More than a referendum: Will Greece exit the West?

Greeks may be voting on austerity but their choice will usher in a new phase in Hellenism’s turbulent history.

Demonstrators in London gather to protest against the European Central Bank''s handling of Greece''s debt repayments
Demonstrators gather to protest against the European Central Bank's handling of Greece's debt repayments [Reuters]

It was on a Friday night, but the reason why Greeks hardly slept related less to partying and more the wake-like atmosphere that descended after Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ announcement that he would open up the result of five months of negotiations with the troika to popular referendum.

As they took to social media to apportion blame and digest the consequences of a possible exit from the euro, queues built up outside gas-stations and bank ATMs.

Analysis: What will a referendum mean for Greece?

The July 5 referendum will transcend a choice between the harsh austerity proposed by international lenders and an exit from the European currency and become a critical test of whether two centuries of Western patronage have fostered a strong enough nation-state identity for Greece and its integration with Western Europe.

Or, in an age of failing states, collapsing stability in western Asia, and massive migration inflows, might Greece flounder and revert to the borderless Hellenism that characterised Greeks for most of their history?

Turban v tiara

“How idiotic is the nation that hews to the idea that the Turkish turban is better than the Catholic tiara?” asked Alexandros Massavetas, a historian of the Mediterranean and strong proponent of remaining in the European Union, referring to a millennial Greek mistrust of the West stemming from the Crusader sacking of Constantinople in 1204. “We were dragged into four centuries of darkness and are now readying to do it all over again by those who repeatedly choose ‘worse’ over ‘bad’.”

In an age of failing states, collapsing stability in western Asia, and massive migration inflows, might Greece flounder and revert to the borderless Hellenism that characterised Greeks for most of their history?


Romantics conjure up images of a return to Alexander of Macedon’s ecumenism; the Byzantine Empire and its Ottoman successor; the rootless cosmopolitanism of Greek diasporas in Europe and Czarist Russia; and Greek-speaking trading communities stretching from the East Mediterranean to the Black Sea and Central Asia.

But the possibility of leaving Fortress Europe in an age of rolling economic crisis and resurgent Islamism may end up being both harsher and more merciful to Greece, exposing the country’s new currency to rampant inflation but opening up its tourism sector by releasing it from the constricting Schengen zone while insulating it from uncontrolled migrant inflows searching for a corridor into the EU.

Even after Greeks won independence from the Ottomans and acquired a country with borders, they worked to expand eastwards in an irredentist project dubbed the Great Idea that saw a rapid if disastrous and short-lived push into the ancestral lands of antiquity and Byzantium that lie in today’s Turkey. 

Bellicose antagonism 

Enlightenment-inspired nationalism impelled the creation of the Greek state but also resulted in Turkish and Arab successor states to the Ottoman Empire, ringing the death knell for ancient Greek communities across Africa and the Middle East.

The crushing of the Greek army by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish state, spelled dispossession for Greek-speaking Christian communities spread across a greater landmass than that occupied by the newly founded Greek state.

Millions of newly minted refugees arriving in an alien homeland were exposed to bellicose antagonism by mainlanders who resented their affected ways and multilingual cosmopolitanism.

In a world of nation-states, multiethnic Hellenism lost out; Greeks went from being part of an ethnic rainbow of competing communities, often in cosmopolitan port cities of the East Mediterranean, to adopting a narrow-minded, small-state parochialism imposed by a state where full citizenship favoured Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians.

Alexis Tsipras, Greece's prime minister [GETTY]
Alexis Tsipras, Greece’s prime minister [GETTY]

Within decades, mainland Greece segued from a kaleidoscope of diversity to largely monolingual mono-sectarianism. Once-thriving Slavic, Armenian, Vlach, Pontic, Pomach, Sunni Muslim ethnic Turkish, Jewish, and Catholic communities withered.

