Is Greece European?

I lived in Greece a while back and have returned five or six times since. The problems that caused Greece’s economic collapse were evident even back in the mid-1990s and like all Greeks, I learned how to play the system in order to survive. We really had no other option. Getting around the rules was necessary if you didn’t want to throw all your money and time away.

For example, when I first arrived I was told to go to this office and the next to pay what amounted to tribute. If you paid, you got a stamp. People warned me about this so I asked a friend who was a notary public to stamp and sign every page of every document I needed before I left. It was nonsense and I knew it but I wanted to be prepared.

The first few days I was reluctant not to play by the rules because I did not know what the rules were. But I found out soon enough. I went to one office and paid around $25, got the stamp and then was told to go to the next office. The trouble was that the next office was in another part of town and almost impossible to find. I found it, laid out some more cash and then was told to go to a third office.

These offices were not what you think. There were staffed by middle-aged men most of whom sat at their desks smoking. There were no computers, few storage files (the one I saw just had stacks of yellowed paper obviously sitting there for years), one phone — nothing to indicate that anything went on there except the collecting of money to get the stamp. I never found the third office but by that time I was so frustrated that I decided to dump the whole process. I went back to our apartment.

The next day I went to the university admissions office, pulled out my papers and said I was ready to register. She looked at them and told me I need to get them stamped. I replied that I already got them stamped in America pointing to the notary seal on each page. She looked at them, said fine and I was in. Bogus, yes, but that’s how it was done.

That winter I got my first sinus infection ever. I had no idea what it was and thought I had a brain tumor because the pain was almost unbearable. I didn’t want to go to the public hospital because several months earlier I spent an afternoon there too. I remembered knowing I was in trouble when I went to the reception desk and saw, again, two middle aged men smoking away and chatting. They directed me to a room far off down a thousand hallways. On my way I saw soiled linens laying on the floor. Not good, I thought.

I found the room for the blood test and noticed open vials of blood sitting in racks on different tables. Many students were already there. The procedure was to extract the blood with a hypodermic needle and the squirt it into the tube. The tubes held the names of the donors on a slip of paper rolled up inside them.

When it was my turn to draw blood the nurse came up with the needle. I told her I wanted to see the needle come out of the sterile packet. She was deeply offended by my question and it wasn’t easy asking it, but I had to be sure that the needles were not being reused especially with open vials of blood all over the room and soiled laundry in the hallways. She consented but not without expressing her displeasure.

Then it was time for the x-ray. I walked into another room and there was a man standing right next to the machine (which looked like it came from the 1950s) taking x-rays (he wasn’t smoking) and all the students lined up behind each other. “Don’t they realize that every time he presses the button they are getting radiated?” I thought. Apparently not. I stood in another room waiting for my name to be called.

I resolved I would never go back to the public hospital. But what to do about my sinus infection? I called a friend who had connections in Thessaloniki, he called someone else, and I got the number to a private hospital. The hospital was top rate, as good as many in the United States. I called, said I knew the director (I didn’t but that is how things got done), and set an appointment. It cost me $75 but I received a doctor’s consult, x-ray, prescription, and follow up. Pretty good deal I thought although my Greek friends thought it was an exorbitant charge.

I loved my stay in Greece and I still love the country. If I could return for a visit tomorrow I would. But the Greeks have a hard road ahead of them. We do too if we don’t straighten out our ways, but after the Wisconsin victory this week there is hope that we just might.

Source: Strafor | By Robert D. Kaplan

Greece is where the West both begins and ends. The West — as a humanist ideal — began in ancient Athens where compassion for the individual began to replace the crushing brutality of the nearby civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. The war that Herodotus chronicles between Greece and Persia in the 5th century B.C. established a contrast between West and East that has persisted for millennia. Greece is Christian, but it is also Eastern Orthodox, as spiritually close to Russia as it is to the West, and geographically equidistant between Brussels and Moscow. Greece may have invented the West with the democratic innovations of the Age of Pericles, but for more than a thousand years it was a child of Byzantine and Turkish despotism. And while Greece was the northwestern bastion of the anciently civilized Near East, ever since history moved north into colder climates following the collapse of Rome, the inhabitants of Peninsular Greece have found themselves at the poor, southeastern extremity of Europe.

