Europe in a New Key: A Dispatch from Athens

Europe’s post-war period is over. But how should we approach the history of our age? In this essay, Camilo Erlichman reflects on the possible themes for a history of the present by looking at the continent from the vantage point of its interpretative fringes.

It has now been more than a decade since the late Tony Judt published his monumental history of post-war Europe that has become one of the standard accounts of the period. In his introduction to Postwar, Judt described how he had come to think about Europe’s recent past during the intricate events of 1989/1990 from the vantage point of Vienna’s Westbahnhof.  As Judt wrote

Austria embodied all the slightly self-satisfied attributes of post-war western Europe: capitalist prosperity underpinned by a richly-endowed welfare state; social peace guaranteed thanks to jobs and perks liberally distributed through all the main social groups and political parties; external security assured by the implicit protection of the Western nuclear umbrella […]. Meanwhile, across the Leitha and Danube rivers just a few kilometres to the east, there lay the ‘other’ Europe of bleak poverty and secret policemen. The distance separating the two was nicely encapsulated in the contrast between Vienna’s thrusting, energetic Westbahnhof, whence businessmen and vacationers boarded sleek modern expresses for Munich or Zurich or Paris; and the city’s grim, uninviting Südbahnhof: a shabby, dingy, faintly menacing hangout of penurious foreigners descending filthy old trains from Budapest or Belgrade.

For Judt, the Austrian capital was also symbolic of Europe’s general relation to its past: the invocation of ‘older glories’ as epitomized by the city’s imperial architecture and its simultaneous reticence to deal with its more recent, ‘unspeakable’ past. The latter included most notably the violence meted out against its Jewish population who had made such a disproportionately large contribution to the intellectual, artistic, and commercial life of the city.

The world has radically changed since the appearance of Postwar, bringing into sharp relief novel historical themes that might help us understand our current circumstances. The western European welfare system as the model for a successful reconciliation of social solidarity and freedom, as well as the function of historical memory – to name only two overarching themes that occupied much place in historical writing on the post-war period – have ceased to possess the capacity to explain the origins of the present. Put differently, it is now becoming clear that the post-war era that Judt sought to understand has in many respects found its terminus date somewhere between the 1970s and 2008/2009. By contrast, the present inhabited by the population of Europe, as Judt himself complained in much of his later writing, is one which is shaped by growing social inequalities, the existence of islands of social exclusion within the continent’s big urban centres, the significant decline in the material conditions of the middle classes, the slow but evident destruction of the systems of social security of which populations had grown accustomed to, and the hollowing out of state power to the benefit of financial forces operating beyond political control. This is accompanied by a widespread sense that democracy and national sovereignty have been reduced to a formalistic structure in which the will and interests of the broader population play no longer any tangible role. The emergence of new parties of Right and Left, the refugee crisis, the centrifugal forces eroding the European Union, and the wave of terrorist attacks add further dimensions to this complex quotidian reality formed by forces both internal and external to Europe.

For contemporary historians, the urgent long-term project will be to explain the origins and causes for the current convoluted state of Europe or, put differently, to write a history of the present. It is clear that some of the origins of this present, such as the new forms of political violence that have struck the continent, might be found in the more recent past, while others, such as the significant shifts within the economic and political system, have a longer history that dates back at least to the 1970s. Quite where exactly one will wish to start this story will depend to a large extent on individual interpretative preferences, be it a historiographical privileging of the changes to the global economic system since 1971/1973, of the reunification of the continent after 1989, the ‘liberalisation’ of economies during the 1990s, the new manifestations of political violence since 2001, the stalling of the project of European integration since 2004 or the Great Slump of 2007/2009. The first challenge for historians, however, will be to identify the multiplicity of frameworks, broader threads, and interpretive lenses that help us approach the genealogy of the present.

A Greek Perspective

If Vienna was a good place to ‘think’ Europe in 1989, so Athens is perhaps today the most apposite location to reflect upon these manifold processes of economic, social, and political change that have fused to produce the reality that is today often described somewhat superficially with recourse to the language of ‘crisis’, an overused term which in the end helps us understand very little. Engulfed as it is by economic meltdown most evident in massive unemployment, a wave of privatisations, the implementation of severe austerity measures, and a political earthquake symbolized by the recurrence of large-scale strikes and demonstrations as well as the rise of new political parties of the far Left and Right, Athens in many respects embodies the broader state of Europe. And just as the experience of Austrian train stations triggered Judt’s historical imagination, so the Greek capital visibly encapsulates some of the ambiguities that provide cues to developing a historical understanding of our present.

