Factors In Neo-Hellenic History

Editor’s Note -- This article is an address delivered at a dinner held in Boston on February 3, 1930, to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the signing of the London Protocol (February 3, 1830, whereby Greece was recognized as an independent nation. It is a timely introduction to the celebration of the centenary of Greek independence, which is taking place during the current year both in this country and in Greece.

STOCK-TAKING is the customary thing on an occasion like the present. But even a cursory glance at the history of Greece during the first century of her independence would transcend the limits of an after-dinner speech.

I, therefore propose, instead, to discuss as briefly as I can some of the basic factors that have determined the course of Neo-hellenic history and thereby to make possible a fair estimate of the efforts, the achievements and the failures of the nation the centenary of whose rebirth we are celebrating this evening. And if in the course of my remarks I venture an occasional comparison of little Greece with great America. I hope you will not resent it as presumptuous. It is inevitable for us American citizens of Hellenic descent to link in our minds the land where we were born and whence we derive our spiritual heritage with the country to which we owe -- and unreservedly acknowledge -- political allegiance. Moreover, between the two there are, as we shall see, certain striking resemblances and differences, which make their study in juxtaposition highly instructive.

To begin with, both nations have a revolutionary origin, and the revolutions from which they sprang occupy an analogous place in world history. The American example of 1776 inspired to a great extent the French Revolution of 1789, which propelled into human society the dynamic forces of liberalism, nationalism and democracy. These forces, having first been perverted by Napoleon, were buried by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. But not for long. For they were resuscitated by the Greek Revolution of 1821, and during the hundred years that have elapsed since they have practically completed the conquest of the world. Moreover, in undoing the work of the Congress of Vienna. insurgent Greece and young America collaborated most effectively, though quite unintentionally. President Monroe’s epoch-making message (which, incidentally, contained the first sympathetic reference by the head of a government to the struggle of the Greeks), by opposing a categorical veto to European intervention in the Western Hemisphere, impaired the efficacy of the Holy Alliance as a world-wide instrument of oppression. Simultaneously, the Greek War of Independence, by gradually compelling Great Britain, Russia and France to part company with Austria and Prussia and to adopt the policy which ultimately resulted in the battle of Navarino, destroyed the solidarity of the monarchs against the peoples of Europe and lifted the heavy tombstone under which Metternich had interred liberalism, nationalism and democracy. Thus the two nations, despite distance, disparity of condition and absence of formal understandings, were able to work together toward the same end during a critical juncture in world history because of their fundamental spiritual affinity and their common devotion to the cause of human freedom.

The evolution of Greece since the international recognition of her independence has been determined by four underlying factors, to a brief consideration of which I shall now call your attention.

In the first place, the niggardliness with which diplomacy drew the boundaries of the new kingdom created a condition of national dualism which poisoned Neo-Hellenic life at its source. Beyond the puny Greek state of 1830 there remained, still in bondage, the much larger Hellenic nation; and the liberation of the latter inevitably devolved upon the former. The result was Greek irredentism, the “Great Idea,” which can be compared with the American conception of “manifest destiny.” They have both been derided and condemned in certain quarters, yet they were both ineluctable historical necessities. But unlike the ‘‘Great Idea,” which aimed at the enlargement of the Greek state so as to include the major part of the Neo-Hellenic nation, America’s “manifest destiny” involved the expansion of the nation until it completed the conquest of the greater part of the North American continent. And while, in order to bring about this stupendous achievement, the American people had to contend mainly against the forces of nature, the obstacles in the way of Greece were of human contrivance; the resistance of the Ottoman Empire, the imperialism of the Great Powers and the nationalism of the other Balkan states.

