Wednesday, 28 September 2011
What we did for Greece
So should we bail out the Greeks then?
Or rather should we bail out the banks who've got themselves in up to their necks in bad debt, a lot of it owed by Greece?
Well I guess it's a bit like the question of whether you should give your pocket money to the bully who's dangling you over a railway bridge. In principle no, but in practise....
What's interesting I find though is how little is being said about the debt we owe Greece. This I can only put down to the tragic decline in the study of the Classics in our schools.
The Romans conquered the known world thanks to their Classical education, and so before we sent out our sons and daughters to carve out an Empire we gave them a thorough grounding in Latin and Greek history. What else would a future District Commissioner in Utter Pradesh ever need?
An unintended blow back from this policy was that whenever things got a bit sticky at the bottom of the Balkans, we tended to side with the guys who spoke Greek.
It all started in 1821 when the Greek speakers, who'd carved out a nice role for themselves in the bureaucracy of the Ottoman Empire, launched one of their regular uprisings and for once actually made a bit of progress.
The revolt inspired the Classically educated Brits and so Romantics and demobbed officers from the Napoleonic Wars made their way over to the Peloponnese. Lord Byron went, and died shortly after arriving, and the rebel Greek Navy ended up being commanded by Lord Cochrane, a former Royal Navy officer and the model for Jack Aubrey from Master and Commander.
Many of those who went to help though ended up a little disappointed to find that they weren't standing shoulder to shoulder with modern Leonidas's. Instead of fighting to the last bullet, the rebels often as not didn't even fight to the first bullet, and battles often consisted of no more than just shouting insults from cover.
The climax was equally bizarre. Worried that imperial rival Russia was going to gain from the insurrection, a joint British and French fleet was sent to lend moral support to the Turks. Instead it ended up obliterating the Turkish fleet in an action that was the last to be fought purely by wooden sailing ships.
An independent Greece then emerged, and to show how independent they were they were given a Bavarian king. When they did a stock take they found a few things missing though, including the Parthenon Marbles, which had been given to Lord Elgin by the Turks just before they scarpered.
As a Balkan nation they took part in the confusing series of wars that eventually triggered the First World War. Greece was a late arrival in the conflict and for most of the war did very little. After the defeat in Gallipoli the British and Australian forces regrouped in Thessaloniki where they spent the next few years camped out in the sunshine in what must have been one of the easier postings of the conflict.
Greece then sent a delegation to the Versailles conference where they presented a grandiose vision of a Greater Greece, which included a huge chunk of what is now Asiatic Turkey. That there were very few Greeks in these new areas, and many of them were lukewarm about the idea, was overlooked by the British and French leaders. They were committed to dismantling the defeated Ottoman Empire and thought they may as well give as many of the bits as they could to Greece, and so the nation emerged from the war twice as big as it went in.
The new country didn't last very long though, thanks to Kemel Ataturk and resurgent Turkish nationalism, and Greece retreated back to its original borders.
However just as it appeared that modern forces were now sculpting the former Classical world, history repeated itself and Greece soon faced the return of an ancient foe: Rome.
Mussolini and the Italian King didn't agree on many things, but they both shared a low opinion of the Greeks. The Italian army, woefully prepared for war, crossed the Adriatic only to be soundly thrashed by the underrated Greek army and, just as in North Africa, Hitler had to send German troops to bail out his fellow dictator.
Churchill meanwhile was as romantically attached to Greece as Byron had been and sent the Eighth Army across from Africa to help. The intervention was a disaster and the British Army soon had to be rescued by the Royal Navy. Some, notably General von Manstein, have claimed that this diversion delayed Operation Barbarossa just enough to save Russia, but the evidence seems scanty. Others have point out that this diversion occurred just as we were about to kick the Italians out of Africa. This allowed Rommel and his tanks time to save the day and bat the Desert Rats all the way back to El Alamein.
Greece suffered far more under German and Italian occupation than it ever did under the Turks, and its a now nearly forgotten fact that the first shipment of food aid sent by Oxfam was to Greece, in defiance of the Allied blockade, although it didn't stop 100,000 people starving to death. All told eight percent of the population died, a million were homeless and a third of the nations wealth was destroyed.
The Greeks themselves fought back, with the most effective resistance fighters being the Communists. As the Russians advanced the Greeks then fought themselves with the Germans as bemused onlookers. The Communists gained the upper hand and with the Red Army on the way it looked like Greece would join the rest of Eastern Europe in the Soviet sphere of influence.
However Stalin didn't actually want Greece and so Churchill sent in British troops again, this time to fight the people he had described months before as "gallant guerrillas containing thirty enemy divisions" but who were now "the miserable Greek banditti". With the help of rearmed collaborator Security Battalions the EAM and ELAS were driven out of Athens and soon Greece was standing shoulder to shoulder with old enemy Turkey as a bulwark of NATO.
Indeed so keen was the west to save Greece for democracy that when a military dictatorship took power in 1967 it took Britain a whole 24 hours to decide that torturing fascists were better than Godless communists and agree to recognise the regime. In the end the Turks helped oust the Colonels, by delivering a stinging military defeat in Cyprus.
When democracy was restored the way was open to join the European Economic Community, as it was then called. Greece was soon at the heart of the European community of nations, and that's where the problems started.
Once again Greece was the victim of the kindness of its friends. Instead of a left leaning rural nation channelling the spirit of the ancient world, they saw in her an industrialised democracy with a neoliberal market economy waiting to burst forth.
Waived into the the Eurozone despite some distinctly non-neoliberal domestic policies, it took the Credit Crunch to reveal the ghastly mistake that had been made. Worse, rather than just letting the country go bankrupt, drop out and relaunch a devalued Drachma, which would allow them to offer cheap holidays and consumer goods to rebuild their economy, they are being forced to stay so that our banks won't go bust.
So we've sent them our Romantic poets and taken their marbles, failed to save them from the Nazis but rescued them from communism, ignored their foray into military dictatorship and allowed them to blag their way into a club they can't afford.
You could say that the West has been pretty good friends to Greece, but they might well reply that with friends like us, who needs enemies?