Towards an Asymmetric Diaspora?

by | Jun 3, 2024 | Editorial and Analysis, Greek Diaspora

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By Alex Billinis

The age of Greek mass emigration is dead. This is not something (necessary) to mourn, but, rather, something to recognize and recalibrate. The tens of thousands of Greeks, often whole families, flowing into Dusseldorf, New York, or Melbourne, is now passed into history. The Greek migrant of today is more likely a semipermanent migrant within the European Union, often without family, and much more likely to remain unmarried or to intermarry immediately than in the past. Such individuals do not necessarily form communities, but they remain wired and networked to the homeland, particularly in an era of instant communications.

The fact that neither the Greek government nor the Greek organizations abroad, including the ubiquitous church, have failed to recognize this does not make it any less true. Rather, it shows just how out of touch they are with facts on the ground in country and abroad.

So what is the model for Greece today? In my opinion, the model for Greece is a Greek model, but one from the Greek past.

No, not from the ancients, nor from the Byzantines. At some point, too, we have to stop seeking a Classical allusion for every Modern Greek plight. And no, not from the 1980s, which is where both the Greek organizations and the Greek government seem stuck in (see my article
https://neaproini.gr/2024/05/21/greece-and-its-diaspora-caught-in-a-time-warp/
) The past in question is the Greek Diaspora from, say, 1750 to 1900, a wave that both predated the modern Greek state (which the Diaspora helped to birth) and saw the state through a difficult adolescence. This wave continued up to the present but was overshadowed by the mass immigration waves to the US, to Latin America, Australia, and in the 1950s to northern Europe.

This earlier wave was much smaller, and it included everyone from laborer to sailor to wealthy merchant or savant student. They sought wealth and an agency that the Ottoman Empire (and its Greek successor) denied them. From Austria-Hungary, to Southern Russia, to Egypt, and to the British Empire (and America) small colonies of Greeks, numbering in the few hundreds or thousands, often tied by geographic or family origins (such as Western Macedonia and Epirus or the ubiquitous Chiotes), and connected by a growing Greek merchant fleet, these merchants emerged as subtle, discreet power players in the global economy.

While enriching themselves, they also worked to liberate Greece—think of Rhigas Pheraios and Manto Mavrogenous in the Austrian Empire, or the Ypsilantis brothers in the Russian Empire—and in the aftermath of independence, they did their best to endow the Greek state with strong institutions and an industrial base. Count Capodistrias, a Corfiot aristocrat who served as Russian foreign minister came back to govern the new state and got a bullet in his gut for challenging the clans who wanted to replace Turkish pashas with Greek ones.

One of Greece’s best industrial enterprises was the shipyard complex at Syros, which in the 1860s produced ships on a par with yards elsewhere in Europe or the US. Though the fractious politics of the new state created headaches for Diaspora Greeks, the various magnates would often pitch in when needed to shore up state finances, or to endow educational or other institutions.

For example, the Sinas family from Northern Epirus became major industrialists in the Austrian Empire, often bankrolling the Austrian royal family and laying track across the empire, including to Trieste, the empire’s chief port whose shipping was in the hands of Greeks and Serbs. In addition to financing Chain Bridge in Budapest (one of the city’s greatest landmarks) his family founded the Arsakeio school and commissioned the Athens Observatory. Georgios and his son Simon Sinas also served in various diplomatic roles for Greece, in Austria-Hungary and Germany.

When Greece was in danger, they were by Greece’s side. In 1897 Greeks came from all corners of the globe, including from the US communities of New York, New Orleans, and Chicago, to serve their country.

For me, the most iconic example of the asymmetric diaspora at work is the Battlecruiser “Averoff” paid for in part by a subscription from the will of the Greek merchant Georgios Averoff, based in Egypt. This ship changed the naval balance of power in the Aegean and is part of the reason the Balkan Alliance was successful against the Turks, and why the Aegean Sea today is a Greek Lake.

The Greek cruiser Georgios Averoff (Wikipedia Commons)

It does not get more asymmetric than that.

So what about today? What are the lessons from that era? First of all, that asymmetry is a Greek trait, used throughout Greek history to beat the odds (think “Greek Fire” in the Byzantine era). Greeks are nimble, cosmopolitan, entrepreneurial, and great at exploiting opportunities. Today’s economic and strategic environment is less about steel and battleships and more information and drones, but the ethos is the same. We no longer have the numbers (if we ever had them), the mass organizations, and the institutions. During their time, they often served us well, and there is much today that the Greek Diaspora should be proud of, yet in the past few decades, the very forces that made us successful are the ones that we have abandoned.

What is lacking, I suggest, is the openness and inclusiveness in Greek society, whether in Greece or in the Diaspora, to take ideas and implement them in a Greek environment notorious for closed shops and regulatory haze. If this were not bad enough, Greek organizations abroad have seemed to assimilate this gatekeeping attitude, very much in line with the “Ottoman” style of the Greek government but in total opposition to the “agency” ethos which has characterized the Greek Diaspora and shipping community for well over three centuries. The next great company, solution, idea or initiative might be in a chorio in the Agrapha region of Western Greece, or in the mind of a fifth generation Greek American in North Carolina who lacks the money, connections, or opportunity to tell her story. In a world of instantaneous communication, with English as the global lingua franca, there should be no barriers—but there are gatekeepers.

Sometimes this means taking on the Greek government and calling out “gatekeeping” behavior by its name. The success of many of the countries of the Diaspora, such as the United States, has been by building a society built on skepticism and criticism of the government, along with an admittedly highly imperfect, yet working, inclusivity. The Greek Diaspora actively availed itself of that ethos to succeed, and it is only recently that the Diaspora has assimilated, not the filotimo of the Greek homeland, but rather its Othomanismo.

Time to look to a past—one before mass immigration—when the Diaspora was small, nimble, asymmetric, and inclusive. The stakes could not be higher.

 

 

Alexander Billinis is a lecturer at Clemson University in the Honors College and Political Science Department. He has worked in various capacities and geographies in international banking, law, real estate, and journalism. A dual citizen of the US and Greece, he and his family have lived and worked in the US, UK, Greece, and Serbia. All opinions expressed are his own.

 

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