Greece and the West: What is the West?

A few weeks ago I was reading the Sunday Kleine Zeitung, the tabloid paper from the Kronen Zeitung in Austria. I was mostly interested in the enormous lede about a guy who went nuts and killed three people in Graz and injured 34 more (stabbed a few and drove over the rest. Yes, he was known to the police. Yes, he had a restraining order to keep him away from his wife, and yes, he told the police and others that he was being followed . . . by Turks. Europeans are not immune to mental illness.) I’d been in that part of Graz three days before the “Amoklaufer”* snapped. So I read all the news, skimmed the half of the paper detailing the upcoming Formula 1 race, and almost snorted tea when I saw the Sunday cartoon**. Then I stopped on a fascinating author interview.

I wish I’d taken notes, but I didn’t. The author is a Greek writer, formerly a novelist as I recall, who now writes about current events and is close to what Americans would call a pundit. His new book is entitled something like Deutschland Ist Immer Schuld, “Germany is Always at Fault” or “Germany is Always Guilty.” (Schuld also means “debt” or “sin.”) The topic of the interview was the book, and the then-current problem with Greece and the EU.

The author posed an interesting argument, one that I had not really considered before. Greece, according to this gentleman, is considered part of the West and thus a natural fit into Europe. But is that really true? What makes the West Western? Greece was taken over by the Turks between 1360 and 1460, cutting it off from Italy and northern Europe. Greece missed the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars.  Turkish governance had not encouraged economic development, so in essence in 1828 a land full of Medieval farmers were suddenly told, “You are the same as the democrats of Athens and the great heroes of Sparta and Thebes! Welcome to the modern world, you’re going to be fine.” Interestingly, when the Peloponnesus was liberated, the Great Powers insisted that it stay a monarchy rather than experimenting with a republic or democracy.

Except the 20th Century was not fine. And modern Greeks, after 500 years of immersion in the Ottoman management system (or mismanagement if you were not Ottoman, Muslim, or both), produced a country where most people were used to bribery, to hiding resources to keep them from being confiscated, viewed tax evasion as an art form, and operated on the assumption that if someone else is doing well, they are either on the take or are impoverishing you. The Eastern Orthodox Church also has an anti-modern streak that surfaces on occasion and sometimes discourages modern education and scientific curiosity. In short, per the author of the book, Greece was not really as Western as people assumed. Some Greeks are, but the general Greek mindset, the mentalité or Weltanschaung, is more like Ankara than Brussels.

This was not to say that between 2000 and today there were not shenanigans, and EUrocrats pressuring earlier Greek governments, and Greeks on the take, and other stuff going on in the shadows and under the table. But the Greek reflex to blame the Germans for every woe is partly the result of WWII and partly a reflex – it’s always his fault, be he German, Ottoman, Roman, or from the European Central Bank. The Ottomans perfected the divide and conquer school of management, and that lingers in the places where they held the tightest control for the longest period of time. Then the Wehrmacht and SS wreaked havoc in Greece. And then there’s the rest of the 20th Century. But I think the author had/has an interesting argument.

If the “cradle of democracy” missed the rest of the package that created the modern West, is the Greek mindset truly Western and modern? Are Greeks a modern nation but not precisely a Western one? Athens in 1600 certainly was not Nuremberg, or Copenhagen, or Paris, or Edinburgh. Athens in 1800 was even more different from Paris and London. Some of the concepts we take for granted – government that does not require bribery to function, the rejection of nepotism in bureaucracy, not keeping multiple sets of account books, paying taxes on time and in full, government accountability – didn’t have time to plant roots and grow in the rocky soil of the Greek peninsula.

What does this mean for Greece and the EU in the future? Hard to say, especially with Russia  taking up the banner of supporting and defending her fellow Eastern Orthodox against the EU and European Central Bank. But the Greek author’s argument makes a great deal of sense, and complicates how one looks at the mess at the eastern end of the Mediterranean.


* Literally “one who is running amok.” English really needs to borrow this word.

** The cartoon was a beautifully drawn Great White Shark underwater, the bulk of the shark’s body fading into the blue distance. A lower arm and hand stuck out of the shark’s mouth, holding a selfie-stick. The caption read “Mein bestes Urlaubsphoto” My Greatest Vacation Photo. I laughed so hard the other people in the hotel’s breakfast room must have wondered what I’d been smoking.