One such place is Athens’ Eleftherios Venizelos airport, a neat, tidy, and modern place, crowded with sunburned tourists wearing sandals and straw hats. Neither does it show signs of the imminent collapse of the Greek state nor does it contain allusions to the reality of the current refugee crisis. The underground line that takes one from the airport downtown is similarly state-of-the-art, and more comfortable than many German trains. The ships departing from the port of Piraeus to the islands are similarly sleek and strikingly fast. All of this is part of what used to symbolise Europe to external observers: a sound infrastructure coupled with the provision of good public services. Or, put more broadly, it represents the idea of the successful reconciliation of capitalism with social justice.

The streets of non-touristic Athens, however, are a different world altogether. Loud, filthy, menacing at first sight, satiated with broken pavements that seem to rejoice in watching passers-by trip when it rains, emitting waves of odour mixing olives and urine, happily indulging in a hectic traffic chaos which castigates everyone who minds a traffic light. They meander around what is mostly an uninspiring architectural landscape, dominated by grey, lamentable buildings from the 1950s to 1980s, which have been in turn disfigured by politically inspired, but rather third-rate graffiti artists. At night, the homeless make their appearance, raising up their quarters in long lines, one sleeping bag after the other, in the middle of the city centre, hoping to combine sleep with begging; holding out cups, with their faces covered under their blankets, for the affluent tourists to throw coins at them. To the foreign visitor, this other Athens prompts memories of capital cities located in continents other than Europe, though this illusion is repeatedly interrupted by scattered ancient columns and what are in effect demonstrations of the still relative wealth of the country in comparison to the ‘Global South’. Not that this Athens has not got its own charm and attraction; as many such urban spaces around the world, its raucous streets, busy cafés, and often improvised cultural spaces emit an air of dynamism with a very obvious allure. The tensions visible in the streets of Athens point, however, to a larger reality that exists in other parts of Europe too, but is often much harder to grasp graphically elsewhere: remnants of what has often been described rather inadequately as the ‘Golden Age’ of Europe (which, it should be noted, reached Greece and other parts of southern Europe much later than north-western Europe) sit highly visibly alongside signs of the very evident collapse of that age.


Athens as seen from Mount Lycabettus. Source: C. Erlichman

The evident duality between affluence and pomp on the one side, material decline and hardship on the other, also serves to highlight the extent to which talking about ‘Europe’ in the singular always also entails an exclusionary element of simplification: in reality, as the events of the last years have forcefully reminded us, there are indeed multiple Europes, with significant differences in economic conditions. What one might describe as the multiplicity of social experiences of Europe, it should be noted, is not only limited to the extreme material differences between nation-states, but also to significant material inequalities and regional disparities within individual states and local communities, such as between the neighbourhoods Kolonaki and nearby Omonia in Athens, northern and southern Italy or western and eastern Germany.

Statistically, Greece’s material decline can of course be demonstrated rather easily: unemployment still sits around a revolting 23 per cent, with youth unemployment at around 50 per cent. According to a report by UNICEF published in 2014, more than 40 per cent of the children in Greece live in poverty. Eurostat classified 22.2 per cent of the Greek population in 2015 as ‘severely materially deprived’, which means that they cannot afford four of nine essential resources (as a comparison, rates for Germany were 5.0 per cent in 2014). Yet, despite these patent markers of social and economic cataclysm, the shape of the current economic slump is clearly different from previous manifestations of economic crisis. Despite the flood of worn analogies with 1929, the streets of Athens are not those of Berlin or New York in the 1930s. Extreme poverty there certainly is, but the intensity and gravity suggested by the numbers is still, and perhaps rather surprisingly to the foreign observer, not something that is strikingly visible. In many respects, this is a depression that is hitting particularly hard specific sectors of society whose decline is less apparent in the public sphere. This applies most evidently to the middle and working classes, who have been the main losers of the crisis, but can still fall back on the structures of solidarity and welfare provided by their families, rather than being tossed immediately on the streets.

