George-Stylianos Prevelakis in discussion with Evanthis Hadjivassiliou and A.D. Papagiannidis


“On behalf of economia Publishing, I would like to welcome you at this 17th Thessaloniki International Book Fair to a discussion of two books, both of George Prevelakis, a professor Emeritus of Geopolitics at the Sorbonne/Paris I University and presently a Permanent Representative of Greece to the OECD. The first one deals with the identity of Greeks – ‘Who are we?”, published in Greek but also in English; the second one is in Greek, “Wooden Walls” and constitutes a reflexion over the presence  of Greeks at sea and over the networks Hellenism  has formed and operates. We have enlisted for this discussion the help of Evanthis Hadjivassiliou, a Professor of Modern History at the University of Athens and a member of the Scientific Board of the “Konstantine Karamanlis” Foundation for Democracy” Foundation for Democracy, now to serve as Secretary General of the Foundation for Parliamentarism and Democracy of the Greek Parliament; he has his own reading of both books as well as of the overall subject of Greek identity. In the era we are living in, such a discussion over the Greek identity and the way it evolves is really a matter of interest.”

G. Prevelakis: “We are just some steps away from 2021, the Bicentennial of the Greek Revolution; this is cause for celebration but also for reflexion over the past and for a closer look to the future. I would say that the two books we are discussing function in that way. The first – “Who are we?” – looks rather to the past, to the 200-year course modern Greeks have taken, but also further back. The second one – the “Wooden Walls” -strives to look at the future. They have been written at different turns of Greek history: the first came out in 2016, when we were sinking in the depths of economic crisis; the second is of 2020,at a moment we start looking at the future with greater self-confidence and optimism. Both are based on analysis flowing out of a theory arising from my own scientific field: geography, geopolitics. There are two ways – two conflicting ways – in which a political system can be organized: the one is in network form, the other in the form of a hierarchical pyramid which is defined by territory. So we have networks versus territories.

The tradition Hellenism had operated under up until the creation of the Greek State was mainly a tradition of networks. This networking tradition fits the relationship of Hellenism with a major element of circulation: the sea. Let’s see what constituted Hellenism from the very beginning: there were a series of cities, starting in Antiquity and up to the creation of the Greek State – cities isolated from one another as far as land transport was concerned, but closely connected by sea. But one should look closer: sea has her own rules, she builds dynamic networks –  which means that one day the connection between two cities might be quite easy, but the very next day it might be very difficult due to winds and other conditions.

In last centuries the West has developed a different approach, the territory-based approach that is derived from the experience of the plains and not of the sea. That experience allows for stable connections and for hierarchical structures: the larger city lords it over the smaller ones, these over the even smaller. So, the tradition of a network approach should adapt to the dominant western mentality; this occurred in Greece following the Revolution and the creation of the Greek State – largely under the Bavarian rule of the first post-Independence years – and then kept going.

One could say that for the first century of existence of the Greek State there was a co-existence of sorts between the old element and the new one, between networks and territory. Then came a second stage with the Asia Minor Disaster and the loss of many cities across the Aegean sea, with Hellenism being henceforth limited within the State territory and with its network aspects waning – without them disappearing altogether, since there is always the diaspora as well as the merchant marine.

The point I tried to make in the first book was that system – the territory-based one – did not fit our culture; it was an adjustment forced upon us  by necessity. It proved useful indeed insofar it afforded us protection – analogies with the Jewish Holocaust shows what could have happened to us, as also shows the fate of the Armenians. Still, the territory-based approach did not fit our culture. This can serve as an explanation of our relative failure, of why we were not able to achieve all of our goals! So, the point made in this first book is that we should not despair as we have tended to despair in the midst of the recent economic crisis, since none of all this means there are no other possibilities – no other ways out – for Hellenism.

Such are the ways out that I try to present in the second of these books, “Wooden Walls”. Wooden Walls is a reference to the Salamis Naval Battle and the interpretation  Athenian Themistocles chose to give to the oracle of Delphi. The way to face all situations that threaten us nowadays – over and above the economy we have our demographics, we have geopolitical problems and tensions – the solution to face all such threats that remind one of the Persian menace is not found in closing down on oneself. The solution instead is in opening, as was back then – opening to the sea. We should find again our naval tradition and build on it. In the second book I try to document such a position through an analysis of recent developments. They may concern globalization, which has afforded more emphasis to networks as opposed to territorial elements and has created further opportunities for cultures like ours which function more efficiently in a network mode. There is also one further development to mention which has to do with the increasing future importance of the sea: the future of humanity resides at the sea, at the oceans. For a series of reasons that may be economic in nature (technology makes it possible for us to exploit the riches found on the seabed), environmental (the seas are under increased threat of environmental degradation), or technical (transport is by and large dependent on maritime routes, telecoms are also dependent on sea cables to transport data). To all of which one has to add geopolitics. It soon becomes evident that the future will play out at the seas and a people like the Greeks who possess such a maritime tradition have again an important advantage in this configuration.

