Arab unity has been the most hopeless aspiration of the Middle East. The idea that the Arab world – the Arabic-speaking, largely Muslim land mass between the Atlantic and the borders of Iraq and Iran – could turn into one confederated nation whose wealth, political power and armies would dominate the most strategic area of the globe, has proved to be as delusional as the European Union has turned out to be real. Until now.
So you can imagine the questions I’ve been getting from Arab friends these past few weeks. What’s wrong with Greece? Is it a bit too “Arab” perhaps, in its corruption, its feudal wealth-and-poverty cocktail, its willingness to let others decide its fate? And why, I’ve been asked, is the EU prepared to risk war with Russia in order to pamper Ukraine’s desire to cuddle up to the European community, but at the same time been unwilling to put up the moolah to keep Greek civilization within the same blessed Union?
I must admit that I’ve been asked almost as many times how Ireland has overcome its economic crisis, while Greece has not. I’ve waffled on about Ireland’s familiarity with suffering (800 years of oppression by the Brits); and also, I’m afraid, about how Greece, despite its heritage (art, philosophy, Aristophanes and the rest) was a pretty dodgy country in the 20th century. When dewy-eyed European leaders signed up Greece in 1981, they overlooked its 1919 invasion of Asia Minor (with Lloyd George’s encouragement), mass population exchanges, century-long corruption, Nazi wartime occupation and semi-collaboration, civil war, the Colonels’ dictatorship, the invasion of Cyprus, and so on. I am also struck by the fact that the other three potential defaulters over the past few years – Spain, Portugal and Italy – endured longer periods of fascist dictatorship than Nazi Germany.
Curiously, one of Greece’s collaborationist leaders, Sotirios Gotzamanis, who resigned from his government in 1943, wrote a long treatise for his Berlin masters on the need for a “New Europe”, greater than Hitler’s National Socialism. As Mark Mazower points out in his seminal Inside Hitler’s Greece, Gotzamanis’s vision bore an uncanny resemblance to the subsequent European Community. This included “a European monetary system, a customs union and forms of dual citizenship”, although, as the author warns, we should not forget that Gotzamanis was writing a critique of Hitler’s New Order, which had absolutely no interest in treating Greece as a free nation in a continental confederation. Greece was a vassal state whose food and supplies and banks must be looted by the Wehrmacht and whose people must be terrorised into submission.
Images of international looting and terror have found their way into the lexicon of the present Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras. Hence his government’s claim that Germany owes Greece more than £200bn in reparations from the Second World War – a demand that, given Germany’s rather hasty legal resolution of such claims many years ago, may have some merit. Greek banks were forced to make outrageous loans to the Reich while German forces embarked on a murderous campaign to crush the Greek resistance movement.
In a post-euro, or post-EU Greece, it might be difficult to suppress or control this latent history of European brutality, one that included Italy (though on a lesser scale), Croatia and any number of Ukrainian mercenaries shipped into the Balkans. If we like to think that Greece’s wartime suffering is being cynically exploited by the Tsipras government to avoid repaying its international debts, it is only necessary to recall how often our own tabloid press evokes the jackboot whenever Germany’s economy appears too powerful in Brussels.
It’s clear that many are tiring of the Greek crisis – an Irish Times reader recently advised journalists to talk of “Gratigue” rather than “Grexit” – and I’ve watched a number of Middle East states pass through economic crises that make its drama appear closer to Shavian comedy than Shakespearean tragedy. Under sanctions, Saddam’s Iraq moved into such massive inflation that hotels would calculate modest bills with a weighing machine – not for coins but hundred-dinar paper currency notes. And in Beirut during the last part of the 15-year civil war, the Lebanese pound fell from three to the dollar to 1,500 to the dollar. Yet Lebanon may hold a few clues for Greece if the local euro goes down the tube.
For, after the war, the Lebanese pound stabilised at that level and, today, when I buy a coffee or a book or a fridge, my Lebanese bill is marked in dollars as well as Lebanese pounds. Many major retailers in Beirut will accept euros, and the Lebanese market reacts to changes in dollar and euro exchange rates. In this sense, Lebanon is in the eurozone and in the US financial system, while maintaining the fiction of having a national currency (in which a cup of hot chocolate can cost 4,500 Lebanese pounds).
Common sense suggests that bankrupt Greece will not suddenly leave the euro. Maybe it will just throw up its hands when the money runs out at Greek banks and make yet more promises that it cannot keep. With the EU’s usual begrudgery, however, I wonder if it will not have to create a super-drachma to appear on bills alongside the euro equivalent.
But beware. In 1942, Greek engraver Alexandros Koroyiannakis produced illustrations for a new 5,000-drachma note intended to end wartime inflation: it depicted a sturdy peasant sewing seeds and, on the reverse, two labourers standing beneath a winged Victory and next to a miraculously unbombed Piraeus. The only problem was that, within weeks (and this detail, thanks once more to Mazower’s research), the new currency note wasn’t worth two loaves of bread. By the end of the occupation, hungry Nazi troops were exchanging hand grenades for sheep.
It won’t come to that in post-euro Greece. But the next few days may decide whether our glorious European Union doesn’t look a little bit more like that mournful ghost of the Middle East: Arab unity.