During the Second World War, Italy invaded Greece and received such a thrashing Hitler was obliged to come to Mussolini’s aid. Against the combined Axis nations, Greece held out longer than any country conquered by Nazi Germany, and German forces were so mauled in the invasion of Crete, they never conducted another airborne operation again. The holiday celebrating when Greece said "no (Οχι)” to Italy’s surrender demands almost eclipses Greek Independence Day; not surrendering and fighting back is in the national psyche. All to say, Greeks are an intensely independent and proud people.
Their perception of themselves is that they are productive in contrast to descriptions of their economy which have accompanied their recent budgetary woes.
Greek workers according to the Groningen Growth and Development Centre are ranked fourth in the OECD for average hours of work per worker, and first in the EU. Statistics like that produced once was once called the “Greek Economic Miracle” where post war growth rates were second only to Japan and between 1960 and 1973 averaging 7.7 percent growth. Up until 2007, Greece was still enjoying over 4 percent growth.
Greece has the largest merchant navy in the world, accounting for more than 15 percent of the world's total deadweight tonnage according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. The Greeks do pretty well in exporting cement, rebars, shipbuilding, pharmaceuticals, consumer beverages and agricultural products. It’s not the caricature of just tourism, and fat dumb and happy pensioners.
Do they have problems most definitely; particularly in tax-evasion where close to 49 percent practice it as a form of a national sport, and governments, particularly during the 2008 recession when Greece hid debt levels, avoided reforms, and doubled down by borrowing more, to the point that the current crisis has Greeks borrowing to pay debts.
Most Greeks feel betrayed—by their previous governments for having hidden the scope of an emerging debt in 2008 when early action could have done something.
But the degree of austerity that has been exacted by Greece’s European partners does not auger well for the future. Germany, more than any other nation should realize this. You cannot beat a proud people down and not expect consequences.
In Germany, punitive reparation payments after the First World War gave rise to fascism, and Germany not should forget the lingering memories of its own actions in Greece during the Occupation—in a proud people, these memories die hard. The resurgent term in Greece for anyone siding with the Germans is germane-tsoliades—a term harkening back to anyone who collaborated with the Nazi government of occupation.
Financial analysts will predict what is to come in the economic realm; however little has been said about the potential second order strategic effects—the laws of unintended consequences.
Notwithstanding the equal possibility of a future government of the extreme right or left, coups have often occurred in Greece—a Greece kicked out of the Euro or the EU may not meekly disappear. It will still remain a member of NATO in a geographically important position in the middle of the Mediterranean. Its Aegean islands control approaches to the Bosporus and the island of Crete has long been important as a refuelling facility for NATO fleets at Souda Bay, and its airfields used to support NATO operations in Libya.
Putin’s Russia, allied to Greece by a common faith, and a propensity to keep the West on an edge, will be only too anxious take advantage of the rift; and in doing so will find a welcome audience. When John Paul II visited Athens in 2001, he apologized to Greek Orthodox Christians for centuries-old grievances, citing the actions of the Crusaders in 1204 when they laid waste to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, yet the Greeks remember. The West often ignores this Orthodox nexus between Greece and Russia, but even for non-practicing Greeks, the Orthodox Church defines culture and history, not just religious belief. The years under Ottoman occupation, the survival of the language and the faith, in short, Greece’s history is entirely tied to the Church.
This Greek view of the world, and of the West, is entirely consistent with Russia’s views, also formed from its Orthodox past and if Russia were to lend a helping hand, it would be warmly received. And with respect to Germany, Russia’s historical views formed from the Great Patriotic War are a shared cultural memory with Greek remembrances of the Occupation. Let alone lesser memories of the post-World War I Asia Minor (Asian Turkey) where many Greeks believe the West betrayed them.
After meeting with Putin in April and in June, Greece signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Russia to build a 47 billion cubic metre gas pipeline through Greek territory with Russian financing. On the same day, Tsipras declared that “Russia is one of the most important partners for us.”
How will NATO function in the face of future Greek vetoes on Russian sanctions, NATO assurance packages, or NATO missions to Ukraine or elsewhere? And beyond Russia, there is China.
China’s naval expansion seeks a foothold in the Mediterranean. In other places, China has used the power of investment to establish footholds elsewhere and to secure the favour of individual nations in international fora. Why wouldn’t it now?
If Greece leaves Europe, or is kicked out, the consequences might well be far beyond financial. Nations also react from pride, not just dollars, euros or drachmas.
George Petrolekas has served in Bosnia, Afghanistan and with NATO, and has been an adviser to senior NATO commanders. He is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and on the Board of the CDA Institute.