The Metamorphosis of Greece Since World War II Analysis

William H. McNeill

The Metamorphosis of Greece Since World War II

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

William H. McNeill has written an exceedingly interesting account of post-World War II Greece in The Metamorphosis of Greece Since World War II. Based on his observations of Greece from 1946 to 1976, the book focuses on six rural villages in an attempt to discern the most significant characteristics of Greek life and the ways in which modern Greece has reflected these characteristics.

For McNeill, three key elements have influenced Greece throughout its history: “the centrality of exchange and the critical importance of the skills of the marketplace,” heroism, and Orthodox universalism. Although mentioning Orthodox universalism and describing aspects of religion in Greece, McNeill neglects this factor to emphasize the historic tension in Greece between market behavior and heroic behavior. He argues that the “polarity and uneasy existence between market behavior and heroic behavior constituted . . . the major axis of traditional Greek life and continue to inform the national experience in our time.” McNeill develops this tension in his analysis of Greek society prior to 1941.

McNeill explains market behavior as a heritage of the nature of the major Greek exports—olive oil and wine. Since these commodities did not deteriorate as rapidly as grain, for example, wine and oil merchants “could afford to wait indefinitely until the price was right.” Greeks, then, had an enormous advantage in their commercial dealings and learned to enjoy that advantage to the fullest.

The nature of Greek exports arose from the geography of the land, which precluded large-scale grain production and mandated small-scale farming efforts. This assured Greece of a society that was not divided between rich landowners and serfs or peasants. The higher degree of equality which prevailed throughout Greek society in turn encouraged market behavior.

Greek market behavior kept trade flowing around the Mediterranean throughout Greek history. Under Alexander of Macedon, conquest of the Persian Empire placed Greeks in administrative positions throughout the Middle East. Even under the Roman Empire, Greek-speaking merchants, administrators, and military leaders guaranteed that Greek remained the official language of government, and became the official language of the Eastern Church just as it became a tradition of Byzantine civilization. This heritage was suddenly ended in 1453 when Turks assumed domination of the Eastern Empire and Greeks ceased to be the ruling class.

By the seventeenth century, however, Greeks had taken on the important role of serving as intermediaries in relationships between Christian governments and the Turkish Empire. In this capacity and as merchants, they were again able to attain a fairly significant level of involvement in the trade and politics of the Mediterranean; their role was augmented when trade was opened with Russia after 1774, and in the economic boom that followed, trade was pushed to Vienna, Marseilles, and other markets. A Greek diaspora manifesting market behavior had sustained these trade and political relationships for some two thousand years until it was eclipsed by the events of 1821.

The Greek War for Independence undermined Turkish confidence in Greek and in Christian-Turkish relations. The important role of the Greeks as intermediaries suddenly collapsed, and for over a hundred years after 1821 the critical work of Greeks in facilitating trade and politics existed only in history. After the Greek War for Independence, Greece sank into an economic and political lethargy. The Greeks produced only enough commodities for subsistence. Greek cities remained small and insignificant. Hunger and starvation frequently stalked the small mountain villages of Greece.

Hunger and privation led to the assertion of the heroic ideal in the form of violence. Mountain villagers swept from the hills to prey on the villages of the plains and on trade caravans. The result was that after 1830 Greece became a small, insignificant, violent kingdom; and few Greeks were content with the form their country took after the Greek War for Independence.

In the twentieth century, numerous political coups produced no basic change in the lives of everyday people or in the place of Greece in world events. Insignificance was translated into genuine suffering and privation during the period of Greek occupation from 1941 to 1944. As starvation befell mountain villages, the heroic tradition that traced itself back to Homer and expressed itself in the acts of Achilles was asserted against the Nazis and their allies. The vehicle for such heroism was a coalition of leftist political parties that recruited members from all over Greece and mounted a campaign of violence, sabotage, and harassment against the occupation forces. After the occupation the leftist coalition sought rule of Greece. This was resisted by Great Britain and the leftists discredited themselves by their violence against political enemies. Eventually, the leftist coalition decided to lay down their arms as a consequence of the agreement of Varkiza in February, 1945. The Greek army emerged after 1945 as a strongly anti-Communist and antileftist unit that contributed to the eventual dissolution of the leftist coalition.

The postwar Greek government had to cope with monumental devastation and destruction, political unrest, and hunger. The first order of business was economic recovery. England was in no position to sustain Greece and withdrew its support; but the United States, through the Truman Doctrine, provided aid to both Greece and Turkey, and in April of 1948, Marshall Plan assistance was also extended to Greece. Throughout the period, the Greek government had to cope with leftist guerrilla activity that lasted until 1949.


(The entire section is 2370 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Library Journal. CIII, August, 1978, p. 1507.