[MGSA-L] Democracy’s Cradle, Rocking the World

June Samaras june.samaras at gmail.com
Thu Jun 30 13:37:35 PDT 2011

Op-Ed Contributor
Democracy’s Cradle, Rocking the World
Published: June 29, 2011


YESTERDAY, the whole world was watching Greece as its Parliament voted
to pass a divisive package of austerity measures that could have
critical ramifications for the global financial system. It may come as
a surprise that this tiny tip of the Balkan Peninsula could command
such attention. We usually think of Greece as the home of Plato and
Pericles, its real importance lying deep in antiquity. But this is
hardly the first time that to understand Europe’s future, you need to
turn away from the big powers at the center of the continent and look
closely at what is happening in Athens. For the past 200 years, Greece
has been at the forefront of Europe’s evolution.

In the 1820s, as it waged a war of independence against the Ottoman
Empire, Greece became an early symbol of escape from the prison house
of empire. For philhellenes, its resurrection represented the noblest
of causes. “In the great morning of the world,” Shelley wrote in
“Hellas,” his poem about the country’s struggle for independence,
“Freedom’s splendor burst and shone!” Victory would mean liberty’s
triumph not only over the Turks but also over all those dynasts who
had kept so many Europeans enslaved. Germans, Italians, Poles and
Americans flocked to fight under the Greek blue and white for the sake
of democracy. And within a decade, the country won its freedom.

Over the next century, the radically new combination of constitutional
democracy and ethnic nationalism that Greece embodied spread across
the continent, culminating in “the peace to end all peace” at the end
of the First World War, when the Ottoman, Hapsburg and Russian empires
disintegrated and were replaced by nation-states.

In the aftermath of the First World War, Greece again paved the way
for Europe’s future. Only now it was democracy’s dark side that came
to the fore. In a world of nation-states, ethnic minorities like
Greece’s Muslim population and the Orthodox Christians of Asia Minor
were a recipe for international instability. In the early 1920s, Greek
and Turkish leaders decided to swap their minority populations,
expelling some two million Christians and Muslims in the interest of
national homogeneity. The Greco-Turkish population exchange was the
largest such organized refugee movement in history to that point and a
model that the Nazis and others would point to later for displacing
peoples in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and India.

It is ironic, then, that Greece was in the vanguard of resistance to
the Nazis, too. In the winter of 1940-41, it was the first country to
fight back effectively against the Axis powers, humiliating Mussolini
in the Greco-Italian war while the rest of Europe cheered. And many
cheered again a few months later when a young left-wing resistance
fighter named Manolis Glezos climbed the Acropolis one night with a
friend and pulled down a swastika flag that the Germans had recently
unfurled. (Almost 70 years later, Mr. Glezos would be tear-gassed by
the Greek police while protesting the austerity program.) Ultimately,
however, Greece succumbed to German occupation. Nazi rule brought with
it political disintegration, mass starvation and, after liberation,
the descent of the country into outright civil war between Communist
and anti-Communist forces.

Only a few years after Hitler’s defeat, Greece found itself in the
center of history again, as a front line in the cold war. In 1947,
President Harry S. Truman used the intensifying civil war there to
galvanize Congress behind the Truman Doctrine and his sweeping
peacetime commitment of American resources to fight Communism and
rebuild Europe. Suddenly elevated into a trans-Atlantic cause, Greece
now stood for a very different Europe — one that had crippled itself
by tearing itself apart, whose only path out of the destitution of the
mid-1940s was as a junior partner with Washington. As the dollars
poured in, American advisers sat in Athens telling Greek policy makers
what to do and American napalm scorched the Greek mountains as the
Communists were put to flight.

European political and economic integration was supposed to end the
weakness and dependency of the divided continent, and here, too,
Greece was an emblem of a new phase in its history. The fall of its
military dictatorship in 1974 not only brought the country full
membership in what would become the European Union; it also (along
with the transitions in Spain and Portugal at the same time)
prefigured the global democratization wave of the 1980s and ’90s,
first in South America and Southeast Asia and then in Eastern Europe.
And it gave the European Union the taste for enlargement and the
ambition to turn itself from a small club of wealthy Western European
states into a voice for the newly democratic continent as a whole,
extending far to the south and east.

And now today, after the euphoria of the ’90s has faded and a new
modesty sets in among the Europeans, it falls again to Greece to
challenge the mandarins of the European Union and to ask what lies
ahead for the continent. The European Union was supposed to shore up a
fragmented Europe, to consolidate its democratic potential and to
transform the continent into a force capable of competing on the
global stage. It is perhaps fitting that one of Europe’s oldest and
most democratic nation-states should be on the new front line,
throwing all these achievements into question. For we are all small
powers now, and once again Greece is in the forefront of the fight for
the future.

Mark Mazower is a professor of history at Columbia University.
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on June 30, 2011, on page
A27 of the New York edition with the headline: Democracy’s Cradle,
Rocking the World.

June Samaras
2020 Old Station Rd
Canada L5M 2V1
Tel : 905-542-1877
E-mail : june.samaras at gmail.com

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