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Monday, February 17, 2003

Book Reviews

Subjective Correlatives: Greece in the Postwar Period

Greece Since 1945: Politics, Economy and Society by David H. Close. London, Longman, 2002, 320 pages, $24.




One of the best comments in David H. Close’s new book comes when he discusses the role of the military in Greece in the 1950s. It reads: “The officers resembled the Communist Party in their incongruous combination of intense patriotism with submission to foreign patrons” (p. 84). Alas, such epigrammatic one-liners that encapsulate the oddities of postwar Greece are too few and far between. Instead, what we have mostly is a straightforward, measured account of Greece’s political, economic, and social evolution in the second half of the twentieth century.

The book’s strengths are its weaknesses, and the reader’s response will depend on how one wishes to use it. There is no doubt that the book is very useful, since it functions as a basic introduction and overview of its subject. For at least half of the period it covers, however — from the 1950s through the 1960s — the author refrains from exposing the extent of the authoritarian, unconstitutional nature of the rightist governments that ruled the country for most of that time until politics degenerated into a military regime. Yes, the respective mentalities of the officer corps and communist cadres were similar, but it was the officers who were in power, while the communists were either imprisoned or exiled. The idea, therefore, that the communists were to blame, for instance, for the non-emergence of a social democratic party is bizarre (p. 97).

For the post-1974 era, the author reverts to a gently pro-conservative tone. He blames PASOK for the polarization of the 1980s because it invoked “memories“ and accused New Democracy of representing the police state of the post-Civil War era (p. 157). We are not told how New Democracy depicted PASOK during that period. We are told, however, that PASOK represented the dispossessed and persecuted left of the past 50 years — which in fact it did, more than it represented the theory and practice of “socialism,”as Close assumes. He also tells us that “New Democracy increasingly spoke the language of economic liberalism” in the 1980s (p. 157), but there is no proof to back up this puzzling statement.

David H. Close teaches at Flinders University in southern Australia and has produced the story of post-Second World War Greece in a methodical manner. He skillfully weaves in the findings of a wide range of recent monographs published in English and Greek. Close specializes in twentieth-century Greek history, and his earlier publications include The Origins of the Greek Civil War.

Close’s Greece Since 1945: Politics, Economy and Society is part of a new series on the postwar world that Longman is producing. It will most certainly find a niche as a reference book and basic text on syllabi that cover modern Greek history. This is the type of cornerstone historical narrative that Longman produces so reliably. As is the case with A.L. Macfie’s corresponding studies on the Eastern Question and the end of the Ottoman empire, the empirical imperative of getting the events, dates, and figures moderates the scope of the analysis and discourages any grand theory. Many non-specialists and undergraduates will happily eschew the excitement of novel interpretation, however, in order to find out what happened in the first place.

The structure of the book is naturally user-friendly, chronological, and thematic. Not surprisingly, the events of 1974 are the midpoint of this account. An opening, background chapter is followed by one on the Civil War and its aftermath. The next two chapters examine development and economics through 1973, as well as social trends over the same period. The political narrative is divided into two chapters, one covering postwar politics through 1967 and the other the seven-year period under the colonels’ dictatorship. There is a separate chapter for foreign relations from 1950 to 1974. The second half of the book covers 1974-2000 with a chapter-based examination of politics, economics, society, Europeanization, and foreign policy; it concludes with a chapter entitled “Whither Now?” that strikes an optimistic note about the country’s future. There is a guide to further reading, as well as two appendixes listing the sequence of governments and heads of state, and the results of parliamentary elections.

There can be two problems with works of textbook history, and both of them are evident in this book. The obvious, structural difficulty is offering a meaningful, overarching thesis or theme while having to set out the basic narrative of what happened, when it happened, especially if the author’s laudable intention is to cover politics, economics, and society. The other difficulty is that straightforward textbook accounts tend to try and tame the wild side of history and, in doing so, to gloss over the type of apparent conceptual oxymorons such as rightist military officers being the mirror image of their supposed opposite number, communist cadres.

Greece’s postwar history at least through the 1970s was, in many ways, a walk on the wild side, defined in this case as an anticommunist authoritarian state hiding behind the façade of a Western parliamentary democracy until it dropped its mask in 1967. Everything that happened through the junta’s collapse in 1974 — and some of that legacy, which died a slow death — somehow defies the staid rationality of a textbook-style account such as this one.

Close is aware of these problems, and tries to address them both. In his preface, he states that his study evokes three themes in Greek history that run from the origins of the state in 1830 through the present. He describes all three as tensions or conflicts. The first is the admiration for the developed countries of western Europe versus the longstanding attachment to Orthodox culture and the traditional ways it embodies. The second is that between a general desire to exploit state institutions for private profit and the understanding that those institutions need to be efficient to guarantee the country’s prosperity. The third is the conflict between universal loyalty to one’s primary group (family and circle of friends) and the “generally reluctant recognition” of the public interest, represented by government and law (p. xvi).

It is easy, however, for a reader to forget these themes because of the book’s structure. The narrative, and the author’s wish to be comprehensive — going through the roles of all the institutions at a particular moment (monarchy, government, labor unions, and so forth), for example — make this account very loosely related to its themes. In fact, these themes might have worked better as overall conclusions rather than organizing principles, especially since Greece’s history through 1974 was, above all, that of an authoritarian exercise of power.

In addressing the other difficulty of any account of postwar Greece — namely, the sheer drama of the political struggles — Close succeeds only partially. This is due to issues of style and substance. Stylistically, Close decided not to include direct quotations, a time-honored practice of political historians that dates back to Thucycides. He thus deprives the account of a sense of immediacy. The offerings are rich for this period, and the early 1950s were a fertile era. Conservative political leader Panayotis Kanelopoulos, for example, reputedly presented a Greek unit to US general James Van Fleet with the words, “My General, this is your army”; he also supposedly described the Makronisos prison camp as the “New Parthenon.” Meanwhile, as hundreds of communists and other leftists were languishing in this and other camps in the wake of the left’s defeat in the Civil War, communist leader Nikos Zachariadis was announcing that his side would not give up and was keeping its arms at the ready (to oplo para podas.)

Finally, many readers will be troubled by how the author handles the substance of the period’s political conflicts. While his treatment of economics and society will probably raise fewer eyebrows and earn him some praise, the way he incriminates the outlawed communist party for the culturally oppressive atmosphere in the 1950s is absurd. It was composed of narrow-minded Stalinists all right, but they were jailed or exiled Stalinists. The left-wing EDA party can actually boast of rich cultural activity before it was banned in 1967. The work of “famous Communist composer Mikis Theodorakis” (p. 105) was not the only example of the left’s cultural contributions during this period.

Close takes his post-1974 account through 2000. He admires Constantine Karamanlis and New Democracy, and gives Andreas Papandreou credit for his early successes, but then, correctly, outlines the tawdry degeneration of his leadership. Yet, having praised New Democracy for its liberal economic outlook, the author finds it difficult to offer any explanation of why Greece modernized under a PASOK led by Costas Simitis.

The section on Simitis’s modernization program runs just under two pages and opens by talking about the ideological convergence of the two major parties. This just will not do, and it cannot pass as serious analysis. Yes, the two parties were converging, but one was condemned to the opposition benches, while the other embarked on a politically risky project of modernizing Greece — a little bit like the military officers and communist cadres: they might have resembled each other, but only one side called the shots.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to greekworks.com, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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