America the Despised

National Interest 2004

Takis  Michas


In the summer of 1999, the popular Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis said during an interview: “I hate Americans and everything American. I hope that the youth will begin to hate everything American.” This most popular of Greek contemporary composers—a close friend of Slobodan Milosevic, who was reportedly ferried around in the latter’s private plane—had already been widely acclaimed for his assertion during the Kosovo war that “there is no difference between Hitler and Clinton.” Moreover, he advocated at the time the formation of a nuclear alliance between Greece, Belarus, Serbia and Russia directed against Greece’s erstwhile nato allies—and the United States in particular.

Celebrities everywhere have been known to say foolish things about political matters of which they know little and understand less, so Theodorakis’ ranting might not seem worthy of much attention—except that  he was nominated during that period as Greece’s candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. Theodorakis’ candidacy was supported by leading Greek politicians and intellectuals from across the spectrum, including Greece’s Premier, Costas Simitis, Foreign Minister George Papandreou and the leader of the conservative opposition New Democracy Party, Costas Karamanlis.

Of course, not all those who supported Theodorakis’ candidacy shared his anti-American views. On the contrary, some, including Simitis, Papandreou and Karamanlis, have generally supported the United States and its policies. What is noteworthy, however, is that Theodorakis’ views did not seem to faze those supporting his candidacy precisely because such views have become part of mainstream opinion in Greece. Indeed, they are accepted by the majority as self-evidently true. In an opinion poll conducted among secondary school students at the end of the 1990s, for example, respondents were asked to rank a number of nations from most to least popular. Americans joined Albanians and Turks at the bottom of the list—even lower than the Gypsies, a group not held in particularly high esteem by the Greeks. Topping the list were the Serbs.

Anti-American sentiment in Greece was carefully nurtured during the 1980s by Andreas Papandreou, the populist leader of pasok (Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement), and father of the current foreign minister. Anti-Americanism based on real and perceived wrongs relating to the rise of the Greek military junta (1967–74) and the Cyprus issue became the common denominator of political thinking. Throughout this period, Papandreou made it a cardinal point to deviate from Western norms and to antagonize Western, and especially American, governments. Greece thus supported the Jaruzelski dictatorship in Poland, refused to condemn the suppression of dissidents in the Soviet Union and its shooting down of a commercial Korean airliner, harbored organizations (such as the Kurdish PKK) perceived as terrorist by many in the West, opposed the deployment of cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe, and failed to arrest the terrorists of the “November 17th” organization that, since the mid-1970s, has murdered more than a score of Greeks and foreigners  since the mid –1970s ,including  the cia station chief in 1975.

But all of this pales in comparison to the gestalt-switch that took place in Greek foreign policy and in its populist worldview during the wars of Yugoslav succession. Throughout those wars Greece supported the Milosevic regime in Belgrade and the Karadzic regime in Pale morally, economically and politically. It repeatedly violated the un-imposed oil embargo on Serbia and the eu decision concerning the freezing of assets belonging to the Milosevic regime. Greece’s support was massive and involved all strata of society: the political class, the trade unions, the media and above all the Orthodox Church. The victims of Serbian aggression were simply erased from the moral perceptions of the overwhelming majority of the population and the political class of the country. Whenever a Greek politician voiced criticism about the fighting, it was nearly always directed against nato air strikes and other “machinations” of the West and particularly the United States. ”Greece’s policies”, said leading Serb journalist Peter Lucovic during the course of a radio interview, “benefited exclusively the Milosevic regime, helping the Milosevic family and its associates to retain power in Belgrade. Greece was used by the Milosevic regime as the fine example of a Western country that supported democratic and patriotic Serbia.”

Equally interesting have been Greek reactions to the terrorist attack against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001, and the subsequent war in Afghanistan. Both the prime minister Costas Simitis and Costas Caramanlis, the leader of the main opposition New Democracy party, denounced the terrorist attack in the strongest of terms and pledged their support to U.S. efforts to hunt down the perpetrators. Moreover, Greece provided U.S. and nato aircraft full access to Greek airspace, military airports and other military facilities for refueling and maintenance. Greece also offered to send additional Greek troops to the Balkans to free up U.S. forces for deployment in Afghanistan.

But outside the narrow confines of the formal political class, reactions were very different. After learning of the terrorist attack, the immensely popular Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church, Christodoulos, attributed the act to the “injustice and inequality” that pervades the world. It was unleashed, he said, because those in power behaved “without scruples and in defiance of the justice of God and Man.” The view that America was somehow to blame for this terrible incident was echoed also in much of the media. Television broadcasting in Greece in the wake of the tragedy was   dominated,  about how America supposedly brought  this event upon itself for perceived political and military sins.

