BOOK REVIEW / Ancestor worship: Greece is the word: A concise history of Modern Greece - Richard Clogg: Cambridge, pounds 25

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The Independent Online
WHEN the European Community was considering the Greek application for membership, accepted in 1981, a British Foreign Office minister said, according to Richard Clogg, that entry would be seen as 'fitting repayment by Europe of the cultural and political debt that we all owe to a Greek heritage almost 3,000 years old'.

This woolly and romantic sense of cultural indebtedness has often driven policy towards Greece since Byron gave his life in the uprising that led to the creation of the state in 1827. It has also fed the contemporary Greek sense of progonoplexia - a word that does not quite translate as ancestor worship. Ancester obsession may be better.

Today's Greeks cling to their glorious past with the determination of a proud family whose members know they have gone down in the world, and that their current standing involves the exploitation of an often mythic history.

Professor Clogg's slim and lively volume intersperses an authoritative account of the last 200 years of Greek history with a sensitive analysis of the Greek national character. It will be of use to anybody attempting to understand, for example, the historic basis of the row between Athens and its EC partners over recognition of the former Yugoslav state of Macedonia; or the constant friction with Turkey that is deemed by all Greeks to be incurable. It also helps to explain the appeal that Andreas Papandreou and his often posturing and always chauvenistic 'socialist' party, Pasok, had for many of his fellow countrymen in the Eighties.

Professor Clogg points out that large areas of the present state have been incorporated within living memory. The Dodecanese islands became sovereign Greek territory only in 1947, while many Aegean islands, along with (Greek) Macedonia, Epirus and Thrace, were absorbed on the eve of the First World War.

In the course of large-scale mutual ethnic cleansing, millions of Greeks were driven from Turkish Asia Minor 70 years ago, with further expulsions in the Fifties during the Cypriot campaign for enosis (union with Greece). As Professor Clogg notes, Konstantine Karamanlis, the current president of Greece, was born a citizen of the Ottoman empire.

Even today the frontiers of Greece are determined neither by geography nor ethnicity. Cyprus remains an independent republic, one-third of which has been under Turkish occupation since 1974. There are significant Greek minorities in Albania, Kosovo, Yugoslav Macedonia and the former Soviet Union.

Similarly, there are assorted Balkan and Turkish minorities in northern Greece. The Greek government does itself no service by pretending that these minorities are simply ethnic Greeks with eccentric views and values. Moreover, the fact that the Orthodox church and the Greek state are so closely intertwined makes it difficult for Greeks to accept that fellow citizens of other racial origins or other Christian denominations, far less of other religions, can be fully Greek.

The reality is that Greece's borders are neither logical nor secure. Yet, as recently as the period of the Colonels' junta (1967-74), influential Greeks still flirted with the batty, 19th-century 'Great Idea': the creation of a new Greece, with its capital in a renamed Constantinople.

The other clue to the Greek national character involves the effects of 400 years of Turkish occupation. 'The Greek world (was isolated from) the great historic movements such as the Renaissance, the Reformation, the 17th-century scientific revolution, the French and Industrial Revolutions that so influenced the historic evolution of Western Europe,' according to Clogg. Even today, Greeks travelling beyond the Balkans to what is now the EC talk of 'going to Europe', much as some English people use the words Europe and the Continent interchangeably.

The author suggests that the capriciousness of Ottoman rule, and the weakness of the law, have helped to shape Greek attitudes. The state is there to be cheated, and the best way of protecting oneself, and of getting ahead, is through patronage. Political parties and parliamentary deputies now play the role once occupied by brigands and caids, or headmen. Pasok, like many another supposedly Hellenic organisations, was successful in large part because it institutionalised traditional Ottoman concepts of patronage while giving the state a misleading veneer of socialist modernity and Europeanness.