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Yes, Greece Is Obviously European

Robert Kaplan asks [1] if Greece is European:

Greece is Christian, but it is also Eastern Orthodox, as spiritually close to Russia as it is to the West, and geographically equidistant between Brussels and Moscow. Greece may have invented the West with the democratic innovations of the Age of Pericles, but for more than a thousand years it was a child of Byzantine and Turkish despotism.

Greece’s European identity shouldn’t be in question, and even its status as part of the Western world isn’t really in doubt. Kaplan’s somewhat slanted account of Greek history is a reminder that different countries are included as part of “the West” or Europe ultimately according to an arbitrary decision based on criteria that change from one generation to the next. During the 19th century, there was a racialist school of thought in western Europe that held that modern Greeks weren’t even “really” Greeks because of Slavic population migrations in the Balkans in the medieval period, which Paparrigopoulos [2] famously refuted in his work on the history of the Greek nation. Paparrigopoulos presented a history of the Greeks that emphasized the realities of continuity between antiquity and the modern era, which an earlier generation of Greek nationalists and Philhellenes were only too happy to deny.

Kaplan’s descriptions reflect the same sort of selective Western identification with Greek culture: the aspects of Greek antiquity that modern Westerners admire (the innovations of the Age of Perikles) are said to be “Western” and the parts of Greek history that do not fit with the way we see ourselves (Eastern Orthodoxy, Byzantium) are identified as something else. This selective use of Greek history is all the more extraordinary when we consider that the formal doctrinal content of Christianity was set down in the Greek language at ecumenical councils held in the Eastern Roman Empire at the orders of Byzantine emperors in Greek-speaking cities. Inasmuch as European civilization and Western civilization have been formed by the inheritance of the ancient and medieval Christian world, they owe a great debt to the Christianity of eastern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, which is a significant part of the cultural legacy of Byzantium.

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8 Comments To "Yes, Greece Is Obviously European"

#1 Comment By JonF On June 6, 2012 @ 6:52 pm

I do not use the term “The West”, because I think it’s fairly meaningless– at best it’s a relic of the Cold War when it had some justification.

There’s no really good term for the civilization we are talking about. “The West” unites two discordant subcultures (the Latin, Catholic South and the Germanic Protestant North) that had frequently been at conflict with one another– and it ignores the Slavo-Hellenic East (which has both Catholic and Orthodox allegiances).
“Christendom” doesn’t really work either, since Christianity has spread far beyond Europe’s borders, while Europe itself is largely post-Christian.
And “Europe” is awkward because the civilization includes the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
It would be best thought recognize that the civilization contains four major subcultures and there are serious rifts between them, that have on occasion been the source of warfare (and may someday be so again). I’ve mentioned the South (Latin, Catholic) and the North (Germanic, Protestant) an the East (Hellenic and Slavic, mainly, and a mix of Catholic and Orthodox). To these I’ll add the Anglo-Celtic offshore nations: Britain, Ireland, and the four other British-descended nations I mentioned above.
All of these nations are the descendants of the Indo-Europeans (with a touch of Uralic and Caucasian thrown in at the eastern and northern fringes); they take their civilization from Greece and Rome, directly or indirectly, and they share the heritage of Christianity, whether they still adhere to it consciously or not.

It’s as silly to exclude Greece or Russia from this group as it would be to leave out Norway or Portugal.

#2 Comment By DavidT On June 6, 2012 @ 8:42 pm

Hamilton Fish Armstrong in his memoirs *Peace and Counterpeace: From Wilson to Hitler* has an amusing account of the “more Western than thou” syndrome:

“One of Dante’s heirs, the waiter in the Trieste cafe, flicking away the flies from the spotted tablecloth, would say: ‘You are going to Zagreb? A filthy place. My mother was a Croat but she had the good fortune to marry an Italian and escape to Europe.’ The Croats, in turn, had the satisfaction of feeling more Western than their Serbian kinsmen: they said earnestly that when you reached Serbia you would see for the first time what it means to have been under Turkish rule for all those centuries. Naturally, the Serbs told of the inferiority of their neighbors to the east, the Bulgars with their Tartar blood. And the Bulgars pointed out that the East began where Europe ends, at the Bosporus…”

#3 Comment By trvalentine On June 7, 2012 @ 11:56 am

From a geographic perspective of Europe as the subcontinent in the western part of Eurasia, Greece is definitely part of Europe.