Modern Greece in particular has struggled against this bifurcated legacy. In an early 20th century replay of the Greco-Persian Wars, Greece’s post-World War I military struggle with Turkey led to a signal Greek defeat and as a consequence, more than a million ethnic Greeks from Asia Minor escaped to Greece proper, further impoverishing the country. (This Greek diaspora in Asia Minor was a massive source of revenue until the Greeks were expelled.) Not only did World War I have a bloody and epic coda in Greece, so did World War II, which was followed by a civil war between rightists and communists. Greece’s ultimate escape from the Warsaw Pact was a rather close-run affair: again, the effect of Greece’s unstable geographical location between East and West.

Greece struggled on. As recently as the mid-1970s it was governed by a particularly brutal military dictatorship (led by colonels from the backwater of the Peloponnese), which lasted for seven years, and fear of another coup persisted during the initial stage of its reborn democracy. Even though the Olympic tradition began in Greece in antiquity and the first modern Olympics were held in Greece in 1896, Greece was denied the right to host the centenary modern Olympics in 1996 owing to the country’s lack of preparedness in organization and infrastructure. Greece did host the 2004 Olympics, but the financial strain that the games put on Greece contributed to the country’s economic fragility in the run-up to the current debt crisis.

It is not entirely an accident that Greece is the most economically troubled country in the European Union. The fact that it is located at Europe’s southeastern back door also has something to do with it. For Greece’s economic and political development bear marks of a legacy not wholly in the modern West.

Roughly three-quarters of Greek businesses are family-owned and rely on family labor, making meritocratic promotion difficult for those outside the family. Tax cheating is rampant. The economy suffers from a profound lack of competitiveness, even as Greece is mainly a service economy, relying on tourism, in which manufacturing constitutes a weak sector. Of course, these features have much to do with bad policies enacted over the years and decades, but they are also products of history and culture, which are, in turn, products of geography. Indeed, Greece lacks enough productive land to be an agricultural power.

Then there is political underdevelopment. Long into the 20th century, Greek political parties had a paternalistic, coffeehouse quality, centered on big personalities — chieftains in all but name — with little formal organizational support. George Papandreou, the grandfather of the recent prime minister of the same name, actually headed a party called the “George Papandreou Party.” Political parties have been family businesses to a greater extent in Greece than in other Western democracies. The party in power not only dominated the highest echelons of the bureaucracy, as is normal and proper in a democracy, but the middle- and lower-echelons, too. State institutions from top to bottom were often overly politicized.

Moreover, rather than having a moderate left-wing party and a modern conservative one, as is common throughout Western Europe, in Greece through the early 1990s there was a hard-left party, the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), which during the Cold War openly sympathized with radical Arab regimes like Hafez al Assad’s Syria and Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya, and a somewhat reactionary right-wing party, New Democracy. The drift of both those leading parties toward the center is a relatively recent affair.

And so the creation of late of a hard-left party, SYRIZA, and a hard-right neo-Nazi movement, Golden Dawn (vaguely reminiscent of the military junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974), both harbor distant echoes of Greece’s mid-20th century past. Ironically, while Greece’s extreme economic crisis created these radical groupings in the first place, if these new parties fare badly in the upcoming poll it might indicate a firm rejection of extremism by Greek voters and a permanent turn toward the center — toward political modernity, that is.

There is a tendency in all of this to throw one’s hands up at the specter of the Greeks and declare them too much trouble than they’re worth, at least for Europe. But such an attitude reeks of hypocrisy, even as it denies Western self-interest. When Greece joined the European Union in 1981, its economy was manifestly not ready; Brussels had made a rank political decision, not an economic one — just as it would in admitting Greece to the eurozone in 2002. In both cases, the ground-level, domestic reality of the Greek economy was swept aside in favor of an abstract quasi-historical vision of Europe stretching from Iberia to the eastern Mediterranean.