Three Themes for a History of the Present

Despite the evident relevance of Greece as a point of departure for exploring the consequences of the ongoing economic slump, adapting a Greek perspective for a historical understanding of the present might, however, strike many as a misguided approach. Greece, after all, has often been written off as the geographical and political periphery of Europe, though the mostly meaningless nod to the country as the ancient birthplace of democracy is of course commonplace. In that respect, it shares the historiographical fate of many small European countries such as Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands, who are, with a few notable exceptions, unduly marginalised in larger narratives of the continent because they are considered to be too small to be historically relevant. When Greece appears in broader histories of the continent in the post-war period, it normally only features prominently alongside Spain and Portugal as part of the story in which southern European societies toppled anachronistic dictatorships during the 1970s and joined the fold of western, democratic Europe. In this narrative, Greece’s accession to the EC in 1981 marked its presumable triumphal entry into the history of modern Europe, only to vanish again from history until the debacle of 2009. Yet the history of modern Greece since 1821 is much more than the story of the defeat of the junta. Conversely, it should in many respects be particularly attractive to historians of Europe because of the distinctive vantage point it provides for approaching the broader contemporary history of Europe.

The Crisis of Popular Sovereignty

There are at least three themes with a broader European resonance that emerge from modern Greek history. The first is the question of sovereignty. Since its creation by grace of the Great Powers in 1832, the Greek state has been subjected to a rather striking amount of external domination with few parallels in Europe. During the 19th and early 20th century, it was effectively ruled by the ‘Protecting Powers’ (Britain, France, and Russia), who not only hand-picked Greece’s rulers, but also intervened forcefully in Greek affairs to secure repayment of a loan guaranteed to Greece in 1832. This was intended as a means to service the debts contracted in the City of London to finance the war of independence. Even more significant, after its defeat in the Greek-Turkish War of 1897, Greece was forced to pay a large indemnity to Turkey and had to incur even greater debt to cover this and its existing external debts, which had already led to national bankruptcy in 1893. The servicing of this loan was henceforth controlled by an International Financial Commission based in Athens and composed by representatives of Britain, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany, France, and Italy, all of whom now assumed extreme control over Greece’s finances.

This striking dependency from foreign powers was exacerbated in the mid-twentieth century. After the brutal experience of Italian and German occupation during the Second World War followed by the destructiveness of the civil war, Greece suffered under its status as a front-state of the Cold War, leading to a situation where, in the words of Richard Clogg, ‘the government’s dependence for its political and military survival on external patronage effectively made Greece a client state of the United States. Few major military, economic or, indeed, political decisions could be taken without American approval […]’. It was only after the fall of the dictatorship and more specifically as a result of the new style of politics pursued by Andreas Papandreou in the more permeable climate of international politics during the 1980s that Greece managed to extricate itself from its status as a satrapy. Whether this success in implementing PASOK’s slogan of 1974, ‘National Independence, Popular Sovereignty, Social Liberation and Democratic Structures’, was mainly one of style over substance is still open to debate, but what is more important is the extent to which PASOK’s populism propelled a feeling of empowerment among broad sectors of the population who now saw their interests represented in the political system. Since the slump of 2009 and the onset of Troika rule, however, there is a widespread consensus among both the Greek population and virtually all political forces that Greece has been turned once again into a protectorate of sorts, with all major decisions being made far away from Syntagma Square.

In many respects it was therefore tragic to observe the recent protests against the major consumption tax hikes and the passing of yet another package of austerity measures in late May 2016. Those who mobilised against these measures and articulated significant grievances chose to do so, yet again, through demonstrations and strikes which employed a language and mode of protest which was essentially framed in the tenor of 19th century European politics: a rally in front of the pompous Greek parliament, as the institutional embodiment of liberal democracy, where power was believed to reside. That for many protesters these public manifestations of discontent had become almost akin to a quotidian routine was evident in the way the protests dispersed quietly and the square was duly emptied by dusk. The tragedy, however, was that these acts, while certainly important in terms of social cohesion and their obvious symbolic power, have little political purchase. National governments can be pressured into concessions through public demonstrations that challenge their legitimacy and stability. When, however, the main decisions are made elsewhere, there is little point in rallying against the institutions and symbols of the state. But where, one wonders, do people have to protest today to get those in power to start biting their nails? It is perhaps the very invisibility and remoteness of power that is one of the main characteristics of the politics of our age.