Perhaps the most outrageous incident, however, involved not the media but sports. During a soccer match between a Greek and a visiting Scottish club, fans of the Greek team tried to burn the American flag before the start of the game and then booed during a moment of silence observed for the victims of the September 11 attacks. This happened to the applause of the nearly 20,000 who were in the football stadium at the time. “What went on in Athens disgusted me”, the coach of the Scottish team told the Associated Press. “What badly disappointed me was that there was no effort made by anyone, the police included, to do anything about it. I could not believe such anti-American feeling in a European country.”

While feelings of sorrow and outrage marked the responses of most observers in the rest of Europe, the reactions in Greece were at best extremely subdued. “Instead of reacting with the shock grief and outrage that every Greek American felt”, wrote Nikos Konstandaras, the editor of the English–language edition of Kathimerini, “the Greeks were seen—on satellite television and in editorials and too many comments by people in the street—to be analyzing the event with their trademark ‘Yes, but.’ The expressions of support for America were drowned out by the inevitable anti-Americanism that was once confined to the Communist Party but in the last 10 years, in the dearth of public statements to the contrary, appears to have become the only opinion on view.”


The polls provide evidence. One poll, taken just a few days after the incident, revealed that an astonishing 25 percent of respondents said they felt “satisfied”, “relieved” and believed that “justice had been served” upon the United States on September 11. About 30 percent said that the terror attacks constituted a justified reaction to U.S. policies. Another poll found that only 6 percent of the Greeks, the lowest number in Western Europe, supported a U.S. campaign against countries that harbor terrorism. (A similar poll taken among the Palestinians showed that 7 percent supported America’s anti-terror campaign.) Moreover, in a poll published in the Greek daily To Vima on December 29 under the headline “Greeks declare[they are] unhappy with usas victory in Afghanistan“, 61 percent of the respondents said they felt unhappy about the coalition’s victory in Afghanistan, and only 29 percent said they were happy about the outcome of the military campaign.

As columnist Richardos Someritis wrote in To Vima, four main ideas dominated popular explanations of the September 11 terrorist attack. The first is that the attack was an act of Israeli or Jewish interests who wanted to promote their own goals. The second is that Osama bin Laden is the creation of cia propaganda. The third is that the terrorist act was part of the struggle of the repressed against U. S. imperialism. And the fourth is that Greece is not threatened by terrorism, but rather by the fight against terrorism.


Greece’s New Anti-American Trinity

The icurrent ideological configuration of  anti-Americanism in Greece is a new phenomenon and should not be confused with earlier critiques of American policies. Although some of its roots can be traced to earlier forms, conflating the two can lead to serious misinterpretations of contemporary Greek reality.

The ideology of anti-Americanism that marked the 1960s and 1970s in Greece reflected the state of mind of the radical Left. It based its critique of American policies on the inconsistency that purportedly existed between the ideals of liberty that the Americans officially espoused and the policies they followed either at home—the so-called Jim Crow laws discriminating against blacks in the South—or abroad—supporting dictatorships such as the Greek military junta or the Pinochet regime in Chile. This outlook may not have been always fair r, but it was essentially benign. Despite its occasional violent rhetoric and acts, it did not challenge the essential principles upon which American society rested—namely, the principles of liberty, rule of law and individual rights. Today’s anti-Americanism, in contrast, is no longer the exclusive prerogative of the Left. The traditional anti-Americanism of the Left is fusing with growing anti-American sentiments among political conservatives and religious activists. These three streams are converging to form the great river of a new and much more visceral Greek anti-Americanism.

As to the Left, the Greek Communist Party, one of the largest non-reformed communist parties in the European Union with over 5% in the last elections, still sees America as the Great Satan for the simple reason that U. S. policies precipitated the downfall of the Holy Soviet Empire. Nonetheless, Communist opposition to the United States today is no longer articulated only in the Marxist idiom of proletarian internationalism, but increasingly in the language of nationalism. Thus, the Communist Party opposes strongly any “U. S.-dictated” rapprochement between Greece and Turkey. At the same time, it is one of the staunchest defenders of the principle of Greek “national sovereignty” and “territorial integrity.” The party’s adoption of the nationalist viewpoint was cemented in the “national front” strategy announced during its 16th Congress in December 2000. During her speech to the assembled delegates, General-Secretary Aleca Papariga said that the new strategy no longer included a precondition calling for other social agencies to accept socialism or “workers’ power.” The unity of the National Front would be grounded on the notions of the “defense of national sovereignty” and the rejection of “subservience to the demands of nato and the United States and subjection to the New Order and the Maastricht Treaty.” She even reminded the delegates of the topicality and relevance of Stalin’s dictum concerning the need “to raise the flag of national independence and national sovereignty.”

