The book is “Postcards from Greece,” by Victoria Hislop.
The story she tells is soulful and compelling. Briefly, it is two stories intertwined: the present-day narrator’s, during her trip to Greece, and that of the writer of the postcards, an unknown Englishman, “A,” in Greece, whose posts she has received in error while living in her flat in England. The postcards continued to arrive over a lengthy period, ultimately to stimulate the narrator’s journey to Greece. Minutes before she leaves her flat, she receives in the post a notebook, a journal from the author of the postcards, which she doesn’t read until settling in a room in Nafplio (birthplace of Alexander K. Pavellas, my paternal grandfather, 1876).
She commences reading, and reporting to the reader, the journal entries of A as he traveled throughout Greece to deal with the heartbreak of his lover jilting him—apparently the woman he thought he was mailing the postcards and journal to.
Each village, town, and city he visited had a story, as told to him by local people. Each story had a lesson for A as he dealt with his broken heart, seeing along the way that it might be possible for him to recover.
I paused for a moment at page 249, to allow the tears to well up, my mind traveling over the years, centuries, and millennia—involuntarily reviewing what I know of the history of Greece and the Greeks.
The nation-state that is Greece is only 188 years old. How can this be, given what we have read of all the ancient Greek peoples, their philosophers, mathematicians, statesmen, historians, warriors, physicians, sculptors, architects, poets, playwrights, and more?
In ancient days there were villages, towns, and some city-states (notably, Athens and Sparta who were ever at war with each other), not only on the mainland and the islands we now see on a map, but everywhere throughout the Mediterranean and the Black Sea areas, and in what is now Turkey, Egypt, and others—places where Alexander led his army of Macedonians and Greeks in conquering the world.
So, Greeks were everywhere, having become an integral part of the communities they settled in. What welded them together as Greeks, despite their intermittent, internecine warfare? Their language, religion, and literature—mostly poetry, beginning with Homer. But, there were no nation-states then except, possibly, for Persia which had been conquered and dissolved by Alexander.
More, below, about how we get from ‘Greeks everywhere’ without a state, to what we now know as the Republic of Greece—but first, what is on pages 248 and 249 that stopped me and stimulated my reverie?
She (the narrator) looked at her flag, its simple blue-and-white design full of meaning, the nine horizontal stripes each revealing the nine-syllable rallying cry used by the Greeks to rid their country of the Turks. ‘El-ef-th-ri-a I Tha-na-tos! Freedom or Death!’
As did many, she believed that God had been on their side in the fight against the Turks. With His help they had rid themselves of the Ottoman oppression; the flag itself embodied their motto.
My thoughts went immediately to a passage in John Fowles’ “The Magus,” the antagonist to the main character. The Magus related to the protagonist a scene from the World War Two German occupation of Greece. The Germans had caught a Cretan whom they had been torturing to get information about those fighting against the occupation. He would not talk. The doctor of the town (the Magus, in his later persona) was told to make the man talk or others would suffer, as well…
I told him (the Cretan) I was not a collaborationist, that I was a doctor, that my enemy was human suffering. That I spoke for Greece when I said that God would forgive him if he spoke now – his friends had suffered enough. There was a point beyond which no man could be expected to suffer … and so on. Every argument I could think of. But his expression was one of unchanging hostility to me. Hatred of me. I doubt if he even listened to what I was saying. He must have assumed that I was a collaborationist, that all the things I told him were lies. In the end I fell silent and looked back at the colonel. I could not hide the fact that I thought I had failed. He must have signaled to the guards outside, because one of them came in, went behind the Cretan and unfastened the gag. At once the man roared, all the chords in his throat standing out, that same word, that one word: eleftheria. There was nothing noble in it. It was pure savagery, as if he was throwing a can of lighted petrol over us. The guard brutally twisted the gag back over his mouth and retied it.
Then I thought of the book “Freedom or Death” by the great Cretan-Greek man of letters, Nikos Kazantzakis. I began reading Kazantzakis while in university. I was electrified by his “Last Temptation of Christ.” I have since read, and re-read, many of his novels, and revere his autobiography, Report to Greco.” His novel “Freedom or Death” deals with the rebellion of the Cretans against the Ottoman Empire in the year 1889. Again, the Turks.
After the Golden Age of Greece peaked and declined, especially after the Peloponnesian wars between Athens and Sparta had exhausted Greek treasure and spirit, others claimed the territories in which they resided and rendered many of them as vassals or slaves. Nonetheless, the Greek language and culture continued to influence the world; the elite Romans valued the Greek language as much as their own, and saw themselves heirs to Greek civilization.
The Roman Empire eventually adopted Christianity, was conquered by invaders from the north, and morphed into the “Holy Roman Empire.” After more centuries the Empire split into two parts, East and West, the Eastern part, based in Constantinople—now Istanbul, Turkey. This became the “Eastern Orthodox” Church, or “Greek” Church.
Then the Ottoman Turks, under the banner of Islam, conquered most of the areas previously under Christian influence. The Ottomans ruled the Middle East, North Africa and much of Europe for almost 500 years, their empire gradually dying, finally ending upon the conclusion of the first World War, or “Great War.”
Many of the provinces of the Ottoman Empire were challenged well before The Great War, including by the Greeks. After bloody uprisings and reprisals, the ‘Great Powers’ of the time (England, France, Russia, and Turkey), via the Treaty of Constantinople of 1832, recognized Greece as a fully independent kingdom.