The second factor. Unlike American nationalism, which kept pace with the growing economic, cultural and political unity of America and, hence, evolved slowly and painfully after the attainment of independence, Greek nationalism was fully matured by 1821, for it had already gone through a long process of gestation. It existed ideologically and emotionally before it was converted into a political reality. For it had its roots in the past; in the glory of classical and Hellenistic Greece and in the splendor and might of the Byzantine Empire. It was therefore, inevitably retrospective, while American nationalism has been essentially forward-looking: firmly determined to escape from its European antecedents and to attend exclusively to the American future. This hypertrophied historic consciousness of the Greek people has been perhaps the most potent factor in the development of modern Greece. It created a purely idealistic nationalism, which brushed aside utilitarian considerations, transcended the limitations of geography and political allegiance, ignored even the sharpest cultural differences and enabled, i.e., the Greeks of Pontus and those of the Ionian Islands to feel a profound spiritual kinship based on common traditions and aspirations. But it also blinded the modern Greeks to the realities of the world they lived in, it deterred them from adjusting their means to their hopes and aims and taught them to rely on “right” and the justice of their cause at a time when “might” was more than ever the great solvent in international relations. Outside of Greece the glamour of Hellenic history produced Philhellenism, which, by appealing to the past to redress the balance of the present, contributed powerfully to the happy issue of the Greek Revolution. But even Philhellenism turned out to be a boomerang. For it engendered in the minds of its votaries unreasonable expectations, which even in the most favorable circumstances could not be fulfilled. Like the sons of illustrious sires who so often suffer by comparison with them, the Greek people were visited with the wrath of their disappointed friends -- and the mockery of their delighted enemies -- because forsooth they did not produce another Aeschylus or Plato and because the statesmanship of Mavrocordatos did not measure up to that of Pericles. Lord Palmerston, for example., who was a staunch champion of Hellenism in the twenties and thirties, was converted into the most persistent persecutor of the little kingdom because he regarded as a personal affront its failure to come up to his expectations and its refusal to follow his recipe for salvation. And Lord Derby expressed the feelings of many a disgruntled Philhellene when, at the height of the Cretan crisis of 1866-1867, he compared Greece, in the presence of one of her representatives, to a person who “had failed to fulfill the promise of his youth."

The third factor in the making of modern Greece has been her peculiar international position. Here again the contrast with America is striking. The fulfillment of America's "manifest destiny" postulated her freedom from European entanglements. For Greece, however, the conversion of her national ideal into a political reality entailed constant involvement in the "high politics" of Europe. For America isolation was both desirable and practicable. But for Greece it meant stagnation and slow death. Yet because of her weakness and of her vulnerable geographical situation, she suffered from all the disadvantages of political isolation without enjoying any of its benefits. She was neither sought as an ally nor feared as an enemy and, thanks to her exposed coast-line, her economic insufficiency and her financial dependence, she could always be easily coerced into submission. Moreover, she was racially isolated. Unlike Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro and even Romania, she had no racial affinity with any of the Great Powers, Slav, German or Latin. Panslavism, which was the greatest boon to the other Balkan nations, constituted for Greece a formidable menace. All she could fall back on was the fitful generosity of the" Protecting Powers" and dynastic influences, which, however, in the long run did not turn out to be an unmixed blessing. The consequence of this manifold isolation has been that, though the Greek people on both sides of the boundary were, if anything. too eager to fly to arms and to shed their blood for freedom, the territorial expansion of Greece proceeded, until 1912, at a much slower pace than that of any other Balkan slate.

The fourth factor to which I should like to call your attention is the intense individualism which has tempered the nationalism of the Greek people anil has engendered a passionate attachment to liberalism and democracy. Of the many manifestations of this national trait during the last hundred years I shall mention two because they have been fraught with the most far-reaching consequences. As she emerged from the long struggle for independence, bleeding, mutilated, all but dead. Greece was blessed with the inestimable benefit of a far-seeing and sagacious ruler, Count Capodistrias was not only a diplomat (an essential qualification for the leader of a small European nation) but also exactly the kind of constructive statesman Greece needed at that time. Had he been allowed to carry out his policies, he would doubtless have laid the foundations of the new state much more solidly and would have launched the nation on its career of independence much better equipped to fulfill its destiny. But he had one fault, fatal in a man called to govern Greece. He was an autocrat, albeit an enlightened and benevolent one. Hence his work was cut short prematurely. Ninety years later another Greek statesman submitted to the Greek people two most advantageous peace treaties, which all but completed the work of national unification, and confidently asked for a renewal of their mandate. Yet he was defeated, not because the Greek people did not approve of his foreign policy or did not foresee the dire consequences of his fall, but because they desired to register their condemnation of the abuses of his domestic administration. From 1910 to 1920 Mr. Venizelos had been a liberal, a democrat and a nationalist incarnate. Hence his unprecedentedly powerful hold on the nation. But in the very hour of his triumph as a nationalist he was repudiated by his people because, in order to bring about that triumph in the midst of a world-shaking international crisis and in the teeth of profound internal dissension, he was compelled, like so many others, to jettison his liberal and democratic principles.