From a historical perspective, Greece’s influence on the areas of Europe has been more significant than its influence elsewhere, so Greece probably qualifies as part of Europe.

But from a civilizational perspective, it has been seen as distinct by many scholars such as Huntington who was following the lead of Toynbee, Couborn, and Quigley. If one recognises religion as a fundamental basis for civilization, I think one must draw a distinction between the West and the Orthodox civilizations.

Contra JonF, I think ‘the West’ is a useful and valid term: a shared history, religious battles based on common assumptions (even today Protestant Christianity and Papal Christianity have more in common with each other than either has with the Eastern Christianity manifested in both the Chalcedonian and Anti-Chalcedonian Christians claiming the ‘Orthodox’ label despite the split over Chalcedon being far older), a common intellectual heritage, and what has been labelled a ‘post-Christian’ society.

As an aside, I am uncomfortable with using the term ‘medieval’ (with all its connotations and images) for any civilization other than the West.

#4 Comment By tbraton On June 7, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

Actually, the idea that there was a divide between the people of the east and the people of the west was originated by the Greek historian Herodotus, the “Father of History.” “It was Herodotus who was the first person to speak about the idea of the free men of the west against the slaves of the east.” [3] That was a theme that ran through his only known work, “The Histories” or “The Persian Wars,” which was written in the 5th century B.C. At the time, the Greeks of the Greek mainland and the Aegean islands and the Greeks of the western Mediterranean were about the only “civilized” people of the “West.” And, of course, we used to properly speak of the Greco-Roman civilization as the foundation of Western Civilization.

#5 Comment By JonF On June 7, 2012 @ 9:37 pm

Re: I think one must draw a distinction between the West and the Orthodox civilizations.

Then why not draw a similar line between northern (Germanic) Europe and southern (Latin) Europe? That’s also an ancient fissure in Europe– it’s the borders of the Roman Empire, and approximately the border between the Protestants and the Catholics. And yes, Protestantism is significanly different than Catholicism, and in ways that Orthodoxy is not– need I cite theology or can that simply be conceded up front?

I conceded that the East of Europe is different from the West- but I don’t see it as more different than the North is from the South. I find the opposite POV a Cold War legacy, and we really ought not privilege the immediate past so much when dealing with things that are millennia old. Sweden is at least as different from Italy as Romania is from Belgium.

And if being under Muslim rule for some centuries disqualifies a region from “Europe”, why do we allow Spain and Portugal in the club?

Even Russian history parallels that of western Europe outside the Mongol era (which lasted just two centuries– less time than Spain was under the caliphs). Ivan the Terrible was a contemporary of the Tudors and Phillip II of Spain; Peter the Great of Louis XIV. Similar trends and similar evolution of societies– and very unlike anything happening in, say, Persia or China. Even the huge and ghastly detour through Marxism– well, Germany had a briefer but just as nasty detour through Naziism. And Marxism after all was a “Western” ideology.

#6 Comment By trvalentine On June 9, 2012 @ 5:56 pm

@JonF — if only you could ask Toynbee, et al. why they did not ‘draw a similar line’ between northern and southern Europe. Can you name one of the great civilizationalists who made such a distinction? (I can’t.)

I suspect one reason is the lack of a real division between a Germanic and Latin Europe. (You might find James C. Russell’s The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity interesting and enlightening. I suspect you do not realise the enormity of the Germanic influence on the papacy — since oh about the year 800.) The borders of the Roman Empire included what is now England, which can hardly be regarded as Latin territory; and what is now France (named for the Franks who were Germanic!) used to be regarded as a stronghold of the papacy. In short, I do not think one can draw a line between a Germanic north and a Latin south with anything approaching the clarity of a line separating the West and Orthodox civilizations.

Protestantism is significantly different than Catholicism, and in ways that Orthodoxy is not– need I cite theology or can that simply be conceded up front?

I have spent thousands of hours (literally) studying differences between various Christianities and I believe you are mistaken. I do not think this the appropriate venue for an extended discussion of the differences, but will offer an analogy: Protestant Christianity is like a white American, Papal Christianity is like a black American — opposites, but two sides of the same coin — and Orthodox Christianity is like a black African: focusing on externals will cause one to miss more important similarities. As the Orthodox theologian Alexei Khomiakov wrote:

All the Western doctrine is born out of the Latins; it feels (though unconsciously) its solidarity with the past; it feels its dependence from one science, from one creed, from one line of life; and that creed, that science, that life was the Latin one. This is what I hinted at, and what you understand very rightly, viz., that all Protestants are Crypto-Papists; and, indeed, it would be a very easy task to show that in their Theology (as well as philosophy) all the definitions of all the objects of creed or understanding are merely taken out of the old Latin System, though often made negative in the application. In short, if it was to be expressed in the concise language of algebra, all the West knows but one datum, a; whether it be preceded by the positive sign +, as with the Latins, or with the negative −, as with the Protestants, the a remains the same.