This crisis of popular sovereignty and the hollowing out of the power of the nation-state are, however, today replicated elsewhere in Europe. They find their specific expression in the rise of new political forces from the Left and Right (or often a merger of the two), which have found themselves in a strange coalition of purpose. However different their ideologies, memberships, aspirations, and sincerity, Brexiters in the UK, the Front National in France, AfD in Germany, Podemos in Spain, and Syriza in Greece all share and capitalize on the widespread sentiment that popular sovereignty has been taken away from the people and handed over to unelected forces, be they technocrats in Brussels, bankers in Frankfurt or the mandarins of multinational corporations with no particular allegiance to any place and people. In that sense, one is therefore tempted to speak of a gradual Greecification of Europe.

Yet, as for example Jan-Werner Müller has recently argued, it is not ‘national sovereignty’ that is at stake today, but rather a widespread sense that those holding ‘real’ power are no longer accountable to the will of the population, a critique which is clothed somewhat inadequately in the language of sovereignty imported from the 19th century. The member states of the EU remain sovereign, even if they have ceded significant powers. That there was a referendum on Brexit is, after all, a demonstration of the reality of sovereignty, while Alexis Tsipras and his government took the sovereign decision on 12 July 2015 to accept the terms of the Troika and declare null and void the ‘no’ vote of the referendum of July 2015 – even if the pressures were considerable, there were, as we now know, alternative scenarios that could have been pursued. It would therefore be more apposite to speak of a novel loathing of a certain top-down model of democracy. This model once seemed to have worked and counted with widespread popular support as long as it delivered tangible benefits, but is now regarded as ineffective and ripe to be replaced by a more inclusive conception of democracy. For historians of Europe, the key research problem will be to locate the complex iterations of the process by which large parts of the continent’s population started to feel disenfranchised from politics, while simultaneously untangling the intricate dynamic by which states were gradually hollowed out and lost much of their previous power.

The Transformation of Social Elites

The second and related theme concerns social elites. Europe is, of course, a continent with no shortage of notable elites, but their function within the Greek state and party political system has always been rather extraordinary, as demonstrated by the heightened attention paid to them in much Greek historical writing. As for example Dimitris Charalambis has argued in his analyses of the Greek ruling class, one of the most important characteristics of the Greek elites since the war of independence has been their role as money-lenders only marginally preoccupied with the broader well-being of their own nation-state: while handing out money (with many strings attached), they have simultaneously shown relatively little interest in long-term improvements to local services and infrastructures, as they often operated from abroad, deposited their assets on foreign accounts evading Greek tax authorities, and relied on extensive links to foreign powers with interests in Greece to solidify their position within society. At the same time, the reliance of the political system on such financial elites has propelled a system of intricate clientele networks, whereby elites hand out money and favours to politicians and parties while expecting a significant return on their investment, such as in the form of tax breaks, perks, and an array of exemptions from the rules that officially count for everyone else.

In many respects, however, this function of elites is no longer exclusive to Greece. Rather, a parallel development can be observed elsewhere in Europe since the breakthrough of the finance sector in western Europe during the 1970s. During the first three post-war decades, economic elites in western Europe often had a certain level of attachment to local communities, such as paternalistic entrepreneurs caring for their factory workers and happy to accept an expansive welfare state, not least because that solidified their own position and secured their property in the long-term. In the last three decades, however, there has been a gradual shift of power away from such traditional economic elites whose wealth stemmed from factory-based manufacturing towards financial elites who got their wealth and power from playing the stock market, making investments, and lending money. These novel financial elites are much more mobile and less locally bound than predecessors, and since their capital is often entirely detached from labour, they do no longer believe to depend on earlier structures of provision and welfare to preserve their status. This has not prevented them from building clientele relationships with politicians and governments, and the dramatic increase in sovereign debt since the 1970s has only served to exacerbate their influence.