Of course, Greece, during the 1980s — when I lived there for seven years — might have used the influx of cash from the European Union in order to discipline and reform its economy. Instead, then PASOK Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou used the money to swell the ranks of the bureaucracy. Thus, did Greece remain underdeveloped, and the dream-gamble of Brussels failed. The saddest irony is that the sins of the hard-left Andreas Papandreou were visited upon his well-meaning, center-left son, George, who had his short tenure as prime minister from 2009 to 2011 poisoned by his father’s economic legacy.

But Western self-interest now demands that even if Greece leaves the eurozone — and that is a big “if” — it nevertheless remains anchored in the European Union and NATO. For whether Greece drops the euro or not, it faces years of severe economic hardship. That means, given its geographic location, Greece’s political orientation should never be taken for granted. For example, the Chinese have invested heavily in developing part of the port of Piraeus, adjacent to Athens, even as Russia’s economic and intelligence ties to the Greek area of Cyprus are extremely close. It has been speculated in the media that with Greece short of cash and Russia enjoying a surplus, were the Russians ejected from ports in Syria in the wake of a regime change there, Moscow would find a way to eventually make use of Greek naval facilities. Remember that Greece and Cyprus both have modern European histories mainly because they were claimed by Western powers for strategic reasons.

In other words, from the point of geography and geopolitics, Greece will be in play for years to come.


  1. cynthia curran :

    Interesting comment on I believe the now deceased classical historian Michael Grant stated that what Antony and Cleopatria tried to do in the first century BC is what Constantine did in the 4th century combined the Greek and Roman elements for government along with a middle eastern religion like christianity instead of the pagan religions of the west at the time. The east and west was certainly factors in Rome for centuries in fact philosophy, religion the Greek olympic Gods with Roman names, art, math, science and advance building materials in Roman culture go back to the Greeks not only the Greeks the Romans conquered in mainline Greece but the Greek colonies that existed for centuries in Italy in the region known as Magna Grecia. As for the Byzantines, the last real hold on the west was when after the reconquest of Italy and the Lombards overtook most of it though the Byzantines I believe had some hold on some parts of Southern Italy unit the 11 century. Granted, some modern historians blamed Justinian’s reconquest for finally destroying the Roman elements in Italy that still exist in the 6th century like the senate in Rome and consuls.

  2. cynthia curran :

    Anyways, Greeks still admire classcial pagan Greece and the Byzantines while Italians admire both the Roman Republic and Empire. Most western European countries particulary Germany who is probably number one in classical studies admires this. Maybe Greece like Italy is probably more western but has more ties to the east particulary the Middle East.

  3. cynthia curran :

    Anyway, I visited Italy in 1992 and some of what father Jacobs desribed is correct. Italy’s museums were kind of dirty and there was a paid bathroom the emperor Vespasian invented the paid toilet. Both Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are highly sucessful outside of their countries and I agree with the comment of George that its a shame that he more of a moderate by Greek political standards had a bad economy. My take on family own business this most be trace thru to Byzantine times since most people in the middle ages did the tade of the father and Byzantium as mention for more of an agricultural aristocracy with the state any involved a lot with the silk trade.

  4. I have a ‘mind’s eye’ picture of the scene Fr. Hans described– the one where a stranger approaches some ‘graft desk’ where a ‘heavy type’ takes money and, in ‘exchange that adds no value at all’ puts on some routine paperwork ‘a stamp’ indicating the heavy type was paid. Enough ‘stamps’ and the functionary obstructing the routine matter relents and does their job.

    Now that scene has got to be taking place 1000 times every hour in Greece in one way or another. What I really want to know is how the world looks from inside the head of the person sitting around waiting for strangers to pay money in exchange for a stamp. Who are these people? How do they deem it wise every day to act as they do? How do they look in the mirror and say ‘yes, that was a productive day’.

    Fr. Hans made it plain how the world looked from his perspective, getting the stamps and all and I think 99 of 100 people reading here understand how he felt and what was going on.

    Can anyone explain what the world looks like from the perspective of ‘the middle aged man’ Fr. Hans writes of above?

  5. Can someone tell me how a country that has been infiltrated by approximately 2 million immigrants (mostly illegal/muslim and mostly within the last five years) have this author call Golden Dawn a neo-nazi movement)? Isn’t it funny how trying to defend your national heritage is considered fascism now? Recent reports reveal that as much as 70% of the recent riots are being led by Islamic immigrants (ILLEGAL). Alas, defending borders and national heritage/culture is now considered unacceptable and outside the bounds of acceptable public discourse/national policy. We have truly entered dark and evil times.

