Greece: A History of Tragedy; History, Both Ancient and Modern, Makes Greece a State That Can Never Start Anew, by Adam LeBor

By LeBor, Adam | Newsweek, July 17, 2015 | Go to article overview

Greece: A History of Tragedy; History, Both Ancient and Modern, Makes Greece a State That Can Never Start Anew, by Adam LeBor


LeBor, Adam, Newsweek


Byline: Adam LeBor

Sitting at the cafe of the Technopolis cultural center in downtown Athens, cigarillo in hand, Antonis Kafetzopoulos, one of Greece's best-known actors, gives a quick digested history of Greece's travails. "Greece is a failed state and has been since our independence in the 1830s. We have not managed to build the kind of state we wanted. France had a revolution and Enlightenment. But we didn't follow that model. We always tried to compromise between the old Ottoman establishment and modern Europe," he explains through a haze of blue smoke.

In the struggle between modernism and myth, the latter triumphed. "Our narrative focused on national values and our ancient history, rather than the state. That is partly because we were not a homogenous nation then," he says.

"So every time we try to make reforms, the new authorities find that the previous ones left the situation untouched. One reason nothing seems to work in Greece is that we have so many layers of the old system under any new rules."

The Technopolis at least, does work. With its raw brick walls, post-industrial chic, large open spaces and buzzing atmosphere, the Technopolis could fit in anywhere from Brooklyn to Berlin. A former municipal gas works, the site has been converted into a cultural center and imaginative museum that transports visitors back to its 19th-century heyday. A hub for music, dance, theatre and performing arts, it has helped revitalize the city's Gazi neighborhood.

Now 63, Kafetzopoulos has joined the Athens municipality as a deputy mayor, he says, to try and make a difference. "When Greece joined the European Union, the money was channeled through the wrong people. It made a new rich elite. But now there is a new class, of people who are not corrupt but who are interested in making reforms and making Greece work. They are not united yet but reality will bring them together."

Building a new Greece will be a long haul, everyone agrees. The crisis has deep historical roots, emphasizes Yannis Palaiologos, a reporter with Kathimerini newspaper, and author of The Thirteenth Labor of Hercules. "There is a fear and suspicion of the West, a fear of globalization and change, and behind the bravado we have an inferiority complex. We have a heavy inheritance from the ancient world and were never able to make the transition to modernity. We were shielded from our faults and now they have caught up with us. But we are shocked and blame others for them."

Local potentates still exert enormous power, says Palaiologos. "Even now all kinds of business and union leaders have their own power bases and prevent the creation of a strong central state. Instead they exploit the state for rent-seeking purposes."

Greek culture brought the world its richest myths, and myths still play a central role in perceptions nowadays, says Palaiologos. "This ambivalence towards the West goes back to the idea that we are the playthings of the Western powers. But it was the great powers that gave Greece independence. If it was Slovakia that was causing so many problems in the eurozone, it would be long gone. But one of the reasons we were allowed into the EU was our classical heritage."

Centuries of rule by outsiders have left a disconnect between the citizens and the state and a tradition in which avoiding paying taxes and outwitting that state became a patriotic duty. Greece only declared independence in 1829 after centuries of rule by the Ottomans. Ioannis Kapodistrias, the first Governor, tried to build a centralized modern state, thus threatening the interests of powerful local warlords, and was assassinated in 1831. The following year Otto, the first modern king of Greece, was crowned. But Otto was a Bavarian prince and, though he ruled until 1862, the imposition of a foreign royal further widened the gap between Greeks and their new state.

In the 20th century, the country was badly buffeted by forces far larger than itself. …

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