The New York Times book review for James Angelos’ new book “The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruins”.
On a December night in 2009, two larcenous officials in Pangaio, in the mountains of northern Greece, lured the town’s mayor to a rendezvous on a quiet coastal road. Fearful that state auditors were about to expose the three men’s systematic looting of the municipal treasury, they shot their co-conspirator to death with an Uzi submachine gun to silence him, then jammed his corpse into the trunk of his car, where it was found three days later. The killers were sentenced to lengthy jail terms, but — this being Greece, a country notorious for its bloated work force and a safety net that even protects the jobs of convicted criminals — they continued drawing a portion of their salaries while sitting in prison. “They Murdered the Mayor but Still Get Paid!” ran the headline in one Greek newspaper.
In “The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruins,” James Angelos documents the dysfunction at the heart of Greek society and how it led the country to an economic meltdown. A freelance journalist and former Wall Street Journal correspondent, as well as the son of Greek immigrants and a fluent Greek speaker, Angelos was well positioned to report on the financial crisis that erupted there in 2009 and is still roiling the country, as well as much of Europe. (The title is taken from a line uttered by the protagonist of the 1964 film “Zorba the Greek,” based on the Nikos Kazantzakis novel.) Angelos, who has traveled from Athens to Thessaloniki, from mountain villages to outlying islands, describes with an engaging mix of disgust and brio the scams Greeks have perpetrated for decades, with the frequent complicity of their government, and the devastating consequences now that the con has unraveled.
Few countries on earth combine such a glorious past with such an inglorious present. The land of the Acropolis, Plato and Pericles — hailed by the French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in the 1970s as “the mother of all democracies” — was showered with cheap loans by European banks after it joined the European Union’s euro monetary zone on New Year’s Day 2001. But Greece’s overburdened patronage system, endemic tax fraud and widespread corruption were draining the treasury — a fact the government managed to keep hidden from both its citizens and its creditors.
When the global financial crisis descended in 2009 and the cheap loans dried up, the country found itself $430 billion in debt. The European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, known as “the troika,” agreed to a $146 billion bailout, demanding in return that Greece implement sweeping austerity measures, including pension reforms, tax hikes and massive layoffs. The result was widespread suffering and political chaos. Today, after a second bailout in 2012, unemployment stands at roughly 25 percent, the gross national product has drastically contracted, the infrastructure is crumbling, suicides and homelessness are rising, and one hapless government after another has been forced to wrestle with a Hobson’s choice: Accept the stringent terms imposed by the troika or leave the eurozone and risk greater financial catastrophe.
To understand what led Greece to such a predicament, Angelos visits Zakynthos, off the western coast of the Peloponnese, mockingly anointed the “Island of the Blind” after nearly 2 percent of the population — nine times the estimated rate for most European countries — was found to be receiving benefit payments for sightlessness.
Angelos discovers a scheme to defraud the ministry of health that extends from the single public hospital’s sole ophthalmologist to the former prefect who signed off on the payments, one of many such social-welfare scams that cost the Greek government billions of euros.
On the island of Hydra, Angelos tells of an undercover raid on a portside taverna that drew national attention to a common Greek pastime, tax evasion, and the halfhearted and inequitable attempts of the government in the post-bailout era to crack down on cheats.
“The pervasiveness of the habit, and the government’s enduring unwillingness to do anything about it, was more than any other factor the cause of Greece’s financial troubles,” Angelos observes, citing one European Commission study in which uncollected consumption taxes were estimated at 10 billion euros a year. Another study, by two American academics, estimated that self-employed workers failed to report about 28 billion euros in taxable income in 2009.
For most Greeks, however, the fault lies not with themselves but with their creditors. Angelos profiles Manolis Glezos, a nonagenarian member of the far-left political party Syriza, who is revered in Greece for a singular act of defiance during World War II: As a teenager in occupied Athens, he crept up to the Acropolis one night and pulled down a Nazi flag from atop the ruins, then eluded capture. Seven decades later, Glezos became a leading figure in a new wave of “resistance” against Greece’s main creditor, Germany, demanding that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government pay hundreds of billions of euros in reparations for the plunder of Greece and murder of its citizens during the war.
Angelos develops a nuanced portrait of Glezos, regarding him as both a demagogue and a hero: “I found myself vacillating between revulsion over such populist disinformation and shedding tears of sympathy for him.” (The Syriza-led government, which came to power in January, has increased Glezos’s demands, threatening to seize German property — including the Goethe Institute and the German Archaeological Institute, along with German schools and vacation homes — if Berlin refuses to pay 341 billion euros in compensation.)
Angelos takes a nuanced view, as well, of the humanitarian disaster caused by the austerity plan. He devotes a large section of one chapter to the tale of ERT, the state broadcaster, whose thousands of employees were dismissed in a heavy-handed government effort to persuade the troika that Greece was serious about eliminating bloat. While sympathizing with the fired staff members, Angelos notes that most Greeks consider the broadcaster’s four channels unwatchably boring, and its anchors “political stooges.”
He also notes the rundown state of one of Greece’s most prestigious universities, a campus festooned with slogans refusing to recognize the debt: “Not a Single Sacrifice for the Plutocracy.” “Though the colonnades of idyllic American colleges are modeled on the classical, Hellenic forms,” he notes with irony, “one doesn’t tend to find such eulogizing picturesqueness on Greek campuses, where communist and other far-left student groups reign and graffitists decorate accordingly.”
Angelos veers away from Greece’s economy with a lengthy riff on illegal immigration that lacks the wry and focused tone of the preceding chapters. But his final section, on Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party whose rise to prominence was the most sordid consequence of Greece’s implosion, provides a fitting coda to the book. Riding a wave of anti-immigrant hysteria, this gang of thugs perpetrated terror in Athens and other cities, then won 18 seats in Parliament in the 2012 elections.
Among the new lawmakers was Ilias Kasidiaris, “a man with a large swastika tattooed on his left shoulder,” who became infamous for slapping a female Communist Party parliamentarian in the face on live national television. Then there is his crony, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, a diminutive party leader known for denying the Holocaust and terrorizing immigrants. Golden Dawn’s parliamentary victory placed Michaloliakos, Angelos writes, “in the pantheon of short, dangerous men throughout history who, in their pursuit of power, had surpassed expectations of how much of it they could get.”
For a country that gave the world Socrates and Aristotle, it has been a depressingly steep descent.