Counterfactual History: What if Greece Had Gone Red?

Reading Mark Mazower’s Inside Hitler’s Greecea thing that you might be struck by is the degree to which, insofar as communist ideology and EAM/ELAS policies in the 1940s represented a meaningful departure from traditional modes of Greek politics, they would, if reincarnated today, represent a similarly meaningful departure from post-war modes of Greek politics, too. That is to say, the introduction of communism to Greek political discourse during World War II does not seem to have had any long-term implications for the actual practice of Greek politics. In Mazower’s telling, EAM’s perhaps most noteworthy innovation in a domestic context was to present itself as deserving of popular support based on its answer to the question, “what is your ideology?” (or maybe, “what are your policies?”) rather than, “who is your leader?” It was the country’s first mass social movement which had also successfully divorced its appeal from the existence of a singular charismatic man at its head. Perhaps slightly less important by comparison, but noteworthy nonetheless, was the explicit cultural valorization of work and labor which accompanied EAM political control – to the average Greek peasant in the 1940s work was something to be avoided by any means necessary, not something to undertake with enthusiasm and pride.

But for all that EAM/ELAS envisioned revolutionary changes in the practice of Greek politics, and for all that the Communist Part of Greece and the Greek hard left in general have retained influence through to the present, the status quo against which it represented such a radical change in the 1940s has largely persisted to the present day, at least in the two areas cited above. Yes, Greeks work the most hours in Europe, but they’re also horribly inefficient, so parse that how you will – my reading is that they take heinous amounts of time to get things done. Number of hours on the job notwithstanding, work remains something to be avoided or minimized – if you’re not taking short-cuts (cheating), you’re not trying.* And while the financial crisis and the rise of Syriza and Golden Dawn it engendered has done a lot to loosen the mortar entrenching the Karamanlis and Papandreou families-cum-parties at the summit of Greek politics, you wouldn’t have to work too hard to view the post-war era through ~2011 as a personalized contest between two rival clans in the spirit of pre-war, leader-centric political activity.

Given the title of this post, you can probably see where I’m going with this. At least as expressed (and occasionally instantiated) during World War II, the aims of communist members of the Greek resistance map fairly well as solutions to two persistent problems in the country’s current political life. Furthermore, compare the position in 2014 of Europe’s former Soviet satellites to that of Greece, and all of a sudden the idea of swapping 20th century histories casually doesn’t seem so bad. In fact, I think you could make a decent argument that in some de-personalized, macro-utilitarian sense, Greece would be better off today had it spent the Cold War as a Mediterranean outpost of the Warsaw Pact rather than as the first non-founding member of NATO. Decades of communism suddenly terminated in 1989 would have played the same role as one hopes the current recession will, spurring systemic reforms and reconfiguring the relationship between citizen and state. Now the country is experiencing a similarly titanic shift, but without benefiting from the euphoria of newly-acquired political and economic liberties.

But as compelling as that argument may be (or not compelling, I dunno, maybe it’s a shit argument), it’s not one anybody should be comfortable making, since to do so would be in fact to acquiesce to the relentlessly murderous logic of communism itself. Even if Greece today would have been better off having been the People’s Republic of Greece yesterday, instrumentalizing the Greeks of yesterday like that is deeply immoral.

Even if you’re an immoral douche when it comes to the domestic lives of a country’s citizens, there’s another reason we should in fact be glad Greece has been a NATO member since 1952: the Balkan Wars. Given Greece’s role (or rather, lack thereof) in NATO’s air campaign against a rump Yugoslavia in 1999, it’s not hard to imagine a non-NATO Greece in that same conflict, or earlier during the dissolution of Yugoslavia, offering actual overt support to Milosevic. The counterfactual of a communist Greece is an instructive thought experiment, but thankfully it is only that.

*Here “trying” is understood in a sort of meta-fashion, as in, “trying to avoid having to try”