There have been. of course, tendencies which ran counter to these dominant factors. As against what I might call the political romanticism of most Greek statesmen, there was the robust and clear-sighted realism of such men as Mavrocordatos, Coumoundouros and Tricoupis. In opposition to the unintelligent worship and the servile imitation of antiquity, there was the demotic tradition, kept alive by the great Heptanesian school of poetry, and the revolt against pseudoclassicism, associated with the names of Vernardakis, Rhoidis and Psycharis. The tragic failure of 1897 was partially redeemed by the general awakening it helped to bring about, which led to the military pronunciamento of 1909, the advent of Mr. Venizelos and the victorious Balkan Wars.

All these tendencies have been accentuated as a result of the material and psychological changes precipitated by the events of the terrible year 1922. In the first place, the Greek state has since become, to all intents and purposes, coterminous with the Greek nation. Secondly, the inevitable disenchantment, which has followed a tremendous but disastrously abortive national effort has sounded the knell of romantic nationalism and ushered in an era of political realism both in the domestic and in the international field. (Symptomatic of this realism is the impatience which the Greek people justifiably feel toward those who persist in regarding their country as merely a museum of antiquities: who worship the remains of classical Greece but obstinately ignore a living and striving nation of seven million.) Thirdly, the sufferings of recent years have completed the political education of the Greek people, who can now be truthfully said to be second to none in political maturity. Politics is no longer, as in the past, an art in itself, but merely a means to an end. Hence (and this is a characteristic, though a slight, symptom), the rhetorical and bombastic parliamentary oratory of the past is giving way to a more workmanlike and conversational style, which lends a quiet dignity and greater efficiency to parliamentary proceedings. Another proof of political maturity is the perfect smoothness and legality with which the recent succession in the Presidency of the Republic was effected. But the most conclusive piece of evidence is the rapidity with which a people traditionally interested in abstract ideas and inveterately disputatious has sunk all ideological and doctrinaire differences and has accepted the Republic on strictly pragmatic grounds, as the form of government which (to paraphrase the words used by the French statesman, Thiers, in an analogous connection) divides it least.

These changes are reflected in the impressive record of Greece during the last eight years. In spite of staggering blows from within and from without, she had returned to political normality sooner than any other Balkan or Central European state and enjoys today the only genuinely liberal-democratic regime in that part of the world. She has converted the terrific liability of a million and a half refugees into a great national asset. Though she had to cope, after the autumn of 1922, with all those factors which shake even the best organized societies to their foundations, she was able to avert social revolution. It is only natural -- and fair -- that these achievements should attract the favorable notice of foreign observers and contribute to the emergence of a new and realistic Philhellenism, an eminent representative of which is our guest of honor this evening.* And when foreigners show so much beneficent enthusiasm for Greece, our American friends will surely not resent the keen interest with which we Americans of Greek descent have followed her tribulations and her triumphs. For, among other things, it should not be forgotten that we constitute today, after the expulsion of Hellenism from Turkey, the largest group of Hellenic origin beyond the frontiers of Greece and that we are the most important economic and cultural link between the land of our birth, toward which we feel a profound spiritual loyalty, and the country which is offering us opportunities of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We have much to learn from America. But we shall be much the poorer. intellectually and spiritually, if we completely lose that idealism which, for all its occasional exaggerations and vagaries, has preserved Hellenism through the ages, has given it the strength to rise and carry on after every disaster and has built up a modern nation which is making a substantial contribution to civilization.

*Mr. Henry Morgenthau, former Ambassador to Turkey, ex-Chairman of the Refugee Settlement Commission and author of “I Was Sent to Athens," who was the principal speaker at the Boston celebration of the Greek Centenary.

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