(Interestingly, some Orthodox theologians have taken a different angle and declared the Latin papacy the beginning of Protestantism!)

A recent article on this site — see [4] — might also help explain the widest gap between the various Christianities is the one between East and West.

I do not think making a distinction between the West and Orthodox civilizations is a Cold War legacy, but something much older and more profound. Thus, I am not privileging the immediate past. Nor do I see the existence of Mohammedan domination as pertinent. I do view, with the civilizationalists, religion as an important foundation of a civilization (most civilizations are identified by their religion), more important than temporary domination by outsiders.

As for Russian history, since the time of Peter the Not-So-Great, it has been marked by a divide between the Europeanizers and the Slavophiles — a bifurcation continued right through the Marxist era into the present. The Europeanizers have managed temporary victories (e.g. Marxism), but have not yet succeeded in making Russia truly European. (They will, no doubt, keep trying.) I suspect it is because present-day Russia is not as Europeanized as some in the West would like, that some (e.g. Romney) see it as an enemy. (But neocons think American-style government and society should be embraced by everyone else — and imposed for the ‘good’ of the people, if necessary.)

#7 Comment By Theodore G. Karakostas On June 19, 2012 @ 12:02 am

Please excuse me for this very late addition, but I came upon this quite late and there are things that I feel must be

Mr.Kaplan disparages Byzantium, as if
Byzantium as the cradle of Christianity for a millenium and the Ecumenical Councils which defined Eastern and Western theology,
was not “western”.

Greece has more than earned its position as a western country. During the Byzantine centuries, it was Constantinople that saved
Western Europe from Islam during the sieges
of the City in 678 and 717 AD.

Kaplan asks “Is Greece Europe”?

The Greek participation during the First World War would indicate yes. The horrific
suffering of the Greek populace during the
Nazi occupation when civilians starved to death and were the victims of horrific Nazi reprisals say yes, as do the Greek contributions to the struggles against Nazism and Communism.

Greeks have given blood in common struggles with Europe, and by their sacrifices are
without question European.

What seemingly divides Greece from Europe and the West is the lack of appreciation directed toward Greece for her contributions while Turkey (who sat out Hitler’s war and
sided with the Kaiser during the First War)
has been rewarded with unrestrained backing at the expense of Greece and Cyprus.

Greece for the most part has been treated as a possession and not a country by the Germans and British during the nineteenth century, and by the US and NATO at a later period.

To fully understand Greece, one must understand the historical realities of the
Asia Minor Genocide in 1922 when the Turks
were backed and Greek and Armenian Christians were sacrificed on the altar of
geopolitical and economic interests.

Add to this the anti-Greek pogroms in
Constantinople during the 1950’s which led to the ethnic cleansing of those Greeks and
the continued American-British pressure for
Greece to shut up and make nice with the Turks, and we begin to see the sharp division in respective interests and perceptions.

There is also the matter of Cyprus which
Turkey has been occupying with American support, and the correct perception among
Greeks that the US and Europe have no
inclination to ever take Greek interests into account as can be seen with regard to
Greece’s position on her province of

This is not to justify the irresponsible
behavior of present day Greece or the crisis, but there are many factors that need to be taken into account and examined.

Apologies for the length of my comments, but they really do need to be said.

Respectfully as a loyal reader of the
American Conservative

Theodore G. Karakostas

#8 Comment By Spyro Sambalis On April 17, 2019 @ 12:11 am

Greece may be “different” from other parts of Europe but only insofar as all other parts of Europe are different from each other. The ancient Greeks were the founders of western civilisation and, although the tenets and principles of this civilisation shifted towards northern and western Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance due to eastern Europe (particularly Greece) being under Ottoman rule during that time period, Greece is still very much part of Europe. The population may have changed over the centuries, as it has throughout all of Europe, but Greece is definitely, unquestionably, undeniably, unambiguously and irrefragably part of Europe.