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In Confronting Turkey, History is on our Side, but Historical Lesson is from 1938, not from the Ancient Past

By on April 14, 2018
Alexander Billinis

Alexander Billinis

Another Greek Independence Day has come and gone. It’s a time for parades, poems, and speeches, recalling the heroes of that era. This year, the Evzones came to Australia, as they have come to key US cities in the past. Also, our community was once again at the White House for an increasingly irrelevant shindig. It seems, particularly in the Trump Era, that the White House party for the Greeks is nothing less than, “Get ‘em in, get ‘em out, and make sure they [the Greek Community] pay for it.”

I am not taking Trump’s obvious detachment personally. Most items of policy that cannot be reduced to a single bullet point, or that do not impact cable news ratings, rank rather low on his hierarchy of needs. Hopefully the professionals in the military look at things differently. I do believe that there are many in the foreign policy and defense establishment who do understand the significance of the brewing conflict in the Aegean, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Balkans—despite the President’s indifference.

We Greeks often reduce our complicated Balkan history by a 2000-year rewind to the glories of Classical Greece, still admired (but increasingly less studied) in the West. We seek to draw continued political and economic royalties by claiming successorship to the Ancients. I would suggest that the patent on this cultural heritage has expired, and that we look to much more recent history to place our arguments in favor of supporting Greece.

How about 1938?

recep-tayyip-erdoganIn that year, another dictator, one quite admired by Erdogan, threatened a neighboring democracy, Czechoslovakia. The Czechs were spirited and well-armed, and ready to defend their newly won independence. Britain and France sold them out. Then, emboldened by Western weakness, and having plundered the vast Czech arsenal (a little-known fact is that the Czechs made some of the best tanks in Europe of the 1930s) Hitler turned his sights against Poland. The Poles fought valiantly but were unnumbered and outgunned, and further stabbed in the back by the Soviet Union. The Western Allies (Britain and France) declared war but did not attack Germany’s depleted Western Wall, but sat in their forts watching the Poles get annihilated.

A horrible war then ensued for six years, one that might have ended almost before it began.

Greece today is both Czechoslovakia and Poland combined. Greece, notwithstanding its severe corruption and inefficiency, is a functioning democracy where the rule of law remains in force. It is why Turks are seeking asylum in Greece from Erdogan’s regime in large numbers, and they are both welcomed and protected by their Greek neighbors.

Like the Czechs in 1938, the Greeks are well-armed, possessing an excellent army, navy, and air force. Like the Poles, moreover, the Greeks have steel in them, and are not going to tolerate a Turkish incursion without a fight. If history is any indication, the Greeks will fight hard and well.

They do not deserve to fight alone.

If the West (the US, the EU, other NATO states, Israel, and, crucially, Bulgaria and Serbia) stand firm with Greece at the Aegean and Thrace, the Turks will blink. Containment worked in the Cold War and can work with Turkey too, as the Israelis, the Iranians, the Syrians, and the Armenians have no love for the Turks. It is in everybody’s interest to end a war before it starts, or if it does start, to  show decisively that aggression and terror do not work. Erdogan’s legitimacy is not on solid ground and a humiliating standoff or defeat in the Aegean will topple his regime like a house of cards.

If, however, Greece is left to defend herself and is defeated, not only will the moral shame be the West’s, the West will face Turkey again, this time, on the Adriatic and the Danube. Bulgaria and Serbia will be less able than Greece to withstand a Turkish onslaught, and the Albanians and Bosnians will, as in the past, be willing Turkish lieutenants. Who knows, perhaps the third time, the Turks will take Vienna?

For Greece’s sake—and for Europe’s sake—this must start and stop on the Aegean.

About Alexander Billinis

Alexander Billinis is a writer and lawyer in Chicago, Illinois. He and his family returned to the US after nearly a decade in Greece, the UK, and Serbia. He writes prolifically on Balkan topics. His books, The Eagle has Two Faces: Journeys through Byzantine Europe, and Hidden Mosaics: An Aegean Tale, are available from Amazon.com.