Greece invented, lost and regained democracy. He has lessons for the United States
Democracy is in trouble here and abroad. According to highly regarded data from the World Values Survey, most Americans under 60 do not consider it “absolutely essential” to live in a democracy. In fact, for the first time since 2004, the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) recently recorded more autocratic states than democracies around the world.
It is more than a little timely that on May 17 the Prime Minister of Greece, the country that invented democracy, will address a joint meeting of Congress with remarks on Greece’s bicentenary, the return of democracy in its birthplace. This is the first time that a Greek Prime Minister speak at a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress. President Joe Biden has also invited Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to meet him and address others at the White House.
Greece is known to be the cradle of democracy. But one lesson it holds for the world is how it lost it, sometimes, and had to get it back. He had to fight foreign powers, a civil war and a military junta. Even the creators of democracy must always fight for democracy, just like the United States and other freedom-loving nations.
Greece has boosted other democracy fighters even while in chains. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Payne read and spoke Greek and were enamored with ancient Greek democracy. As Jefferson said, “To the ancient Greeks we all owe the light that brought us out of Gothic darkness.” Our founders saw in Greek democracy not just a better system of government, but a system that allowed people to reach their full potential. They were impressed with Greek achievements in art, science, athletics, and other areas of human achievement.
America’s founders were right. Democracy made America great.
But ancient Greek democracy only lasted 250 years. The people of Greece endured centuries of occupation, including under the brutal Ottoman Empire, before emerging as a free and independent republic after a revolution 200 years ago. America applauded the resurrection of Greece. From the exact spot where Prime Minister Mitsotakis will be standing on May 17andPresident James Monroe said in a joint session of Congress during the Greek Revolution of 1821, “Greece fills the mind with the most exalted feelings across the United States. He was not alone. The Greek Revolution captured the imagination of Americans. They followed the war closely. Greek clubs sprung up in American cities to raise funds for the Hellenic cause. Idealistic volunteers from the United States (and around the world) traveled to Greece to fight, as they would in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Among them were Boston abolitionist and humanitarian Samuel Gridley Howe and James Williams, an African American from Baltimore who was wounded during brave service in the Battle of the Gulf of Lepanto. Just as the Declaration of Independence was followed by more than a decade of struggle against the American Revolution, it took years for Greece to break the yoke of foreign domination and that internal fighting ceases. It was not until 1844 that the Greek Constitution came into force, and in some parts of Greece, such as Crete, the home of the Prime Minister, the brutal Ottoman occupation was not entirely removed until 1913. .
The two democracies are in a virtuous circle. When modern Greece emerged as an independent nation two hundred years ago, it looked to the American Constitution just as America’s founders looked to ancient Greek democracy for inspiration. The founding fathers of modern Greece said to the United States, “It is in your land that liberty has made its home, and… imitating you, we will imitate our ancestors and be counted worthy of them if we succeed in look like you. Whatever position the Democrats take, they do so on Greek shoulders.
But the Greeks lost their democracy and saw it threatened, and even now, when it is strong and vibrant, they know it must be nurtured (just like America’s). A military junta ruled the country from 1967 to 1974. Do you know that letter Z on Russian tanks charging in Ukraine? There is no Z in the Russian alphabet. It is a perversion of “Z”, which in Greek means “he lives”, as Markos Kounalakis pointed out in these pages. It became a banned symbol after the 1963 assassination of a prominent Greek democrat fighting authoritarianism and inspiring a 1969 Oscar-winning film by Costa-Gravasperhaps the famous Greek filmmaker.
The Greeks know that it takes muscle and global institutions to strengthen democracy. Greece fought the Nazis, helping turn the tide of World War II. He resisted a Communist insurgency after the war with the help of the United States, Harry S. Truman and the Marshall Plan. Greece was one of the first members of NATO. Its integration into Europe within the framework of the Eurozone and the European Union has helped Greece like other European nations. Without international support, Greece faced economic collapse after the 2008 financial crisis.
Prime Minister Mitsotakis knows this. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard University and the graduate schools of Stanford University and Harvard, and has extensive experience in finance. As Prime Minister, Mitsotakis secures unprecedented levels of foreign investment and lifted the Greek economy from a severe depression to solid growth rates, despite COVID-19. He is a democrat, in the truest sense of the word.
Mitsotakis speech to Congress on May 17 will remind the world that democracy is still humanity’s best environment, but it is still under threat, everywhere.