Whither Greece?

After a series of despatches on wartime and post-war Greece, it’s time to draw some political conclusions about the ancient nation regarded as “the cradle of democracy”.

To all intents and purposes it is broke and living week-to-week on life support from Euro-bank loans. It is ruled by a weak three-party coalition whose partners are at war with each other as well as the Greek public. It cannot hold together.


In the short eight years between 1941 and 1949 Greece fought a successful war against Mussolini’s invading Fascist army, she was smashed into submission by Hitler’s Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, lived under Axis occupation until 1944 and was then plunged into civil war from 1945 to 1949.

Greece’s wartime experiences made the events in many other European countries look mild by comparison.

It has never fully recovered from these catastrophic and traumatic events.

Tens of thousands of Greeks saw no future in the country that Britain and the CIA resurrected after the war to keep communism at bay.

Greeks did something that no parent should have to do: they gave their children to the world, sending them abroad to find a better life. The best, brightest and strongest left for the US, Canada, the UK, West Germany and Australia breaking up families and communities.

Generally speaking, the hardest workers and the brightest thinkers went away, depleting the country’s social and cultural capital in brutal fashion: only Ireland in the 19th century has endured such a societal implosion.

Their mission was to find a job, work hard and send money home: it kept many families and businesses afloat for decades.


Meanwhile, the militarised state that was grafted onto Greece by London and Washington at the end of the war continued to grow, particularly after Greece became a NATO member in 1952.

US spy bases were established, warplanes and nuclear-armed ships freely used Greek facilities and the CIA established its biggest station in the Mediterranean to monitor the Arab world, the Balkans, Turkey, the Gulf states, the Suez Canal and North Africa and supply intelligence to Israel.

In 1967 when the fascist colonels staged a coup and ruled Greece until 1974 they were encouraged by Washington to re-ignite the embers of the “White Terror” which had been so effective in crushing the nation’s democratic spirit 20 years earlier.

Ultimately, Polytechnic student protests and popular defiance led to the downfall of the colonels’ junta and, as a concession to the popular left-wing movement, a  plebiscite was held on the monarchy. The decrepit, reactionary royal family (and Britain) lost the vote, and Greece officially became a republic.


In the years since the restoration of parliament, the military has seized the lion’s share of the annual budget and become, for its size, one of the better equipped and better paid standing armies in the EU.

Since the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus in 1974, Greece has spent an estimated 216 billion Euros on armaments, according to Helena Smith, The Guardian’s Athens correspondent.

“No other area has contributed as heavily to the country’s debt mountain,” she added. Between 2002 and 2006 Greece was the world’s fourth largest importer of conventional weapons. Today it is 10th.

Dimitris Papadimoulis, a Syriza MP, said: “As a proportion of GDP, Greece spends twice as much as any other EU member on defence.”

Much of the armaments are surplus to needs. For example, Greece has 1,300 tanks, twice the number in service in the UK, and it paid two billion Euros for submarines that are not only faulty but are of questionable defence value.

Defence contracts are shrouded in secrecy and therefore open to bribery and corruption. In the past 10 years Greece has purchased 42 per cent of its arms from the US and 25.3 per cent from Germany amid allegations of widespread graft and kickbacks.


In summary: 1) the parliamentary wing of the Greek state is weak, divided and discredited by allegations of chronic corruption 2) the military wing is well armed but is widely distrusted and lacks social or political hegemony; and 3) the current three-party coalition Government is fragile and incapable of imposing the bankers’ bail-out plan without provoking a full-scale confrontation between the left and right, not only in parliament but on the streets as well.

While Washington supported the colonels’ regime in their 1968 takeover, times have changed and so has US policy on coups d’etats against friendly European nations. Without support in the EU or the US even the pro-fascist generals and ex-generals would face formidable hurdles in staging a sustainable coup.

 The current situation is unique: the crisis-wracked Athens ruling class is too weak to impose a military or fascist solution and the working class and its middle class allies are too weak to initiate a socialist solution.

It is a balance that is inherently unstable and cannot last. Greece’s fate will be determined by political events beyond its borders in the Euro-zone just as it was in World War II.


  1. Alex, your question – perhaps deliberately – is left unanswered. The people have been squeezed til the pips can squeak no more. The State has been operating corruptly for years. Who can tell what might happen? Leaving the Euro if not the EU, a return to basics, would render so much state structure and so many state employees unnecessary but the behemoth would rumble on. Anyway very thought-provoking stuff from you two both.

  2. Alex & Judith, we just don't get in our mainstream press the sort of analysis and thoughtful insights you two are so generously giving us. Alex – why don't you try to place this particular post in The Age? As you've mentioned before, the Greek population in Melbourne is not being well-served with decent information about home. I bet they wouldn't half mind some decent analysis or opinion. Even if they don't agree with you, at least you've given them something they're not getting.

  3. A useful and fair survey, Aleko. Here are some comments.

    Leaving aside the machinations of those politicians and others in Greece who have themselves corruptly benefited from arms purchases, it's important to remember that this 'big military' is actually sanctioned at a deep level by the Greek people themselves.