But the boundaries of the kingdom did not encompass a great many areas where Greeks had resided for centuries, even millennia. The Ottomans initiated, over time, many pogroms and ethnic cleansings of Greeks (and Armenians, Assyrians and others), including forced emigration with all the horrors which accompany such displacements by armed men. The city of Smyrna in Anatolia (now in Turkey) was burned to ground and its surviving residents mostly expelled.
Thus, the first nation-state of Greece was born in 1832, amid wars, displacements, terrors and uncertainty. It has never stood fully on its feet, and has been used as a pawn by greater powers in their struggles with each other, and in positioning themselves for economic advantage.
Upon modern Greece’s birth, the Island of Crete was not part of the nation-state. In 1897, an insurrection in Crete (which influenced the book Freedom or Death) led the Ottoman Empire to declare war on Greece, which led Great Britain, France, Italy and Russia to intervene on the grounds that the Ottoman Empire could no longer maintain control. It was the prelude of the island’s final annexation to the Kingdom of Greece, which occurred de facto in 1908. (Source)
The period between the end of the First World War, 1918, and the date the German Army invaded Greece during the Second World War, 1942, remained tumultuous for the new kingdom/nation of Greece. Just as with the new nation-states of Syria and Iraq, also formed after the end of the first World War by the Great Powers, there was no infrastructure upon which to build a ‘democracy’ or any kind of stable representative government. Greeks and the peoples who are now citizens of Iraq and Syria had all been ruled, absolutely, by the Ottoman Empire for centuries. The tragic irony, for Greece, is that in millennia past, the first successful democracy was established in Athens. It lasted, perhaps, for a century.
In the period between the two great wars, Greece experienced many changes in government, only briefly attaining what could be called a ‘republic’, alternating with monarchy and dictatorship. There were coups and coup attempts, assassinations and attempts, a war with Turkey over the fate of hundreds of thousands of Greeks trapped inside that country. There were brief, but bloody, skirmishes with the bordering states of Albania and Bulgaria over the fates of Greeks in these countries, and their national boundaries.
Warfare, hunger, poverty, disease, displacement—all were commonplace in the new Greece. And, despite these, hundreds of thousands of Greeks from other countries, primarily Turkey, continued to arrive to bankrupt Greece. In 1922, Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Smyrna, Turkey, was lynched by a Turkish mob. Smyrna was set on fire and 100,000 Greeks perished. The remaining population fled to Greece and other countries.
Then came the German army.
Impatient with Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, in the latter’s failure to occupy and control Greece on behalf the Axis powers in World War Two, Hitler ordered the German invasion of Greece, April 1941. Following the conquest of Crete, all of Greece was occupied by June 1941.
The Germans have more respect for the Greeks then for the Italians, not only because the Greeks had defeated the Italians in the Albanian campaign but because the Germans are well read and generally philhellenes, and are quite familiar with the rich history of the ancient Greeks. (Source)
Nonetheless, the German Army was merciless in its occupation of Greece, and in its murders of Greek Jews. And when the German Army was ultimately forced to abandon Greece, it destroyed everything they passed through on their retreat.
Over 400,000 Greeks die during the Second World War, the vast majority civilians. The Jewish communities, the most ancient in Europe have been wiped out. Starvation and inflation are so bad that a loaf of bread costs 2 million drachma and people have traded property and homes for olive oil to keep their children alive. When the allies tour the countryside following the German retreat they do not find happy crowds waving flags, but people who stare, dazed, in a state of shock over what they have been through. Schools have been burned to the ground as have the villages which surround them. Thousands of civilians have been uprooted and just as many have died. The country is economically bankrupt. There is little or no industry as factories have been destroyed and ports and cities are in ruins. The government is in chaos. The whole country has to be rebuilt. But first they have to fight a civil war. (Source)
Yes, then a Civil War. It was horrible. The people were caught between Soviet-backed Communists and savagely competing militias. Loyalties to one or the other were tested, and a failure resulted in torture or death, or both. Uncle Harry’ wife, Sofia, was present during those times, about which I never heard her speak, except once. In an unguarded moment Aunt Sophie spoke of seeing, as a girl, barrels full of human body parts.
The communists tore from their families 30,000 children and deported them to communist controlled countries in Eastern Europe. The book and movie “Eleni” was based in this unspeakable atrocity. (My tears well up again).
After the War, the United States implemented the Marshal Plan, in which the United States gave over $13 billion in economic support to help rebuild Western European economies after the end of World War II. The United Kingdom received 26% of this amount, France 18%, and Greece 3%, to be used primarily to fight the communists who were trying to annex Greece to the Soviet Union as had been the countries in Eastern Europe. (Source).
The communists were defeated, but the result was to create a militaristic state which ruled the people for a while, until democratic impulses arose to counter them—and a new round of changing governments and assassinations began. (See the Movie “Z.” by Costa-Gavras)
Then came the European Union and the Euro currency.
This is enough to say here. You will have your opinion about the purported benefits to Greece of having been co-opted into this union of governments and currency. But ask the Greeks if they might not wish to have retained the Drachma, and to not be bound by EU rules, especially those requiring them to accept thousands of refugees from the Middle East whom they are not physically and financially prepared to accommodate.
I weep for Greece. She never had a chance to become what she might have, with her glorious history and culture, and her beautiful landscapes and seas. She remains vassal to the Great Powers.
But, Greece lives in the people, as well as in the land designated as ‘The Hellenic Republic.’
Greeks, as usual, are everywhere in the world. They are also Australians, South Africans, Canadians, Swedes (as I am), and Americans (as I am), proud and productive citizens of other countries. Greece resides in their hearts and mine.