The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruins; Modern Greece: What Everyone Needs to Know

In This Review

The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruins
by James Angelos
Crown, 2015
304 pp. $27.00
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Modern Greece: What Everyone Needs to Know
by Stathis Kalyvas
Oxford University Press, 2015
264 pp. $74.00
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Since the birth of modern Greece 200 years ago, the Greeks have tried—and inevitably failed—to live up to the legacy of their illustrious ancient forebears. Two recent books examine the current state of the country. The Greek American journalist Angelos offers a fairly conventional portrait of dysfunctional Greece, served with an extra-large dollop of local color. He concerns himself mostly with exceptional individuals on the edges of society: asylum seekers from Africa and Asia and the right-wing extremists who hate them, people who file fraudulent disability benefit claims, Greeks old enough to remember the Nazi occupation of their country, and a group of scheming civil servants who murdered their boss. This all makes for fun reading, but Angelos doesn’t do enough to show how the experiences of these groups are representative of everyday Greek life or how they will shape the country’s future.

Kalyvas, one of the leading comparative political scientists of his generation, takes a more thoughtful and measured approach. His insightful introduction to Greece’s modern political history argues, somewhat surprisingly, that the country has often been ambitious and successful. The Greeks established the first independent state in Ottoman Europe, imposed egalitarian land reforms, fought off communism, generated substantial economic growth, and now maintain a stable, inclusive, and liberal democracy. This record compares quite favorably with that of the rest of the Balkans (which share Greece’s geography and history of foreign occupation), much of Latin America (which shares Greece’s autarkic interwar policies), and southern Italy (which, like Greece, suffers from tax evasion, corruption, and clientelism). Yet precisely because the goals have been so ambitious, Greece’s road to modernity has been paved with intermittent disasters that have drawn in the great powers. Each half-successful modernization effort has eventually triggered an economic boom and bust; the current economic crisis is Greece’s seventh in modern times. Kalyvas’ slim volume puts this story into perspective with remarkable clarity and brevity. If you read one general introduction to Greek politics, this should be it.