    The origins of the need to 'show force' and 'be ready' we know lies in fear – it is the most common psychological state for the Greeks, and has been since the 1820s. And we know that this general fear is a reaction to the many real, physical threats – invasion, war, economic depression – that modern Greece has had to endure. It is not only a matter of the war-mongering and belligerence of certain conservatives or military types and their supporters. Periods of calm and confidence and prosperity in my ancestral country have been few and far between.

    Greece must reconstitute itself in so many ways. And to succeed in that project it is my belief that this small and vulnerable nation will need to call not only on its own human and spiritual resources, but on the rest of Europe.

    To try to go it alone based on not much more than a rhetorical nationalism, and the idea that a few years of devalued currency may be endured while Greece sells its stuff more cheaply and the economy 'rebuilds', would be an exercise in wishing and hoping. Greece, like every other country, is interconnected with others in ways like never before (just watch what happens to the Australian economy as the current China minerals boom winds down, for example).

    Any attempt to secure economic independence, based on the drachma, will be even more hurtful to real people, real lives, than the unpalatable medicine that is already being swallowed. Argentina is not a good example of what might be done – it was able to do what it did some years before globalisation kicked in for good.

    We might hate the idea of being beholden to the banks and the Germans for money (don't get me started on that) but a renegotiation of, a softening of 'austerity' measures – agreed to with the support of (bitterly, the chief villains themselves) France and Germany and the European Community generally – will be as good as we can realistically expect as a foundation for reconstruction over the coming few years.

    Fact is right now, and as you point out, there are only weeks of funds left to pay for government services and wages, and when that runs out and should no more loan money be available, the outcome will be even more desperate than now, as further public services will have to close and tens of thousands more people will be out of a job. I actually expect some further slack being cut on 24 July, as part of the 'conditions' for continuing with this funding. The lenders know that demanding additional squeezes is impossible – and I don't think Merkel is in charge of the show to the degree she was a few months.

    On the matter of political parties and politics, it's also worth reminding people that, unlike in Australia, notions of 'Left' and 'Right' live much more strongly in debates and in the general psyche. The expression of ideological positions, their continuing role and acceptance within the political culture, remain facts in Greece. They haven't been entirely killed off by the big end of town, or the values of electorally important mortgage belt aspirationalists, or the overarching bourgeoisification of society, in the way we've experienced in Australia. I'm not saying that the swag of ideologically inflected splinter groups count as effective political formations in Greece – they do not, as you also well point out – but the divisions they represent have other consequences. One of them is, sadly, on tax.

    In Greece, the two 'sides', roughly speaking, folded their arms and long ago withdrew from the social compact that is so important to any workable tax system. Sure, tax is not a voluntary matter, but for it to work people also have to believe that, overall, paying tax is an important and useful foundation for managing certain of the State's wealth for the common good. But instead, what you have in Greece are attitudes from the Left, when the Right is in government, like, 'I'm not paying tax to a government that siphons off our money into the hands of the 200 families that rule this country and for whom New Democracy is nothing but a mouthpiece…', while from the Right, when PASOK was in power, 'We're not paying taxes to those thieving socialist bastards, so they can provide pensions and perks to the undeserving and pay off their political mates and supporters..' etc etc.

    While these are arguments also being played out in other countries, to one degree or another, Greece seems to me right now to be a grim sort of laboratory for the rest of the world. What is happening there highlights problems that are growing globally, and the Greek experience will have effects way beyond the fabled marble and those islands of myth and legend. We always knew the place mattered, but did it really have to matter in THIS way?!

  4. Angelo, thank you for the views of, I assume, a Greek now Australian. You cast a native's light on the situation. Together with Alex' history lessons you have helped me to see that there is no simple black or white answer, never has been, never will be. Speaking as a Brit, I can see in my own country echoes of the same conflict but less stark and not so developed. We all have more 'fat' up here in the cold wet northern industrialised parts of Europe. Much more to lose though if/when the revolution comes … So, you convince me there must be more turns in the road to come as the situation continues to unfold. Sadly I don't see an end to the plight of ordinary people in the foreseeable future. Continung to live, avoiding starvation and sudden death, these will be achievements.

    One of the consequences of where much of the debt has recently arisen, arming the military, is that they are currently a disproportionately larger part of society, as in Syria not far away! This large and well armed military is a big obstacle in the way of peaceful evolution, which ever way you look at it. For my part I can see now why there is some support for staying in the EU, if not the Euro, for stability (for want of a better term) and a negotiated outcome. The simple solution of leaving would not of itself solve anything and would almost certainly increase the death rate and bring violent upheavel closer. There are always many more civiilian casualties than military in any armed conflict and so we must all hope for peaceful (and rapid) evolution rather than violent (which it is bound to be) revolution.

    Sounds like I have put myself against the boss: Come the Revolution indeed!

    Take care.


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