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  • Modern Greece: What Everyone Needs to Know by Stathis N. Kalyvas
  • Van Coufoudakis (bio)
Stathis N. Kalyvas, Modern Greece: What Everyone Needs to Know. New York: Oxford University Press. 2015. Pp. xii + 242. Cloth $16.95.

Stathis Kalyvas is the Arnold Wolfers Professor of Political Science at Yale University. He is also known to Greek audiences for his columns in Sunday papers. This book was published around the time of the electoral victory of SYRIZA (Συνασπισμός της Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς, Coalition of Radical Left) in January 2015 and consequently only marginally addresses the rise of SYRIZA or its politics. The author’s treatment of Golden Dawn is equally superficial.

The author describes his book as an “essay of historical interpretation” rather than a “comprehensive and detailed history book” (xi). The book attempts to show how the present crisis fits in the context of Modern Greek history. In seven brief chapters, it discusses nearly 200 years of postindependence Greek history. Subheadings divide each chapter with titles like “How Was the New State Built,” “What Was the Anatolian Disaster,” and “What Caused the 1967 Coup.” Most footnotes refer to secondary sources. The book has no bibliography other than some references presented as “Suggestions for Further Reading.”

Given the format of the book, Kalyvas’s work is replete with generalizations about Greek politics, society, and foreign policy that may be adequate for a reader unfamiliar with Greece, but not for the specialist. Some of these generalizations are likely to reinforce stereotypes about Greece rather than revise them. The author attempts to make sense of Modern Greek history along broad themes, such as nationalism, state building, modernization, populism, democracy, and autocracy. He applies contemporary terminology, such as “failed states” (38), to explain past events and current problems. According to the author, Greece is a largely successful late modernizer, whose history is characterized by almost epic disasters of which the 2009 crisis is the latest. Modern history shows Greece’s “capacity to achieve positive outcomes out of ambitious, often disastrous, projects … a case of an early, highly ambitious, creative, incomplete and imperfect—but overall quite successful—effort by an under endowed upstart to catch up with the most advanced nations” (13).

The book identifies seven major boom, bust, and bailout cycles in Modern Greek history. These cycles started with highly ambitious projects intended to transcend the twin constraints of history and geography in the belief that Greece would become a normal Western country (196). The final chapter on Greece’s 2009 crisis has yet to be written. Greece’s problems led to various forms of foreign interventions, which, according to the author, proved favorable for the country. These interventions, however, [End Page 416] have not been perceived in this manner in Greece and have contributed to the love/hate relationship between Greece, Western Europe, and the United States.

There were many “firsts” (23) in the Greek national project, according to Kalyvas. It was the first successful nationalist uprising in the Ottoman Empire that also gave rise to the first modern humanitarian intervention (Navarino). Greeks were able to play up the romantic connection of Ancient to Modern Greece (which the author rejects) and were able to align their interests with those of influential foreign powers throughout Modern Greek history. Even though Greece may have been born as a “failed state” (38), it addressed successfully—and ahead of other states in Western Europe—issues such as universal male suffrage, illiteracy, state control of religion, conscription, and land reform.

Despite the immense economic, social, and political cost of the Anatolian disaster, Greece successfully integrated its displaced nationals, who turned out to be a boon to the country. The tragic and legally sanctioned ethnic cleansing in the aftermath of World War I also produced ethnically homogeneous states in the region, reducing the threat of interstate conflict.

Post-junta Greece became a fully competitive democracy with peaceful political transitions between New Democracy and PASOK (Πανελλήνιο Σοσιαλιστικό Κίνημα, Panhellenic Socialist Movement), a clear indication of the maturity and consolidation of the political system. However, opportunities for political and economic reform were missed. PASOK is largely blamed for relying on populist politics, the misuse of bureaucracy, legal inefficiency, and the decline of the educational system at all levels...