The Greek Communist Party inaugurated its anti-Western popular front strategy during the war in the former Yugoslavia. From the very beginning, the party was one of the most vocal opponents of nato actions because they “violated Serbian sovereignty” and aimed to “undermine Milosevic.” The Communists joined forces with Right-wing nationalists to organize demonstrations at the U. S. embassy; helped organize “humanitarian convoys” to deliver aid to the Bosnian Serb Republic; and sought common ground with the Greek armed forces. The latter efforts resulted in the creation of the “Movement for National Defense” in November 2000 under the auspices of the Communist Party. The speakers at the organization’s first meeting included a retired Chief of the Armed Forces  and other leading officers of the Greek Armed Forces. All strongly criticized nato.

For some, the incorporation of nationalism into Communist doctrine has a deeper ideological significance. What is common in both systems is the absence of any concept of individual freedom. As former U. S. Ambassador to Yugoslavia, Warren Zimmermann, pointed out, the shift from communism to nationalism, such as that which took place under Milosevic, could be characterized as the transition from one collectivist ideology to another.[1] More importantly, both nationalism and communism are ideological means to mobilize the masses for the fight against a supposedly ever-present enemy in whose name individual rights and freedoms may be ruthlessly suppressed.

The intellectual sources of the conservative Right’s newly discovered “anti-Americanism” are more rich and varied. They reflect in part the anti-Western and xenophobic attitude that characterizes the rhetoric of the Greek Orthodox Church. This connection points to the fact that it is not simply U.S. foreign policy that offends the nationalist Right. Instead, it is the entire narrative of American history and the values that define the United States, for these contradict the basic premises of nationalist conservatism in Greece: Multiculturalism or multiethnic narratives challenge the very essence of linguistic, cultural and ethnic homogeneity that have always constituted the pillars of modern Greek nationalism. Indeed, one of the main fears among conservative nationalists in Greece during the recent Balkans wars was that the United States was trying to export its model of societal pluralism in the region. American support for Bosnia and Macedonia has been interpreted by Greek conservatives as an attempt to export multiethnic models to Greece’s doorstep. If it is the case that the United States supported an independent Bosnia because of its once and potentially future multiethnic character, exactly the opposite was the case with Greece, whose government maintained from the outset that Bosnia was doomed precisely because of its multiethnic make-up.

Thus, conservative Greek newspapers such as  now denounce the United States with the same vehemence as the Communist Party paper Rizospastis. Anti-Americanism is not restricted to diatribes in the press but is increasingly forming part of the pronouncements of conservative politicians, which, of course, influences the views of the average conservative voter. A poll taken shortly after the September 11 terrorist attack revealed that over 50 percent of conservative voters define themselves as anti-American.

The third source of the new anti-Americanism in Greece is the Orthodox Church itself. Its enmity toward the United States draws its intellectual inspiration partly from the generally militant and anti-Western legacy of Eastern Orthodoxy. In attacking the United States during the war in Kosovo, the Church drew upon traditional Biblical sources to cast the United States in demonic terms. Its president was labeled a “Satan.” New York became the new seat of the “Whore of Babylon.” The Church, however, also drew upon its own historical legacy. Traditionally, the Greek Orthodox populations of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires had always perceived the West as being inhabited by “barbarian Franks”, “schismatics” and “heretics” from the True Faith. The religious bond of Orthodoxy that held together the Greek population through centuries of occupation has always carried a strong anti-Western strain. Nobody understood this better than Karl Marx, who wrote: “There exists no polemical schism between the Musulmans [the Ottoman Turks] and their Greek subjects; but the religious animosity against the Latins may be said to form the only common bond among the different races inhabiting Turkey and professing the Greek creed.”

In Greece, as well as in other nations that emerged from the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, such as Serbia, religion became an essential component of the national ideology. The ethnos and Orthodoxy fused. Thus, to be Greek is to be Orthodox. The leader of the Greek Church constantly stresses the nation’s identification with Orthodoxy. It is characteristic of the total identification of the Greek Church with the nation that, as Victoria Clark points out, even foreign converts to the Greek Orthodox Church adopt not only the theological dogma of the Orthodox creed, but also the foreign policy positions of the Greek government.[2]

The fusion of Church and nation has reached a point that the religious leadership has become the spearhead for all of the major secular nationalist initiatives in modern Greece. Thus, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Church promoted “The Great Idea” (Megali Idea), the creation of a “Greater Greece” encompassing the territories of the old Byzantine Empire; now, about a century later, the Church has taken the lead in mobilizing the population on issues such as Macedonia, nato and Serbia.