For historians of Europe, this shift in the composition of economic elites and their ideology in conjunction with the changes to the economic system away from industrial production towards finance and services yet again presents a key historical development that requires explanation. Only by untangling the causes for this remarkably quick unmaking of the post-war socio-political consensus and the concomitant triumph of novel economic ideas and forces in the 1980s and 1990s, often grouped somewhat inadequately under the catch-all term of ‘neo-liberalism’, will we be able to understand the origins of our present.

The Slow Death of the Mass Party

Finally, the more recent history of Greece provides an excellent perspective for approaching the development of the main political parties in western Europe and the broader decline of the two-party political system, which in Greece has become most evident with the now almost total breakdown of the Metapolitefsi party system that came into being after the collapse of the dictatorship period. In many respects, the 1980s and 1990s can now be perceived more emphatically as the beginning of the crisis of the modern mass party. Mass political parties had commanded impressive resources since the advent of universal suffrage in the 20th century. They counted with the support of large memberships while simultaneously controlling complex party infrastructures and an archipelago of social institutions. This included, most significantly, affiliated media such as newspapers and broadcasters, youth movements, trade unions, employer associations, religious institutions, cultural associations, places for leisure, sports clubs, and even in some cases, such as most notably in the ‘pillarised’ societies of Belgium and the Netherlands, control over welfare provision, education, and healthcare.

In western Europe, the mass parties gradually entered into crisis in the 1980s, when the established parties started to face a decline in membership and voters’ loyalty with a concomitant breakdown of the structures of solidarity that secured their social hegemony. At the same time, new parties from the far right emerged slowly, most significantly as powerful contenders for the vote of the dislocated industrial working-class. The most visible result of this long process of erosion is the unpredictability of voter behaviour today.

For this major shift in the political system, and most notably for the origins of the current crisis of social democracy, Greece provides an excellent case study. Thus, as Chrisanthos Tassis has recently argued, the development of PASOK since the 1980s can be taken as symptomatic for a broader change to European social-democratic parties which gradually moved to the political centre and adopted ‘Third Way’ politics in the 1990s, leading him to speak of a ‘pasokification’ of European social democracy. PASOK’s transition from implementing rather radical reforms in the 1980s to becoming a ‘hegemonic’ party of the establishment which eventually became almost indistinguishable from its political rival, New Democracy, was also characterised by the development of extensive clientele structures that emerged around party elites. This led to a dangling of gifts and handouts in front of virtually all major groups of Greek society, which decisively moulded the shape of the Greek welfare state, and to the distribution of positions within the structures of the state to all those loyal to the party. In the process, by adopting clientele structures alongside the model of its governmental predecessors, PASOK secured for some time its hegemony, but also lost its political profile considerably by adopting centrist policies and moving away from the material interests of its key electorate. This is, of course, a story with a broader European resonance, as the ongoing electoral defeats and considerable shrinking of social democratic parties in almost all European countries demonstrates. For historians, writing a history of our times will require explaining the rather striking shift in the ideologies, social bases, and institutional structures of the main political parties.

Thinking Europe from the Margins

These three broader themes – conceptions of popular sovereignty, the development of social elites, and the crisis of the party political system – present only some of the pieces that might constitute the components of a comprehensive history of the present. Taken separately, they all still demand an exploration on a rather broad level given the current state of historical research on the 1980s and 1990s. However piecemeal, these frameworks should serve to show though how the perspective from the fringes of the continent can help us refine the research questions that we should raise to approach the broader recent history of Europe with a view to understanding the present juncture. The real challenge ahead for historians will be to establish the main themes of such a history of the continent’s present. In doing so, they might do well in focusing a little less attention on the powerful states and looking at the continent from the vantage point of the rather illuminating and eventful history of its smaller components. The historian Carl Schorske famously used the metaphor of ‘politics in a new key’ to describe the changes to the political landscape in fin-de-siècle Austria. Europe, it is clear, has adopted once again a new tonality. Quite where it will find its resolution we do not know. But we might want to try and locate the chords that set if off. By thinking about Europe from its interpretative margins, we shall perhaps stumble upon the clues that help us make sense of its present, and develop a notion of how to emancipate us from its past.

Camilo Erlichman


Suggested source quotation:

Camilo Erlichman: Europe in a New Key: A Dispatch from Athens. In: RUB Europadialog, 2016. URL: (24.08.2016).

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