Hellas Reborn

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Although Greece may be at the outskirts of Eu- rope’s geographical border, it’s at the very heart of its cultural identity.

Transcript of Hellas Reborn

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    Although Greece may be at the outskirts of Eu-ropes geographical border, its at the very heart of its cultural identity. In this short article I want to focus attention on the fascinating historical and problematic background of modern Greece, one which resonates strongly in the debate concern-ing the Greek debt crisis. This article is not about good or bad, right or wrong. My main point is that the Greek attitude towards institutions like the EU, IMF and the World Bank, could be better under-

    stood by paying attention to the complex, historical relationship between Europe and Greece.

    Lazy, corrupt and uncivilModern Greece is a young country with a very old soul. Its formation was part of a wide range of new nation-states that established themselves during the first decades of the 19th century. Before be-coming a proper state, the Greek speaking popula-tion was part of the Ottoman empire for centuries, due the Great Schism in the 11th century. As part


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    of the so-called millet system which was based on religion, most Greeks were part of the Orthodox community. Under the rule of the Ottoman Empire Greeks were seen as inferior, lazy and unreliable in trade by their British, German and French counter-parts. As a Scottish traveller wrote about the Greek-speaking habitants he met during his voyage in his notebook around 1609:

    They are wholly degenerate from their ancestors in valour, virtue and learning. Universities they have none and civil behaviour is quite lost: formerly in derision they termed all other Nations Barbarians: a name now most fit for themselves, being the great-est dissembling liars, inconstant, uncivil people of all other Christians in the world.

    This negative national image was widely spread for several centuries but started to shift during the 17th century, also known as the Enlightenment.

    Greek regenerationAlthough more and more attention was directed to Ancient Greece during the Renaissance, it was mostly during the Enlightenment that the described negative national image of modern Greece began to shift, leading up to a true philhellenistic move-ment. Philhellenism, which literally means The Love of Greek Culture, was an intellectual and po-litical ideology held by Europeans at the turn of the 19th century. The Philhellenes were sympathetic to the Greek people and many of them felt strongly connected to the destiny of their spiritual counter-parts. This change was mainly due to two related

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    Another Athens shall arise,

    And to remoter time

    Bequeath, like sunset to the skies,

    The splendour of its prime;

    And leave, if naught so bright may live,

    All earth can take or Heaven can give

    Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 1822)

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    developments in the history of ideas during the 18th century. First of all the natural, God-given sta-tus quo was no longer seen as a fact but open for change and improvement. The French philosopher Helvtius wrote:

    La position physique de la Grce est toujours la mme: pourquoi les Grecs daujourd hui sont-ils si diffrents des Grecs dautrefois? Cest que la forme de leur gouvernement a chang.

    [the geographical position of Greece has always been the same: why are the Greeks of our age so different then the Greeks from other times? Its be-cause the form of their government has changed.]

    Secondly, the idea of the nation as the defining po-litical community became popular. Nation-formation was a broader historical development but Greece had something special. As one historian wrote: during the Enlightenment era, the philosophers saw history as the unravelling of human progress. Within this framework, the ancient Greeks were looked upon as fathers of civilisation. Reason, philosophy, and freedom to shape ones personal destiny were the central future of ancient Greek culture.

    Could Hellas be Reborn?Hence, with an idealised, nostalgic image of Hellas in their minds, the classically schooled French and Germans up North came to believe that the poor state of the Greeks could be reversed. They openly dreamed about a renewed Greek polis with all the virtues of classical civilisation. Within this respect, an anonymous traveller wrote in his journal around the start of the 19th century:

    The Greek character, at the present moment, is unjustly said to be innately bad; it is rather like a tract of rich uncultivated land, where numbers of noxious weeds shed their baneful influence on all around, owing their destructive luxuriance even to the excellence of the soil which they injure. Greece has never been well governed.