So if one looks for the overall conclusions I reach in these two books, complementary to each other, they are that we should reclaim our self-confidence and revert to such cultural traits as we had, traits that not only recent generations but also the millenia of Greek civilization have bestowed to us. These elements should be given a new life, since they constitute for us advantages that may allow us to get back some of the fame of our past, and gain in clout within new global equilibria as they get shaped nowadays.

This very element that I deem of central importance for Greek identity – the sea – needs to be collectively understood as such at the very moment it is threatened by our neighbours. The situation we are experiencing has to do with far more than issues of borders, of hydrocarbon exploration etc; the very symbolical issue of maritime presence is endangered when one faces slogans such as Mavi Vatan/Blue Homeland. In the times of the Ottoman Empire, the sea/the blue homeland in no way constituted part of the Turkish element; it belonged to the ρωμαίϊκο, the Greek element.”

A.D. Papagiannidis:

“Some passing comments, some issues to be raised. Are we Greeks, especially following our troubling adventures over these last ten years – adventures that have sown insecurity along with indigence – ready to hear calls of opening? or have we entered a stage of retreat? In times of a pandemic, are we closing down? is there an easy  reflex – to protect ourselves, to close borders, to shut down tourism; I am under the impression that such an attitude will prevail for some time, we will even have shut-down protocols. How will this play out in future?

Then there is the question of Mavi Vatan,  of the Blue Homeland: our neighbours have undertaken a wide public relations campaign – a campaign of global importance that plays constantly in international media. George Prevelakis tried in the years of the Greek debt crisis to explain in European TV (especially so in French TV) what Greece was; how the country functioned; how Greeks thought of themselves; how our European partners did – and did not – think of us back then. So, can we be confident today that we will position ourselves adequately on the global opinion chessboard? Where/what is Greece? Where/what is Turkey? Questions to be raised in a way understandable to the international system and opinion?”

Ev. Hadjivassiliou: “Our debate today is both quite modern and quite challenging, since it attempts to project the capacities Hellenism holds to the next decades or even further to the future. I must say that I really appreciate the position held by G. Prevelakis over these two systems of social organization – on one hand the tree-diagram with its hierarchical structure, more adapted to the conception of nation-state of a West-Central-European form of social organization; on the other the galaxy-diagram, less hierarchical and centralizing, so better fitting the perspectives of Hellenism. The latter system holds the advantage that, were one part to be destroyed, the whole is not affected; while in the tree-diagram approach whenever the trunk is injured, the whole tree collapses.

This point I had first encountered in a Conference both I and G. Prevelakis were attending in the early Nineties. I must confess I was quite impressed because it fitted well, in fact it conversed with wider trends in history. By wider trends I mean that G. Prevelakis, as a scholar of geography, discusses and deals in quite permanent a factor of human affairs. I wouldn’t go to the point of saying that geography constitutes an immutable factor of Greek history, but it has certainly a permanent aspect is not easily influenced through human intervention. Which leads G. Prevelakis, as of his academic specialization and also as of his intellectual constitution, to focus to the long term/the “longue durée”. That is to say, the wider trends of human societies; in our case, of Greek culture. This is why he can proceed to so dispassionate and modern assessments of the course Greece has taken over time – not just in the last decades or even over the last century. His very specialization turns his vision to encompass the long term.

G. Prevelakis analyses how the absolute competence of the entity we call in modern times nation-state has retreated –  the Westphalian state system in  17th century European and beyond. There are several causes for the retreat of the territorial approach he considers a special characteristic of European nation-states. An evident cause is the increasing impact of new technologies; such technologies can easily transgress limits and borders that were characteristic of nation-states, the Internet being a classic case in that respect.

Up to some point international organisations are also covering an increasing domain. G. Prevelakis has extensive experience in this field – today he serves in one such organization. Modern complexity, technology, economic needs of our times – all transfer to international organisations ever more competences in national and international affairs. They range all the way from the economy to human rights. To take just an example, matters having to do with the Greek legal system fall also under the remit of the European Court of Human Rights.

