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Greece: do or die

By Steve Pelecanos - posted Monday, 3 August 2015


In 480 BC, 300 Spartans, with a steely determination, stood at the pass of Thermopylae to face an enemy juggernaut led by the most powerful man on earth, the King of Persia, Xerxes. The ensuing battle, although lost, is said to have exemplified the character of the race of people known as the Greeks, who ultimately went on to win the war.

In the 5th century BC, Greeks were the inhabitants of an unruly, ill-equipped assortment of pugnacious city-states that Xerxes, with limitless resources at his disposal, set out to subdue and enslave. He would have thought the result a forgone conclusion but he seriously underestimated the resolve, the resilience, and the bravery of those he sought to conquer.

Against overwhelming odds, the Greeks stood their ground, sent the Persians packing and retained their freedom. Historians consider the defeat of the Persians by the Greeks to be the founding of European civilization, for had Xerxes prevailed, there would certainly have been no "West" as we know it today.

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As slaves to a foreign ruler the Greeks would not have been able to flourish into the nation that gave the "West" democracy and the many other gifts of its distinctive culture.

Two and a half millennia later the Greeks again stood their ground against overwhelming odds and were the first nation to defeat one of the Axis powers (Italy) in World War II. Subsequently they sustained the longest resistance during the War and in the process delayed Hitler's plans to invade Russia, which ultimately turned the course of the war in favour of the Allies. It caused Churchill to remark, "Greeks don't fight like heroes, heroes fight like Greeks".

And now in 2015, we once again find the Greeks facing another formidable challenge. This time it's financial but the circumstances have a striking familiarity; Greece stands alone, the challenge is overwhelming, the future of Europe is in question and the Greeks are once again, not shying away from the struggle that lies ahead, nor are the kowtowing to any superior force.

Inherent to the Greek DNA is a do or die attitude to overcoming difficulties.

In parallel to the financial crisis, Greeks are today lining their shores offering assistance to wave after wave of refugee arriving by boat. The Greeks are offering food, shelter and compassion. I recently saw a news clip where a reporter asked a Greek lady helping a young child ashore, "How can you afford to feed them when you can't afford to feed yourselves?" She turns angrily, "What sort of question is that? Whatever we have, we will share."

And meanwhile the financial overlords of the "troika" (the IMF, the European Commission and the European Central Bank) are demanding that these people give more. The debtors ask for breathing space but the response from the creditors is a firm, "no". There is no empathy with the human side of this crisis. How did we get here?

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Geographically, Greece sits where East meets West. Culturally, Greece is European. Politically - and ironically – Greece has not had a history of enduring stability. In modern times, Greece has gone from a republic to a monarchy to military junta and, since 1975, a parliamentary democracy.

In political terms, it is a developing country, with developing institutions and a developing economy. Its public sector and its banking system are inefficient and cannot provide the robust platform needed to support a competitive economy. To add to this, since 1975, political family dynasties have emerged and these have had a very cosy and unhealthy – unacceptable by our standards – relationship with the oligarchy and the media. This environment is a hotbed for corruption and corruption is endemic.

Public comments aimed at stereotyping Greeks as a lazy lot who avoid paying taxes need to be seen in the context of the political environment that's prevailed. When I tell my relatives that we (almost) willingly pay our taxes in Australia, they look at me as if I've got a screw loose.

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About the Author

Steve Pelecanos is a master mariner, with a proud Greek heritage.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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