    This idea of change or improvement - was firmly stated by philosophers and poets and was adapt-ed by Greek expatriates, part of an intellectual elite who lived in cities like Amsterdam and Vien-na. New ideas on politics and authority were thus transferred via a Neo-Hellenic Enlightenment from mostly France into the Greek peninsula via the minds of young, well-educated Greeks. Moisiodax (c.1725 - 1800), Feraios (1757 - 1798) and Korais (1748 - 1833) all contributed in one way or another. In many historiographies, this development even-tually lead to the Greek war of independence (1821 1830).

    The War on Greek independence When the War of Greek Independence started, sympathy and ideology became stronger than ever before. The war became a symbol for Europes main essence which was Civilisation. Well-educat-ed men from all parts of Europe could not wait to enter the battle and liberate Greece. The issue was breaking news, not in the least because of the inter-ference of the major European powers (Russia, UK and France). In 1822 independence was declared as a symbolic act. There was no such thing as a central state organisation or leadership. A great number of rivalries and rebellions followed, while throughout the decade the Ottomans remained generally in control. In 1824 international attention was attracted to the issue by Eugene Delacroix, whos painting Le Massacre de Chios was showed at a Gallery in Paris. Atrocities were committed by both sides but this powerful visualisation of Ottoman soldiers slaughtering Greek civilians made Europeans de-clare their solidarity and demand similar declara-tions from their governments. Other big confrontations followed e.g. in Missolonghi as opposition forces were support-ed by so called sympathy committees which sent money and materials from North-West European cities. As this went on, pressure on governments grew stronger and, mostly due to internal affairs, the European powers decided to get involved actively. The Treaty of London was signed by Russia, UK and France on July 6, 1827 and naval forces were

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    sent to the Pelopennese, at first only to impress the Ottomans. However, due to a misinterpretation of an exercise around Navarino, war erupted earlier than planned and the Ottomans were swept away. The Greek kingdom was born in 1830.

    The power of ideology Despite the heroic description of a one-sided vic-tory of enlightenment over darkness, there is much more to this story. The Greek War of Independence was most of all an issue of Realpolitik during the Restoration period where power had to be divid-ed between the Holy Alliance members. The other side of the story, which been forgotten most of the time for obvious reasons, is most relevant to the current day situation in Greece. In this last part of the article, Ill explain why and make the connec-tion to the current situation. At the beginning of the 19th century, life in what we today call Greece was basic, rural and the large majority of people were illiterate. The main oppositional force during the war were the Klephts, bandits who lived in the mountains whom were much more busy gaining personal wealth than any well-defined political cause. The discourse that was surrounding the rise of an autonomous Greek

    community, however, was that of European Philhel-lenism

    Evidence describing the gap between the romantic image of Greece and the harsh reality of Mediter-ranean life in that period originates from European sources. For example, in 1822, the second year of the war, many young idealists wandered around port cities of France like Marseille, waiting for an opportunity to travel by boat and fight. Many would die, not used to such harsh conditions, among them the famous poet Lord Byron. Those who did survive would often end up disillusioned. As one of those ideologically motivated young men, Prussian officer L. de Bolleman, stated in a notice in 1822:

    Jeunesse Europenne, les grecs dautrefois nexistent plus; laveugle ignorance a succd Solon, Socrate, Dmosthne, et la barbarie a remplac les sages loix dAthnes.

    Youth of Europe, the Greek of ancient times do not exist any longer: blind ignorance has succeeded, to Solon, to Socrates, to Demosthenes, and the barbarian has replaced the sacred laws of Athens]

    Simon Verwer studied Philosophy, European Studies and French Language & Culture in Am-sterdam and Paris. He was a participant of Teach First (Eerst de Klas) and works in educa-tion and business. Read Simons thesis here.

    Paintings explained1. Thomas Phillips, Lord Byron in Albanian

    dress (1835)2. Eugne Ferdinand Victor Delacroix, The Mas-

    sacre at Chios (1824)3. Theodoros Vryzakis, The Bishop of Old Patras

    Germanos Blesses the Flag of Revolution, 1865 (1852)

    4. Eugne Ferdinand Victor Delacroix, Combat of the Giaour and the Pasha (1827)

    5. Theodoros Vryzakis, Greece personified as a woman, with revolutionaries who participated in the Greek War of Independence (1858)

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