The most impressive achievement of Beaton’s book is the way that he captures the full dimensions of Greece’s recent troubles by setting them in the context of the two centuries since the 1821-32 war of national independence ... Beaton sheds light on recurrent patterns of political conflict, social change and economic upheaval to which most non-Greek policymakers and commentators during the 2010-18 debt crisis were too busy or — less forgivably — too ignorant to pay attention ... judicious, well-researched and commendably up-to-date — deserves to be the standard general history of modern Greece in English for years to come.
... splendid ... Previous histories of modern Greece by C.M. Woodhouse, Richard Clogg and Thomas Gallant have gotten bogged down in this Balkan complexity, but Mr. Beaton’s biographical conceit keeps the narrative focused, lively and clear. His accounts of the Metaxas dictatorship (1936-41), the Axis occupation and subsequent civil war are both gripping and remarkably balanced. Historians have seen the rise of the Communist Party in Greece and its violent suppression, with the help of Britain and the U.S. under the Truman Doctrine, as the start of the Cold War. But Mr. Beaton allows that Greek communists were not a monolithic force under Stalin’s control. They were terrible, but they represented a more local struggle against fascism and monarchy.
Some of this story is familiar, but Beaton salts it with fascinating details which consistently surprise ... Beaton covers bitterly contested historical terrain with flair and an admirable lack of partisanship. He expertly navigates landmines surrounding the Greco-Turkish population exchange, the years of the Metaxas dictatorship and the bloodletting that occurred during the Axis occupation of 1941–4 and subsequent civil war. Beaton reminds his readers that the 1974 war in Cyprus was ‘started by the Greek junta’, even if the Turkish invasion of the north island is what most people remember ... Beaton is scrupulously fair on the most controversial episodes, including Greece’s painful recent headaches over Eurozone debt and austerity. He clearly loves Greece, with all its imperfections and flaws, and he is not afraid to expose them. At times, however, his sympathy for Greece leads to a lack of critical distance. While noting the frequent abuse of the past by Greek politicians, Beaton still takes the Greek national project largely at face value ... Because his aim is to explain how modern Greeks ‘have thought about themselves’, Beaton follows them in downplaying their country’s Ottoman heritage (something that is obvious to anyone who visits Greece today). He might well have asked why modern Greeks and Turks quarrel over whose ‘coffee’ it is and pretend they don’t greatly resemble each other, in spite of shared musical, culinary and social traditions ... Still, these are quibbles. Beaton’s history of modern Greece is a scholarly and elegant introduction to this beguiling country. Serious students of history should read it, and no visitor to Greece should leave home without it.
In reality, a lot of the questions that Beaton sets out to settle are not clear in Greek minds, let alone outside the country ... avoids vulgar questions of genetics and pedantry over Byzantium, instead broadening its scope and building on the understanding that if we are to talk about Greece as it is today we have to talk about a history that often took place far away from where the state is now located ... The author takes special care to present the duality of the Greek soul ... Beaton does a fantastic job of capturing both the spirit of the time and the individual triumphs and failures of those who played a major role in the crucial years that followed the revolution. The war for independence is placed with clarity and purpose in the context of its times and the monumental changes it brought ... It is in these later chapters that Beaton’s otherwise evenhanded and objective book starts to falter. First, in his retelling of the second world war, he adopts the views of a team of historians known in Greece as 'the new revisionists', whose history of the civil war is considered at best controversial; and then in the overly positive light shed on the tenure of Pasok’s Kostas Simitis as prime minister from 1996 to 2004. Far from being ‘modernising’, the Simitis years are now generally seen as an example of pervasive corruption and cultural degradation...But it’s no accident that these sections appear more partial to specific political narratives. They are also subjects of intense debate within Greece at this very moment, which is why they shouldn’t be considered an indictment of the book. If anything, they’re testament to the challenges posed early in its mission ... It’s in the time the author spends on the 19th and early 20th centuries that he really achieves his object, because there he makes clear that Greece belongs to the world rather than just itself.
This brilliant 'biography' of modern Greece will easily surpass others in the field by Richard Clogg, Thomas Gallant and Stathis Kalyvas. Probably only Kostas Kostis’ very recent History’s Spoiled Children can compare. And why? Because, apart from his extraordinary erudition and scholarship, Beaton writes with measured compassion and a refreshingly straightforward style ... He is particularly sensitive to the ambivalence of Greek people and their politicians to the east-west tug-of-love in which Greece has been caught up since its inception. Is it western? Is it eastern? For Beaton, it is unquestionably both ... The weakest section deals with recent events, since so much of what he can say must of necessity be speculative and provisional. Nevertheless, he is utterly realistic when he says the crisis has obliged Greeks 'to take stock, to look again at their history, at the values they grew up with, at their own sense of who they are and where they belong in the world' ... I would have preferred more discursive citations; many are to Greek-language sources which haven’t been translated. The lack of a full bibliography suggests, misleadingly, that there is nothing more to be said ... Beaton could have given us more on the continuing presence in Greek culture of Turkish elements such as cuisine and rebetika music, and his very brief references to film-makers ignores the seminal work of Theo Angelopoulos ... magisterial and user-friendly.
In a biography written fifty years from now, one or two omissions in Beaton’s account may stand out: neither China’s interest in Greece nor the potential impact of inward migration on Greek identity is probed here. But this is a judicious and compelling narrative, in which Beaton makes a convincing case for Greece’s contribution to the modern shape of Europe, and encourages us to see clues to Europe’s future development in the modern Greek experience.