The third factor – a factor becoming all the more evident in the last decades – is globalization. That is, increased mobility of people, of goods, of services and of capital across national borders. As I understand it, the nation state has not stopped – for the time being, at least – constituting the preeminent actor in the global system. Its competence has started to yield, but in no way vanishes. It yields to such an extent that G. Prevelakis can make the well-founded argument that we may be entering a new period of human history, a period where territory-based and hierarchical structures are stepping back, while the element he calls networks may gain in importance for technological and economic reasons. He rightly points that such networks have constituted the fundamental structure of social organization for Hellenism all the way from the Antiquity and up to the creation of the Greek nation-state in the 1830. Maybe even a little later on, were one to look at Hellenism beyond borders.

The nation-state, as G. Prevelakis already mentioned, constituted a necessary form of adaption for Hellenism in the 19th and 20th century. Especially in our own region, the creation of nation-states proved a necessity. At that time, in the area that had experienced a long succession of empires ruling it from the times of Alexander the Great and Hellenistic to Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman times, the creation of nation- states was a necessity. At that time, the nation-state was necessary for a nation not only to grow, but even to survive. G. Prevelakis has already given the example of the Holocaust, but there is no lack of other cases: let us just recall what became of the Kurds, what of the Armenians who had not taken this option…

Still, the Greek nation-state never constituted – G. Prevelakis makes this point, too – a full adaptation of Hellenism to such a territorial approach. Hellenism always occillated between the tree- and galaxy- form diaspora organization; to this fact he attributes some of the failures of Hellenism, up until the recent economic crisis. Hence, a difficulty to adapt to the prerequisites for the tree-diagram to be successful. In our times, though, when such networks offer an organizational system that functions far better that the classic, strict hierarchical one, existing advantages of Hellenism come once more to the surface. There are several factors which work to that effect and they give an advantage to the Greek side that had the practice of such an organizational model –the operating form Greeks have traditionally resorted to. Such is the role of the sea, for a number of reasons and ending to the very structure of Hellenism, the diaspora element.

Today, the possibilities afforded to the diaspora by modern technologies and communications – even if mobility is just right now temporarily restricted – is kept in constant contact with the space of Greece proper. This is the opposite of what happened earlier on. Today the diaspora can work as an organic part of wider Hellenism. The remaining major, strategic issue is whether it will have a centre – that is, Athens – or it will be administered in a less orderly way, as was the prevailing reflex earlier.

One should not miss from this wider picture the Orthodox Church, which also does not fit into a tree-diagram model. In the Orthodox Church hierarchy, the Oecumenical Patriarch is only primus inter pares; the same goes for the Church of Greece. The Metropolis constitutes the centre of gravity here, not the Patriarchate. This is in contrast to the Catholic Church with its hierarchical structure, as expressed by Papal primacy.

To sum up: G. Prevelakis tells us that we live in a new era, in which we may well end up facing challenges better since new ways of action will come to the fore, new levers will function in the international system, all of which we are better suited to.

Now to propose some answers to questions that were raised. Are we ready to respond to the calls for opening? As a historian, my answer is that we are always ready for anything new – once we are out of the crisis. As long as we are in crisis mode, we remain in a phobic mood; such is the truth. But as soon as we are out of the crisis – the economic crisis we hope we have already overcome, now we have to deal with the pandemic crisis – then we are ready to adapt: we are often ready to make even proof of boldness. From now on, we will no longer act in a way we had during the last ten years or so – at least, this is what we hope.

As to whether the territorial dimension that has increased due to the pandemic is a temporary phenomenon. I think this is so. It may stay with us for the middle term, but to my opinion such events cannot put a brake on great global trends as the one of ongoing globalization in our world. Having studied pandemics, health historians point out how fast human societies revert to stances that preexisted the pandemic once it is over. True enough, as long as the pandemic is raging we will experience closed borders and phobic reflexes. But these are elements G. Prevelakis tells us we have to side-step since as Greeks we know better how to adapt to new structures.”


“One point concerning the ways in which the Greek diaspora keeps in contact with the centre. I have the distinct impression that each and every time Athens has tried to guide the diaspora – the Hellenism abroad as we used to think of it – then nothing good came out for either the centre or for the diaspora. Institutional approaches that were adopted, time and again, did not seem to elicit positive responses. Why is this? It is because the centre tended to tell the diaspora “This is what you should do to help us out”. Maybe they even told the diaspora “this is how you should think”. What did the diaspora reply in return? “We know what goes in the US. This is how we will bring you help, as with the arms embargo to Turkey in the Seventies – in the ways we know. Not in the way you ask for it”.

One further issue of importance: where are we sityated, as Greece/as Greeks, on the map in the eyes of the wider world out there? is there any interest about us?”