Out went one of the largest Jewish communities of Europe, the Thessaloniki that was once known as a Second Jerusalem, alongside Italian-speaking Catholic communities in the Ionian Islands that had contributed luminaries to the fledgling state like Russian foreign minister and first prime minister of the Greek state Ioannis Kapodistrias and Dionysis Solomos, a poet whose work was used as the basis for the Greek national anthem.

Wandering spirits

Greeks retired their wandering spirit and settled down. The old Eastern languages were forgotten as multilingualism shrivelled away in an exclusively Greek environment fostered by successive right-wing Cold War governments promoting a Westernisation intended to cement Greece in the Western firmament.

In 1981, accession to the European Union coincided with a sexual revolution to bring prosperity and wider horizons to a generation who acquired skills and foreign educations. But it was not until crisis roiled the economy that Greeks started emigrating en masse to embrace a renewed if individualistic cosmopolitanism in northern European cities, GCC economies, Australia, and North America.

“On a deeper, spiritual and existential level, we are still the children of [first Byzantine Emperor] Constantine, looking east, still thinking we can span the cultural and emotional divide that separates the continents,” said Zafira Tenedios-Zamfotis, a member of Istanbul’s Rum community who now lives in the US. “This may be the blessing and the curse of our inheritance and, as it did a thousand years ago, the West is once again redefining our identity for us; the Great Ecclesiastical Schism [1054AD] continues today through the troika and the euro.”

By the time of the schism, the centre of Hellenism had already moved east to Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire for six centuries, letting geographical Greece subside into a medieval period that segued into the four century Ottoman occupation until the 1821 War of Independence led to the country’s yoking to the West.

A group identified as Greek Jews in Ioannina, Greece, waiting to be taken to Nazi death camps in 1944 [EPA]
A group identified as Greek Jews in Ioannina, Greece, waiting to be taken to Nazi death camps in 1944 [EPA]

European powers imposed first a Bavarian king and then a Danish royal lineage upon a newly independent Greece, after militarily supporting its struggle against the Ottoman Empire in an early echo of the 2011 NATO-backed Libyan Revolution.

Several decades of political instability (and five defaults later), Greece was occupied by the Nazis during World War II and liberated by the British. The demands of international geopolitics at a time of Soviet expansion resulted in London supporting Royalist against Communist factions in the civil war that exploded after the Nazis’ departure.

A new start

But a Greek default and elimination from the euro may imply neither failure nor a doomed plunge to some purgatorial, medieval east. Supporters of Syriza, the ruling party, point out that the EU in its present form has strayed from the humanistic vision of a unified Europe cherished by the bloc’s founders and been hijacked by corporate interests.

With the 2008 economic crisis showing no sign of ending, they argue that Greece has been dragged into a systemic breakdown of capitalism, accentuated by technological displacement and a new precariat created by EU efforts to become more competitive by ingratiating itself with private banks and transnational corporations. 

A thinker called Dimitris Kitsikis who advocates closer ties with Turkey, Russia, Israel, and Iran to revive the eastern Mediterranean’s fortunes in a geopolitically crucial region he calls the Intermediate Region, appears to be receiving a listening within Syriza.

Brussels must salvage its currency’s credibility by demonstrating that indebted countries cannot be allowed to just walk away. But the rolling nature of the crisis, and suspicions that the EU is unviable without the kind of political integration that would turn it into either a dictatorship or a union unpalatable to its constituents, posits Greeks before a choice between staying in a harsh and punitive institutional environment, or spreading their wings and reacquainting themselves, possibly even contributing to stabilising, a familiar neighbourhood currently experiencing unprecedented turmoil.

It may sound unlikely, but it may also not be as bad an idea as it sounds.

“A strange bond connects the Greek to his unhappiness,” writer Nikos Dimou opines in his book The Misery of Being Greek. “That is when he’s at his best, when unhappy or threatened; crisis and confrontation empower him; rejection becomes a position.”

Iason Athanasiadis is a photojournalist who covers the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.