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Evaggelos Vallianatos

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The Fifth Crusade

Posted: 08/27/2012 3:24 pm

The Europeans own their name and civilization to the Greeks. Yet, more often than not, they remain ungrateful and unfriendly to their benefactors.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the best modern European philosopher, diagnosed the Europeans' uneasiness with the Greeks as a matter of jealousy. Each time the Europeans proudly examine their achievements, they find those achievements fall short of their Greek model.

Then the Greeks remember 1204. This was the fourth crusade of Western Europeans against the Muslims occupying Jerusalem. But instead Venetian, French and German crusaders conquered Constantinople, the capital of the Greek empire, and dismembered Greece.

One of the reasons for that violence then, as now, was debt. In 1204, Venice played the role of the troika of 2012 -- the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund of the United States. The troika is now crippling Greece for debt repayment.

In 1204, the Greeks could not pay their debt to Venice. The result was war.

The Venetian, French and German invaders of Greece burned the libraries of Constantinople stocked with ancient texts. They melted ancient Greek statues and other works of art and technology for gold, silver and bronze. That way they collected their debt.

According to Steven Runciman, a distinguished British scholar and author of A History of the Crusades:

There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade. Not only did it cause the destruction or dispersal of all the treasures of the past that Byzantium [Medieval Greece] had devotedly stored, and the mortal wounding of a civilization that was still active and great; but it was also an act of gigantic folly.

The folly was making Greece vulnerable to the Turks.

We get a clue of the collapsing Greece in the aftermath of the fourth crusade by a traveling European named Cyriac of Ancona, 1391-1452. He was an Italian merchant and a philhellene scholar who traveled through mainland Greece, the Aegean islands, and Asia Minor on the eve of 1453.

Everywhere he went he collected manuscripts, ancient gems and coins. Cyriac also copied Greek inscriptions and described the ruins of temples and theaters, making sketches and drawings of buildings and statues. He left us with valuable impressions of what he saw. For instance, in 1447, he saw Greeks in the southern Peloponneses celebrating being Greek with an annual athletic contest.

Cyriac went to Lakonia in order to see his "very good friend" George Gemistos Plethon, "the most learned of the Greeks in our time." Plethon was a Platonic philosopher who singlehandedly tried to resurrect Hellas in the Peloponnese.

Cyriac's work earned him the title of the father of classical archaeology, influencing more Europeans to continue his search in the land of Greece and Rome, slowly resurrecting our understanding of the genius of Greek culture.

But Cyriac cared for the Greeks. He rushed to Rome where he lobbied his friend pope Eugene IV to declare war against the Turks, whom he described as "barbarians" and "the cruel devourers of Christians."

Cyriac blames the Turkish invasion of Greece to the "slothful neglect of our princes." "What an enormity!" he says. "Alas for the ancient nobility of our superior race!"

Pope Eugene's crusade against the Turks failed because the divided Europeans were unwilling to fight for the Greeks whom they considered heretics worthy of punishment.

The Renaissance let the Greek genie out of the bottle, however. The texts of the Greeks -- the relatively few that survived the first Christian fires, and the fires of 1204 -- were now in many published books and dispersed all over Europe.

Greek influence would continue beyond the Renaissance, but that influence, with some exceptions in science and art, would be halting. The Europeans neatly divorced modern Greeks from ancient Greek civilization.

Thus Greece remains vulnerable to Turkey. In early twentieth century, the Europeans remained spectators to the slaughter of a million Greeks by Turks.

During WWII the Germans replaced the Turks. Germany all but annihilated Greece, executing hundreds of thousands of Greeks, starving others, and smashing the country's harbors, railroads, bridges, factories, roads and public buildings.

So the doings of the troika in Greece since 2010 (a pitiless "austerity" that is savaging Greece) vaguely echo 1204 and the 1940s.

I don't mean by this that the Greeks of 2012 are innocent of their irresponsible debts. No. But considering the West's cultural debt to Greece, it's a shame that it is, once again, on another crusade against Greece.

Softening Greece is a Western folly. Like in 1204, Turkey is waiting. The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, already claimed the Olympic flame.

Turkey remains an open enemy of Greece.

 
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