G. Prevelakis:There are realities and then there are representations. The two do not coincide always. When one talks of “Greece” one mainly understands the Greek State, Greek territory. The further realities we have been discussing are not that well known and understood. The reason is that, at a global scale, the prevailing model is the nation-state model. Such is the perception a Frenchman or an American has: they know of a capital city, of a state, a government. So , to them, there are two perceptions of Greece to digest. One of a visible Greece, one invisible. The latter is Greece of the diaspora, Greece of the Orthodox Church, Greece of the merchant marine.

Now how well understood is this in Greece proper and – even more so – abroad? For instance how well know is the fact that Greek merchant marine holds a dominant position worldwide? I put it to you: this is not a well-known fact! There exists a gap between facts and representations. So, when we say that we – as Greeks – can adapt to this new world that is forming around us, this very “we” does not cover all of reality, since we mainly think of the Greek State.

Hellenism works and operates out of its several centres in multifarious ways, not only through the actions of the Greek State. Whenever needed, the Greek diaspora has managed to operate in ways that helped the Greek State. But it also worked so as to further its own diaspora interests.

Then there is the Orthodox Church, oecumenical Orthodoxy as represented by the Constantinople Oecumenical Patriarchate. This presence is at times quite significant, even if not always immediately visible. Were one to visit Africa, one would easily notice the presence of the Orthodox Church; also in Albania the Orthodox Church has a significant presence.

Thus, if we look at things through the logic of networks and not through a territorial logic, we have a wholly different reality revealed to us – a reality we usually tend to underestimate. The same goes for the way foreigners perceive us: this is why we should take pains to explain the further realities that do exist. The Greek State and its representatives do not assume such a task diligently at all times; this is because they represent just one facet of Hellenism.

This is an area for us to question the approach we usually take and this questioning should spread wider than the Greek State; there are also other aspects that have to be tackled. Decentralisation is one such aspect. Decentralisation is quite important: until now, the territory-based approach turns all lights to the capital city. Still, we are beginning to see other realities emerge, as marginalized aspects presently come centre-stage. We see nowadays several cities of Greek periphery having flourishing culture life; we see Thessaloniki building up speed. Such liveliness in the Geek periphery contributes to the build-up of global networks: globalization and new technologies allow any community of the Greek periphery to acquire and develop contacts with any community in, say, the US without transiting through Athens and the existing hierarchical system.

There is a long way we have to go before we change our ways of looking at things, but that route is quite valuable: for one, it may well give us back our lost self-confidence; also, it may enrich us with such mental tools we need to turn to a strategy wider than the one focusing on the action of the national centre.

A.D.Papagiannidis: As we are getting to the end of this discussion /presentation of “Who are we?” and ‘Wooden Walls” – two intertwined books by George Prevelakis – I would like to raise a question with Evanthis Hadjivassiliou who currently teaches to students in Greece. All this debate of the “Who are we?” issue and the “Where to?” we have been going over, has it any sort of resonance to a young person in her/his 20something?”

Ev. Hadjivassiliou: “I think it would be quite a matter of interest. It goes without saying that all of 20-years old are not the same; everyone has her/his different background, our society is by no means single-track. I would even dare to say that this issue would be of interest not just to law and political science students, but also to students of science. The advantage of G. Prevelakis’ approach is that it touches on several sectors of interest; it does not have knowledge of history as a prerequisite, it looks at the future. As it enlists the help of technology, of science, also with an eye to the sea, it creates an interesting interdisciplinary environment.”

A.D. Papagiannidis:

“A different face of this same question to George Prevelakis, with a more journalistic slant: he has lived and taught in France, also in Greece and in the States. Would he, at the end of this discussion, feel optimist about the day after the economic crisis and now the pandemic crisis? For Europe and for us in the future?”

G. Prevelakis:For Greeks and for Hellenism I must say I am optimist. I am optimist because I think we possess all that is needed for the new era that is dawning. I would even say that I feel more confident for Greece and Hellenism than for other Western societies who are getting into a crisis phase due to the fact they are rooted on a territorial base that is increasingly receding. I really think that, as Greeks, we have hidden qualities and advantages that give us resilience: we are quite good  at that, we have proved it throughout the economic crisis period. Which other society would have survived and stood its ground after so big a plunge of its economy as the one we have experienced?

In the era of the corona pandemic we see Western societies strain under the burden of having to adapt to such large shocks. I feel that Greek society can withstand shocks – and this dimension is quite important in the world we live in, since it is not possible to know what problems will arise next. Further to problems, of course, there are new possibilities that will arise. As we experienced in these last years, to be able to stand one’s ground in an unexpected crisis situation is a major advantage for any society.”