The Greek Orthodox Church—and particularly its present leader, Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens—has consistently adopted extreme nationalist positions. In the early 1990s the Church helped lead the opposition to the recognition of its northern neighbor and former Yugoslav republic under the name of “Macedonia.” It played a decisive role in fomenting nationalist feelings by organizing and participating in the mass rallies against the new state’s “usurpation” of the name Macedonia. Moreover, for almost a decade, the Greek Church provided the ideological legitimacy for the Greek state’s moral political and economic support to the regimes in Belgrade and Pale. It also provided rhetorical cover for Serbian war crimes in Bosnia and Kosovo. The Church even invited indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic to visit Athens in the summer of 1993 in order to honor him at a rally in a Piraeus stadium. Greek priests traveled regularly to war ravaged Bosnia to provide spiritual succor to the Bosnian Serb army in Sarajevo, Zvornic and other places.

The anti-American and anti-Western narrative of the Greek Orthodox Church does not emanate from the religious metaphysics of Eastern Christianity in general, but from what the Russian theologian Alexander Schmemann calls the “theological nationalism” that dominates the Greek Church.[3] It is the nature of the worldview inherent in this type of nationalism that accounts for the anti-Western and anti-American attitudes of the Greek Church, not anything inherent in Orthodoxy’s theology or dogma.

This phenomenon of “theological nationalism” explains one of the most remarkable developments in recent Greek political life: the ideological rapprochement between a largely anticlerical and avowedly atheist Left and the Greek Orthodox Church. This is partly explained by the fact that Archbishop Christodoulos’s speeches are frequently couched in a Left-wing idiom, as when he attacks U.S. “imperialism” or denounces American ideas about a “New World Order” as “similar to Nazi ones.” But this rapprochement manifests itself also in more direct ways. The Archbishop stated recently that he finds the Communist Party’s geopolitical views on issues like globalization, Kosovo and U. S. foreign policy to be “much closer” to those of his Church than those of many other political parties.

The appearance of a group of influential “neo-Orthodox” thinkers has been one of the most important elements fuelling the Church’s strong anti-Western posture of the last several years. Writers such as Christos Giannaras, a professor at the Panteion University of Athens, have revived and focused the antagonism that existed between the Orthodox East and the Latin West during the Middle Ages. Giannaras and others have recast those traditional religious antagonisms (familiar to every Greek, whether religious or not) in the contemporary idiom of world politics, and used them as a basis for advocating foreign policy positions whose ultimate aim is the total separation of Greece from the West.[4]

According to these thinkers the West continues to perpetuate the legacy of hatred for the Orthodox Church that started with the Great Schism of 1054 and culminated with the sacking of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204. The West is hostile, and its values alien to the Greek experience. Thus, all the misfortunes that have befallen Greeks during their recent history—from the Asia Minor catastrophe in 1922 to the invasion of Cyprus by the Turks in 1974—are due to Greece’s failed attempt to imitate the West. The continuing decline of Greece cannot be reversed until Greeks realize their cultural and spiritual superiority to the West, as members of the Orthodox Church. The rot will stop only when the Greeks substitute the “servility” that characterizes their relation with the West with the spirit of resistance against the latter’s “immoral barbarism.” Herein lies Greece’s path to salvation and its moral and cultural rejuvenation. Thus, to the Left’s anger at America’s sabotage of the Communist dream, and the conservatives’ distaste for America’s multicultural legacy, the Church contributes a spiritual justification for anti-Americanism.

More recently, in his regular column in Kathimerini, the newspaper of record for Greek conservatives, Giannaras condoned the terrorist attacks against Washington and New York and compared them to similar acts committed by the Greek fighters of the War of Independence in 1821! It is also of interest to note that, in some instances, relations between the Communist Party and Orthodoxy are not restricted to ideology but extend to politics. Thus one prominent member of the neo-Orthodox movement, Kostas Zouraris, was included in the list of parliamentary candidates that the Greek Communist Party filed in the last elections.

