 1922 collapse of the Megale Idea, the Italian and German occupations, and the colonels all over again — as all are evoked to remind Greeks once again that “they” (fill in the blanks) have taken advantage of such a small, vulnerable country.

Much of the Greek anger is hurt. Of course, there is little reflection over or remorse about the cooked books, the endemic tax-cheating, the bloated public sector, or the retirement-system conning, but rather a genuine disbelief: Greeks sort of thought they were Europeans now, all for one, one for all,  in the fashion of U.S. states, and so are reacting as if a poor Mississippi were to be cut adrift by wealthy Connecticut, and kicked out of the Union.

There also grows the realization, both in northern Europe and in Greece, that both sides are now absolutely fed up with each other (as in hate each other) and default would be preferable all around to the present non-ending psychodrama. The Euros can eat their losses and survive, but they are not willing to agree to constant bailouts. And they now believe that the Greeks would serially want them, in endless negotiations, mock hysterics, and broken promises. For a stern German banker, it is probably better to write off the entire loss now and be done with it (and them). And as for the Greeks (all but their Euro-trained elites with lucrative careers staked on the EU), they know they can never pay back even the reduced amounts, and would rather start again with a clean slate of worthless drachmas than a Euro that ensures an age of humiliation, constant lecturing, debt, uncompetitiveness, and paying interest to those far wealthier than themselves.

So far, economists are thinking mostly in terms of the fiscal fall-out, largely in the sense of the EU being able to handle the default as long as Portugal, Spain, and Italy do not follow suit. But few have considered the resulting effects on NATO’s southern flank, the role of a defenseless, isolated, and alone Greece, without money to buy, inter alia, basic arms (and without its old military friendship with the U.S.), in a world of stirring Islamism across the Mediterranean, an ascendant Islamist Turkey, a fickle Russia, and a once-again volatile Cyprus. And we’ve grown up on the expectation of seeing Europeans become wealthier each decade, as the Eastern Europeans were incorporated into the Western system and huge transfers brought the Mediterranean up roughly to the standards of the northwest. Now? It is civilization in reverse, and Greece might be de-Europeanized and revert to its mostly impoverished status of the 1950s and 1960s — the first time we’ve seen a European state going backward since World War II and its aftermath.

So Greece is facing an existential crisis well beyond its fiscal catastrophes. There may well be not just no EU membership, but real antagonism toward it by the EU’s most powerful members. It wanted a severance from the U.S. and got its wish long ago. It is a Christian country (as much as any European one can be these days) with militant Islamism nearby. Its only assurance is NATO, which for decades was a whipping-boy for Greek politicians and the press. The U.N. cares about Greece like the League of Nations did Abyssinia.

What next?

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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