This post appears on Phylax Blog
Greek unity has always been elusive. When Greeks are united in a common cause, they work miracles. When they are arguing unceasingly and at loggerheads, disaster is not far behind. This phenomenon is as old as Greek history. To understand what divides us we have to see our divisions through the prism of our common historical experience.
Ancient Greece was a collection of city states that often competed or warred against each other. The two strongest city states Athens and Sparta, diametrically different in orientation, fought a series of conflicts known as the Peloponnesian Wars. The outcome brought both to ruin. The duality of the Greek spirit, that is, unity and disunity, is illustrated by the fact that these feuding Greeks saw "Hellenism" as a universal idea, not necessarily predicated on a racial or ethnic concept. Isocrates, for example, saw the polis spreading to non-Greeks. Internecine squabbles could also be set aside when Greeks were threaten by an external threat.
In 481 B.C., the Persian Emperor Xerxes sent ambassadors demanding earth and water, a sign of submission, from the Greek city states as his vast army marched toward Greece. The Spartans called a conference in Corinth which was attended by the Greek city states thinking of resisting, including Athens. Athens conceded leadership of the effort to Sparta and they made the following resolutions: to end all wars among themselves and to declare war on Persia. A small force under a Spartan King named Leonidas was sent to a strategic pass to block the advance of the Persian Army and buy valuable time. The sacrifice of the Spartans and other Greeks at Thermopylae allowed the Athenian fleet to eventually defeat the numerically superior Persian fleet in the narrow straits off the island of Salamis. Greece and the West was saved. Victor David Hanson, a professor of classics, writes: "Nothing provides a better or more clear illustration of this than Herodotus's description of Thermopylae, where [soldiers] in the royal army of Xerxes were being whipped to fight, whereas Leonidas and the Spartans said they were there because they were following the law that they themselves had created. What kind of army, ancient or modern, would name their triremes "Free Speech" or "Freedom" like the Athenians did at Salamis, or have a play by Aeschylus that says, "We rowed into battle saying 'freedom, freedom, freedom.'" It is very strange in comparison to what motivated other armies of the era."
Greek Byzantium was the bulwark again against the advance of eastern invaders for over a thousand years. Unfortunately, the empire was often wracked by internal dissension and infighting, which weakened it, along with the destruction wrought by the Crusaders, who sacked Constantinople. In the seventh and eighth centuries, in particular, first the Persians and then the Arabs launched major offensives into the region. Yet these invaders ultimately failed to establish themselves on Byzantine territory. However, a period of civil war in the late eleventh century enabled the Turks to make huge inroads into Byzantine territory. In many places, usurpers used mercenary Turkish troops to occupy strategic towns, only for those mercenaries to take the towns for themselves when the usurpers had departed. By 1095, virtually the whole of Asia Minor, comprising about 70% of the Byzantine Empire, had been lost.
The substantial efforts of Greeks in the Greek War of Independence to throw off the yoke of the Ottoman Empire was also marred by a surprising inability at critical junctures to establish a united front, both during the war and after independence. Internal rivalries, however, prevented the Greeks from extending their control and from firmly consolidating their position in the Peloponnese. In 1823, civil war broke out between the guerrilla leader Theodoros Kolokotronis and Georgios Kountouriotis, who was head of the government that had been formed in January 1822 but that was forced to flee to the island of Hydra in December, 1822. After a second civil war, Kountouriotis was firmly established as leader, but his government and the entire revolution were gravely threatened by the arrival of Egyptian forces, led by Ibrahim Pasha, which had been sent to aid the Turks. With the support of Egyptian sea power, the Ottoman forces successfully invaded the Peloponnese; they furthermore captured Messolonghi, the town of Athens, and the Athenian acropolis. The Greek cause, however, was saved by the intervention of the European Powers.
