Greece: Biography of a Modern Nation: A state haunted by self-doubt

Review: Roderick Beaton writes with measured compassion about the European country

Greece: Biography of a Modern Nation
Greece: Biography of a Modern Nation
Author: Roderick Beaton
ISBN-13: 978-0241312841
Publisher: Allen Lane
Guideline Price: £30

“We Greeks aren’t fit for great things,” George Seferis, poet, Nobel Laureate and Greek ambassador to London, wrote in 1960. Roderick Beaton, who has already written a superb biography of Seferis, offers this not as a way of belittling Greek achievements, but as an example of Greek aspirations beyond their reach.

Beaton, whom I know well, is one of the world’s few top-ranking experts on Greek culture who is also a true philhellene – someone who loves Greece but not without reservations. This brilliant “biography” of modern Greece will easily surpass others in the field by Richard Clogg, Thomas Gallant and Stathis Kalyvas. Probably only Kostas Kostis’ very recent History’s Spoiled Children can compare. And why? Because, apart from his extraordinary erudition and scholarship, Beaton writes with measured compassion and a refreshingly straightforward style.

Beaton prefers the term “biography” to “history” to indicate that it is based on “long and deep acquaintance “ but also requires “a certain distance”. The central theme is: how does modern Greece reconcile its idea of a “nation”, based on language and ethnicity (“ethnos” is the Greek word for “nation”) with the reality of the “state” set up by the Great Powers in the 1830s and subsequently macro-managed by them?

This schism between ambition and performance permeates Beaton's analysis of social and political history

He is particularly sensitive to the ambivalence of Greek people and their politicians to the east-west tug-of-love in which Greece has been caught up since its inception. Is it western? Is it eastern? For Beaton, it is unquestionably both.


Beaton emphasises the constant geopolitical situation which underpins this sense of surveillance, where Greece remains vulnerable, as a strategic factor in Mediterranean security. Furthermore, he underlines that, from the start, the Greek economy has been deep in foreign debt and frequently bankrupt. In fact many of the current problems of Greece can be traced back to its ambiguous origins, when it held only a tiny part of the present landmass, pursuing the “Grand Idea” of irredentism to embrace all Greek-speaking people – a dream destroyed in 1922 by the failure of its ill-conceived invasion of Turkey, which, Beaton makes clear, remains a divisive rather than a unifying factor in Greek society and politics.


This schism between ambition and performance permeates Beaton’s analysis of social and political history, allowing him to explain how the Greek state is haunted by self-doubt and distrust. The failure of Cyprus to join the Greek state, despite several attempts to do so, is a major flaw in modern Greek thinking. Following the illegal invasion of Cyprus by Turkey in 1974, Beaton observes, “the story of the Greek nation never can be only the story of a single Greek state”. Moreover, by pointing out that Greece’s civil war of 1943-49 can be traced to the unwritten civil wars which began almost before its inception, the present divisions within the political and social fabric become much clearer.

Many point to PASOK, the socialist party founded by Andreas Papandreou and the first to establish grassroots cells like Fianna Fáil’s cumann, as the principal culprit for the current crisis, but Beaton is scrupulously fair to Papandreou. And his account of relations with Turkey is even-handed on today’s arguments over the respective continental shelfs and the rights to oil and gas exploration.

The weakest section deals with recent events, since so much of what he can say must of necessity be speculative and provisional. Nevertheless, he is utterly realistic when he says the crisis has obliged Greeks “to take stock, to look again at their history, at the values they grew up with, at their own sense of who they are and where they belong in the world”. This I see every day on the streets, in the cafes, in the press.

I would have preferred more discursive citations; many are to Greek-language sources which haven’t been translated. The lack of a full bibliography suggests, misleadingly, that there is nothing more to be said. Neni Panourgia’s Dangerous Citizens, a history of the Greek Left, deserves a signpost, as does (on the origins of the present crisis) Yannis Palaiologos’ The Thirteenth Labour of Hercules.

Beaton could have given us more on the continuing presence in Greek culture of Turkish elements such as cuisine and rebetika music, and his very brief references to film-makers ignores the seminal work of Theo Angelopoulos. He might have alluded to Vangelis Calotychos’ Modern Greece - a Cultural Poetics (2003) which discusses territory where Beaton doesn’t go. For a detailed account of the role of literature, we have to go to Beaton’s own Introduction to Modern Greek Literature (1999), which urgently needs a revised edition.

Seferis was correct in acknowledging Greece’s over-generous self-esteem; Greece finds its beauty in the intensely local. But what Beaton elucidates in this magisterial and user-friendly study is the capacity for pragmatism and the acceptance that what goes around, comes around.