Greece is in turmoil. That much we know, or at least that’s what we constantly hear. The specific causes are not so well-known, even though newspapers often run Q&A columns about the issue, complete with short, snappy answers.
In fact, Greece has been in turmoil many, many times in the past. What do we know about that? What, indeed, do we know about the history of Greece in general? There are some well-worn images and comments. Pictures of the Acropolis and ancient Greek ruins spring to mind, even if we don’t know much about them. “Greece is the birthplace of democracy” is endlessly repeated. Yet women in Greece got the vote only in 1952.
A century of turmoil
As elsewhere, it’s the past one hundred years or so which can help us understand something about the nature of today’s Greece, and turmoil has never been far away during that century. Yet, again, what do we know about it all?
Following the disastrous Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922, during which each side committed awful atrocities, a large-scale exchange of population took place involving tens of thousands of Greeks and Turks. In effect, it was organised ethnic cleansing on a mass scale, though the term only became popularised decades later. The Greek-Turkish example has almost been forgotten – outside the two countries.
War and resistance
What do we know about the brutal German occupation of Greece during the Second World War or about the Greek Holocaust? Attention has been paid to Central and Eastern Europe, to the detriment of knowledge about Greece.
And the Greek resistance during the war? It was one of the most widespread such movements anywhere, successfully counter-occupying vast areas and setting up alternative administrations. Again, attention has focused elsewhere, on the French or Yugoslav resistance. Even the exploits of Soviet partisans are better known.
Division and dictatorship
After 1945 Greece was bitterly divided between left and right, between former “collaborators” and “communists”. The country was split, physically and psychologically, as a bloody three-year civil war ensued. Far more attention has been focused on the Spanish Civil War.
Coming nearer to today, there was the Greek military dictatorship of 1967-1974. It did get attention but what do we remember now of the atmosphere of those harsh years?
If we want to know more about Greece’s turbulent twentieth-century history what can we do? Well, help is at hand in the form of Victoria Hislop’s latest novel, The Thread. Hislop came to fame with her first novel, The Island, about Spinalonga, a tiny island just off the north coast of Crete that functioned as a guarded leper colony (right up to 1957).
Thessaloniki through heroes’ lives
A second work, The Return, took us to the Spanish Civil War and its legacy but now Hislop has brought us back to Greece, a country whose people, history and culture she clearly loves. Specifically in focus is Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki, which until the notorious population exchange had for years been a city of Muslims, Christians and Jews living in relative harmony. Then the Muslims were expelled. The Jews followed later, not to another, alleged “homeland” but to Auschwitz.
The story of The Thread revolves around the fate of Katerina, who arrived in Thessaloniki as a small girl having lost her mother during the chaos of the Greek retreat from the Turkish mainland at the end of the Greco-Turkish war. Dimitri is the other key figure. We encounter him at his birth, the son of a wealthy, pompous textile merchant of Thessaloniki.
A tale well spun
Katerina turns out to be excellent at sewing and the thread of her tale can almost be guessed in advance – but not quite. There are intriguing twists and turns in this romantic, easy-to-read, nicely written and informative novel. It is informative in the sense of its feel for the history of Thessaloniki and that of Greece in general. As the two young people grow up, Victoria Hislop addresses all the major episodes of Greece’s 20th-century history.
We don’t reach the current economic crisis but we can learn about the Greeks, what unites them, what divides them, about their culture, tastes, styles and food. We can certainly get a feel for the turmoil of being Greek.
Buy the book
By Victoria Hislop
Paperback, 390 pages
Headline Review, 2011