The Greek state that emerged in 1830 was dominated by the factionalism left over the Ottoman period. In addition, there was a sudden influx of diasporan Greeks and this created much suspicion among the insular residents of the small Greek state. Political factions were not organized along party lines but around one's support to one of the Great Powers. The "Great Idea," a doctrine of manifest destiny to bring all unredeemed Greeks together into one state was a unifying and non-partisan theme which developed after independence. This theme, the driving force behind Greek foreign policy of the era, drove Greece into two Balkan Wars and finally the debacle of 1922. It was the stunning Greek defeat in Asia Minor by Kemal Attaturk, aided and abetted by some of the Allied Powers and the Soviet Union, which brought Greek irredentist dreams to a halt. The broad divide between monarchists supporting the Greek King and republicans who supported Eleftherios Venizelos, the prime minister who had engineered Greek Occupation of Asia Minor under the Treaty of Versailles, was in large part responsible for that defeat. In October 1920, the Greek army advanced further east into Anatolia, with the encouragement of Lloyd George, the British prime minister, who intended to increase the pressure on the Turkish and Ottoman governments to sign the Treaty of Sevres. This advance began under the Liberal government of Venizelos, but soon after the it started, Venizelos fell from power and was replaced by Dimitrios Gounaris, who appointed inexperienced monarchist officers to senior commands. The result was a military and human disaster.
In the wake of 1922, Greece was saddled with enormous debt, over a million refugees and along with the Depression, this created a situation in Greece that eventually lead to the rise of a disaffected portion of the Greek population, easily organized by the Communists. The 30s were plagued by constant coups, military governments and the systematic purge of communists from the body politic. The Italian Invasion of Greece swept all of that aside, at least temporarily. It brought Greeks together as few other events in their history, and it pitted them against a common foe instead of each other. Patriotism and martial spirit swept Greece as the Greek Army repelled the invader and advanced into Albanian territory. Defeated subsequently by Germany and suffering under a cruel occupation Greeks were to revert to business as usual, fighting among themselves almost as often as they did against the enemy. The internecine warfare that followed liberation between monarchists and communists culminated in one the worst bloodbaths of Greek history known as the Greek Civil War. The Right emerged victorious and consolidated its hold on Greece under the military dictatorship of the Colonels. After the fall of the military junta, Greece has gone back and forth between two main political parties that increasingly have divided Greeks along parochial personal interests and are finding it more difficult to differentiate themselves from each other ideologically.
Greeks have a tendency to find all kinds of things to argue about and break ranks with their fellow Greeks. Greek immigrants in America even brought their homegrown political disputes to America. These rifts stunted the development of the growing Greek American community and did irreparable harm to its efforts to establish itself. Then there is the divide that has always existed between "Hellenistic Greeks," those that live outside of Greece, and "Helladic Greeks," those that live in Greece. The cosmopolitan views of the Hellenists rarely coincided with the more insular views of their Helladic cousins. Hellenistic Greeks live in the real world, buffeted by the current storms of globalization, assimilation, and dechristianization. Often they have an idealized version of Greece. Helladic Greeks live in a completely different world with problems of their own. Often they have a distorted view of their overseas brethren. Greece is the center of their world and rightly so. The Hellenistic Greek on the other hand has to straddle two very different worlds.
Then there is the notion of "Greekness" and who or who does not fit our preconceived notions of who is Greek. Greeks throughout the world are dealing with change and upheaval. Some Greek reactions are dysfunctional. Xenophobia, fear of the foreigner and his ideas versus Xenolatria, the penchant for idolizing all that is foreign. There is an element of self hate at work here. Some reject Greekness because they find some Greeks fall far short of an idealized version of it. They want to excise that part of them that is Greek and replace it with anything else. In so doing they throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water. Others are afraid of everything that is not Greek, of being exposed to new ideas. Perhaps they are too comfortable in their own skin.
Unity does not necessarily mean that Greeks agree on everything. Divisions in societies or groups are normal and usually healthy. The problem arises when Greeks become too entrenched in their thinking and approach to the world or each other. When they fail to heed their own history and forget the rich legacy passed down to them. The question is can Greeks bridge the divides, and come together long enough to learn from each other in the face of serious threats to their cultural and national survival or will they revert to past practices?