Who are the modern Greeks?

For the west, Greece is classical Greece, the birthplace of western culture, thought, and democracy, while for the Slavic-speaking world it is a brother-nation of the Orthodox church, a common inheritance stretching across eastern Europe.

An Azure Day by Greek modernist Spyros Vassiliou. Credit: PhotoStock-Israel / Alamy Stock Photo.
An Azure Day by Greek modernist Spyros Vassiliou. Credit: PhotoStock-Israel / Alamy Stock Photo.

Ask any Greek the dates that most define the modern history of the Hellenic Republic and they will likely offer you two answers: 1821 and 1922. The first of these is of course the year in which the Greek people began their revolution against their Ottoman overlords, triggering a decade-long struggle culminating in their independence and the founding of a modern Greek nation-state.

If 1821 marks a glorious zenith for the modern Greek state, then 1922 is its nadir. That the anniversaries of these two dates rhyme so neatly is one of history’s curious symmetries. For the first hundred years of its existence, the history of the Greek state was one of expansion, as it gradually annexed more and more of the Ottoman empire, scrambling for territory against its new neighbours Serbia and Bulgaria. The result of this land grab was that by the time the major European powers had exhausted themselves in 1918, Greece and its Balkan neighbours had been in direct conflict since 1912, and would continue in their struggle while the Allied leaders imposed terms on the Central Powers at Versailles and Sevres.

For Greece, this continued struggle served one purpose: achieving the Megali Idea (Great Idea), the establishment of a Greek state covering the expanse of the former Byzantine empire, under which would be united the Greek populations still reigned by the Ottomans. Principally, this meant annexing large swathes of what is now Turkey’s Aegean coastline, centred around the city of Smyrna (modern Izmir), one of the great cultural centres of the Greek world.

But after three years in bloody stalemate with Mustafa Kemal’s Turkish National Movement, the Greek army was broken and pushed back to the Aegean coast, losing Smyrna and the rest of its possessions as they went. What followed were the events known thereafter as the ‘katastrophe, as a nine-day fire engulfed Smyrna, this most Greek of cities, displacing up to 400,000 people, largely of Greek and Armenian descent.

Within a year of this defeat Greece, under the leadership of Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, one of the principal architects of the ‘Great Idea’ strategy, had agreed a historic population swap with Kemal, with more than half a million Orthodox Greeks removed from Anatolia and resettled in Greece, largely in the north of the country. It was this decision, above any other, that defined the subsequent century of Greek-Turkish relations; as historian Roderick Beaton writes, ‘In a way that had never been intended, the Great Idea, which had been left for dead on the battlefields outside Smyrna, would be fulfilled after all’.

The Greek state was now a fixed, contained entity, rubbing up against a similar construct in the form of the new Turkish republic like two continental plates. The Greek world that had existed for thousands of years was, in effect, no more; a culture that had spread and flourished around the Mediterranean was pinned down to a single locale, triggering a crisis of identity that touched all aspects of the state.

Who now were the Greeks? It was this question, above all, that fuelled an extraordinary renaissance in Greek art and literature over the following decades, a distinctive form of Modernism centred around a group that became known as the Generation of the 30s. Long considered by scholars a ‘belated’ Modernism, it nevertheless shared many of the characteristics common to the wider cultural movement, to which it was clearly indebted: Georgios Seferis, possibly the greatest of all Greece’s twentieth century poets, first came to international attention for his translation of Eliot’s The Waste Land.

Among the first to document the spiritual and cultural malaise stemming from the disaster of the Asia Minor campaign was Giorgios Theotakos, a poet and author whose Free Spirit (1929) is largely considered Greek modernism’s founding manifesto. Thus he describes Greek culture in the aftermath of the war:

We feel it deeply as soon as we cross our borders: we represent nothing, no one takes us seriously, we cannot justify the place we hold in Europe and, in the eyes of foreigners, we are only money-brokers, boatmen, small-time grocers and nothing more. After we have wandered around enough amidst European civilization, we return home one day, our hearts heavy. Where, then, are the Greeks? We looked for them everywhere but they were nowhere to be found.

One of the most persistent themes in literary modernism is the rejection of the post-war, industrial city for the rejuvenation promised by a return to a spirituality informed by humanity’s mythic and primitive tendencies; thus James Joyce’s Ulysses takes its structure from Homer’s Odyssey, or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring its rhythms from the world of Russian folk music. So again Theotakos, in words that recall the voice of the thunder at the climax of The Waste LandThe restoration of the soul is not a gradual development, but a sudden awakening of slumbering forces, a violent return from decline to life. In the Greek case, however, we can identify a reaching-back to two distinctive poles – the Hellenism of Homer and Greek myth, so beloved by the west, and the austere spirituality of Byzantium and the Eastern Orthodox church, a far more active element in the country’s culture.

Perhaps the highest expression of this dual identity comes in the form of Odysseas Elytis’ It Is Truly Worthy (1959), Greece’s answer to Four Quartets. In the poem, which takes its name and structure from the Byzantine liturgy, Elytis sets forth a new epic of Greece; as his translator Edmund Keeley put it, the poem aims to ‘present an image of the contemporary Greek consciousness through the developing of a persona that is at once the poet himself and the voice of his country’. At the root of this identity lies Homer: ‘Greek the language they gave me; poor the house on Homer‘s shores’, Elytis writes.

A century on from the Smyrna disaster, this duality remains in evidence, not least in the way that the outside world views Greece. For the west, Greece is classical Greece, the birthplace of western culture, thought, and democracy, while for the Slavic-speaking world it is a brother-nation of the Orthodox church, a common inheritance stretching across eastern Europe. It was exactly against these enforced identities that the Generation of the 30s set themselves, as Theotakos argued: ‘A people who has inside itself a soul, upon reaching the absolute bottom of disillusionment, finds the strength to react against itself…They grab the drifting forces, give them self-awareness, urge them on towards new directions. They begin a new era.’


Edward Thicknesse