    • Geo Michalopulos :

      Maksim, you are quite correct. While The Golden Dawn does hold some reprehensible views, they present the native population with the only other alternative to the diversity-cult that is destroying the great nation-states of the West. As someone once said, “halitosis is better than no breath at all.”

      • Dean Calvert :

        Hi George,

        I think the best comment I’ve heard was by Larry Kudlow, who said last week (n his radio show), “I’m struggling to figure out why i should be so concerned about a country that peaked in 450 BC.”

        I was laughing so hard I almost drove off the road.

        Best Regards

        • Michael Bauman :

          Dean, really? Even though I am no fan of Greek triumphalism, I am even less of a fan of stupid, callous sarcasm such as Mr. Kulow’s

          The dissolution of any country should be a concern to us because of the human suffering and the resort to tryanny that almost always follows such a dissolution.

          No government or culture lasts, all die but the human and social cost of those deaths are not just born by those most intimatly involved.

          Not funny at all!

  6. cynthia curran :

    Well, I agree with you that illegal immirgation has caused a lot of problems with Greece, its not the only problem. Golden Dawn while right on the immirgation issue in Greece was involved with the Serbian military in Kosvo and is not like the right in the US more nationalistic and favors more government involvement and more violence.

  7. cynthia curran :

    Well, Dean, its true that the peak of Greece was probably in the age of Pericles a little latter. In fact, Greece was very decentralized in anicent times and allowed for varius types of govenments. Anyway, Greece play an important role in the Roman Empire Paul mentioning about the Epicurians and Stoics in Athens.

    • Dean Calvert :


      With due respect…at the conclusion of the Lamian War, Demosthenes committed suicide, the Macedonians occupied Athens and shipped off every family with less than a certain amount of money (can’t remember) off to Thrace. It emptied the Pireaus of the manpower which had been (for centuries) the backbone of the Athenian Navy.

      At that moment, (322 BC), in fact on that afternoon, I believe Athens ceased to exist as a power and became nothing more than a cultural backwater….an echo of it’s former self. It’s as if the Macedonians surgically removed the heart of the city.

      Go read Lords of the Sea by John Hale. I always wondered what happened…i.e. how Athens fell so far, so fast. Throughout the Hellenistic period, you never hear a word about Athens.

      I think Hale nails it.

      Best Regards,

  8. Who are the ‘middle aged guys’ Fr. Hans writes of? How does the system ‘work for them’? Do people who want to be ordained need to pay someone off before they can be clergy?

  9. cynthia curran :

    Michael the remark isn’t that bad. As for Greece its not worst than most Latin American countries face over 10 years ago or so. Granted, Latin America has had the extremes of the left or right and autocratic leaders.

  10. macedonianReader :

    I love the way Golden Dawn MP’s debate. You disagree with them, they come up and smack you around. I heard one method they talked about using with regards to “being right” on the immigration issue, was a plan to go to hospitals and “take care” of any non-Greeks. This stuff just makes me want to give them a bug hug….

    I’m sorry. Sooner or later, when you suffer from addiction and insanity you have to hold yourself accountable. Greece has been so out of sync with reality for so long, so unwilling to accept criticism, and responsiblity that I have a hard time mustering any sort of sympathy for that nation.

  11. cynthia curran :

    Well, sometimes Byzantium gets surveyed in western civilzations lasses. In fact you can come acrosss a western civilzation class made for Tv that has the episodes now on you tube and there are a few on Byzantium. Victor Hansen stated what is West of Persia is Western civilzation.

  12. cynthia curran :

    Good point Dean, by the 2nd century BC the Romans plundered mainline Greece and shipped a lot of artwork to Italy. In the first century BC Pompey conquered the Selecuid Empire which one of Alexander’s general’s started and Cleopatria the last of the Ptolemy had to make political alliances with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony to be queen as much as she possibly could in spite of the great military might of Rome. Octivian or later Augustus defeated them and Egypt became Rone’s most important breadbasket province even into the 7th century when Islam finally conquered Egypt.


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