The intellectual props for anti-Americanism in Greece also happen to blend well with the mix of conspiracy theories that dominate the folk worldview of the masses. In the popular mindset, as Alexis Herakleidis a professor at the Panteion University of Athens  argues, the universe is divided into two categories: the fillellines (more popularly rendered in the Western media as “Philhellenes”), the “friends of the Greeks”, and their opposite, the misellines or anthellines (“those who hate Greece”). Greece, according to this view, is an anadelfo ethnos ( “a nation alone in the world”). It always lives on the “edge of a crisis.” It is always surrounded by enemies. Greeks are always at the center of skotines sinomosies (“dark conspiracies”) that emanate from xena kentra (“foreign centers”). These conspiracies emanate from the “Ankara-Skopje-Tirana axis”, from Bonn, from London, from nato. But above all the conspiracies emanate from Washington or, according to more “sophisticated” versions of these theories, from “the Jewish lobby” in the United States. All have, as their ultimate goal, the subjugation of the Greeks.

The conspiratorial viewpoint is becoming more prominent in the political discourse of the Greek Church. The theme of the “victimization” of the Greek Orthodox flock is central in the speeches of Archbishop Christodoulos: “Our people feel”, he said recently, “that they are always being treated unjustly by the great and the powerful.” He justified the enmity felt toward the West because “the powerful of the Earth commit injustice against the Hellenes and ignore the rightful claims of Hellenism.” The Archbishop, moreover, gave voice to the fears that the West is secretly engaging in policies designed to weaken the Greek nation. “Our foreign friends”, he said “are methodically trying to reduce the size of Greece.”

          The pervasiveness of the conspiratorial viewpoint also marked Greek reactions to the September 11 attack. In a nationwide poll published in Eleftherotypia, the Greeks who believe that the September 11 attacks were the work of bin Laden or some other Arab terrorist (in total, 39 percent) are less than those who believe in “another” perpetrator, whether the secret services of America (28 percent), Israel (8 percent), or extremist American organizations (6 percent).



Seen as a system of ideas, the new anti-American narrative in Greece has little in common with critiques of American policies and social structures that were prevalent in the 1960s and early 1970s. The latter were rights-based discourses and had as their goal liberal emancipation. Current anti-Americanism, on the other hand, is suffused with xenophobia, irrationality and plain hatred. Earlier forms of anti-Americanism attacked what America did. Present forms attack what America is.

Confusing these two forms of anti-Americanism amounts to committing what philosophers call “a category mistake.” Such mistakes can have serious policy implications, as it did when President Clinton visited Greece in October 1999. His trip planners thought that if he strongly condemned American support for the colonels’ junta that ruled Greece from 1967–74, he would placate those Greeks who were protesting his visit. It did not work. The large and violent demonstrations against his visit went ahead as planned. What the former President’s advisers failed to understand was that reactions to his visit were motivated by the new Greek anti-Americanism, and that it had little if anything to do with the events of the 1960s and 1970s. The protesters of 1999 were not primarily interested in the usurpation of Greek political freedoms by the old junta; they were instead  affirming their deep-seated opposition to Western values  and their ideological allegiance to Milosevic’s ethnotribal policies.

The effects of such developments in Greek society on relations between Greece and the United States, nato and the eu are, of course, impossible to predict with precision. What is certain, however, is that for a growing number of Greeks, the United States—Greece’s formal ally—is rapidly becoming Enemy Number One. In a poll published two weeks after the September 11 attacks in the Greek Daily Ta Nea, only 18.9 percent of respondents said they had positive feelings about the United States. “One of the most dangerous recent developments in the relations of Greece with its friend and allies“, says Dimitis Katsoudas, the head of the pro-Western think-tank “Center for New Policy-Pavlos Bakoyannis”, (named after “November 17ths” most prominent Greek victim) “is the consolidation of an anti-Western and anti-American sentiment that goes far beyond any logical reaction to aspects of U.S. foreign policy that may affect negatively Greece’s national interests.”

At the same time, those feelings go hand in hand with a pragmatic attitude on the part of the majority of the Greek population toward Greece’s membership in nato and its relations with the United States. Thus, as many opinion polls have shown, the majority of the Greek population combines a critical attitude toward the United States and its policies with an acquiescence of the Greek government’s formal support for those policies. Whether this situation can be sustained in the long run, only time will tell.


Takis Michas is a staff writer for the Greek daily Eleftherotypia and is a frequent contributor to the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal (Europe). The views expressed here are the author’s own.His new book, The Unholy Alliance: Greece and Milosevic’s Serbia During the 1990’s, is forthcoming from Texas A & M Press.


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[1] Zimmermann, Origins of a Catastrophe: Yugoslavia and Its Destroyers (New York: Times Books/Random House, 1996).

[2] Clark, Why Angels Fall: A Journey through Orthodox Europe from Byzantium to Kosovo (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000).

[3] Schmemann, I apostoli tis eklesias sto sichrono kosmo (Athens: Akrita, 1993).

[4] Giannaras, Orthodoxia kai Disi neoteri Ellada (Athens: Domos, 1992).


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