The modern Greek state is an invention of European powers. The effort began with the Romantics, when Chateaubriand, a great writer but also a wonderful fibber, and then Lord Byron, believed that they could retrieve the sources of Western civilization in Greece—a misunderstanding for which we’re continuing to pay the price. True, today’s Greeks live on the same land as Aristotle and Pericles; but otherwise no great continuation links Hellenic civilization with modern Greece.
The Byzantium line, from which modern Greeks claim they descend, is mostly a fiction. Mark Twain was more realistic in his assessment: when visiting Athens in 1867, he noted that he had met no representatives of the Hellenistic tradition but only a few shepherds, whose sheep grazed amid the Parthenon’s ramshackle columns. The shepherds belonged, in fact, to one of the Ottoman Empire’s Christian tribes.
Yet just as Don Quixote dreamed that an ugly peasant girl was the love of his life, Europeans wanted Greeks to be Hellenics. We can’t blame the Greeks for taking advantage of the wish. In the nineteenth century, Britain, France, and Germany began to support the Greek state’s finances. In 1833, a year after Greece won its independence from the Ottoman Empire, Germany even foisted one of its princes onto the Greek throne. This would-be descendant of Alexander the Great bore the curious name of Othon of Baviere.
The exploitation of the Hellenistic myth became the main resource of the Greek state, while the Europeans kept paying the bills, right up until today. Though the Greek state and economy fulfilled none of the conditions required to enter the European Union, Greece became a member in 1981. That great reader of Chateaubriand, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, proved instrumental in gaining Greece’s admission. Europe, he said, owed a historic debt to Greece, the cradle of Western civilization. It’s doubtful whether many Greeks shared this high opinion of themselves, but why pay today’s debt as long the historical debt remained unpaid?
This mystification worked again in 2001, when Greece entered the Eurozone—the economic and monetary union of over a dozen (but not all) EU states—without, again, fulfilling any of the necessary conditions for membership. We’re currently blaming Greek leaders for cooking their financial books, which the markets eventually discovered. They are not solely culpable, though: in 2001, European leaders knew and said, privately, that the Greek state’s numbers didn’t add up. The International Olympic Committee similarly knew that Greece couldn’t afford to host a modern Olympics, but it awarded the 2004 games to Athens anyway—the original birthplace (roughly) of the games in antiquity, before Pierre de Coubertin reinvented them in 1896. How could they say no to such a romantic idea?
With all of this historical deference to play on, the Greek state feels no compulsion to pay back its creditors. Nor do Greek citizens feel a strong obligation to pay their fines to some alien European state. Not that the Greeks view their own government—democratically elected only since the military junta running the country was overthrown in 1973—as all that legitimate, marred as it is by widespread political corruption and an inefficient administration. Also, many Greeks have yet to get over the 1949 Civil War, which was halted by an Anglo-American military intervention. Leftists in Greece, still influential, believe that the foreign intervention short-circuited the possibility of socialism in the country. Social cohesion is about as fragile as the nation’s economic strength, which for the most part consists of companies doing their business “off-shore”—far from the clutches of revenue collection.
The Greek government must increasingly make promises that it cannot keep, hoping that the Europeans will, once again, yield to the fascination of myth and come to the rescue. It is time for the myth of Greece to die. Greeks and Europeans must face the truth that Greece is a country like any other—one with a very big debt to pay off. Yet for complex cultural and historical reasons, it’s not clear that such recognition is in the offing.