Rethinking Greece | Alexander Kitroeff: “Greek Diaspora has affected the history of host countries around the world”

Alexander Kitroeff is Professor of History at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, where he has been teaching courses on Modern European and Mediterranean history since 1996. His research interests focus on nationalism, enthicity and identity in modern Greece and the Diaspora, across a broad spectrum, from politics to sports. His recent publications include Greek Orthodoxy in America: A Modern History (2020), The Greeks and the Making of Modern Egypt (2019). He has also collaborated with film director Maria Iliou as historical consultant in several documentary films -such as Smyrna 1922: the Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City- and more recently “Athens From East to West, 1821-1896”  the first of a 5-part series on the city’s modern history. He is currently working on an project on the history of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA) to mark the organization’s centenary in 2022.

Alexander Kitroeff spoke to Rethinking Greece* on the Greek Diaspora communities in the United States, Egypt and their common characteristics around the world; how the Orthodox church became the most important Greek American institution, Philhellenism in the US during the Greek Revolution of 1821 and now; how Greek Diaspora has influenced the history of host countries around the world; the centrality of ancient Greece in diasporic identity and finally, how Athens could recognize the Diaspora’s attachment to the home country and their achievements by establishing a Diaspora museum.

Your latest book is on the modern history of the Greek Orthodox Church in America. Could you briefly walk us through how the Orthodox Church became such an important Greek American institution? Does it still hold this role today?

Orthodoxy is a cornerstone of Greek identity so it follows that the Church would play a role in shaping the Greek experience in the United States, but its significance was also due to its sophisticated infrastructure. Churches and community organizations were the first ethnic associations established by the Greek immigrants that began arriving en masse to the United States beginning in the late 19th century. The creation of a governing body of Greek Orthodoxy in America, the Archdiocese which was established in 1921 and officially recognized in 1922 helped strengthen the role of the Church in the United States. But it was the arrival of Archbishop Athenagoras in 1931 that set the Church on course to becoming the most important Greek American institution. Athenagoras strengthened the role of local parish organizations and gave them the responsibility to administer the Greek language schools and to initiate philanthropic activities through the local Women’s Philoptochos organizations. From then on, the parish replaced the community organization as the hub of Greek American cultural and social life and has remained so since then because its managed to adapt so as to serve the needs of the increasingly Americanized faithful.

 holytrinity copied new
The Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity in New Orleans, estabislhed in 1866 [photo taken circa 1900]

Your recently publisdhed a book on the Greeks of Egypt, the largest and most economically powerful European community in that country from the early 19th century to the 1960s. How important were their contributions to modern Egypt?

The Greeks of Egypt contributed to Egypt’s economy in all three phases of its evolution. In the first one, when the focus was overly concentrated on exporting cotton, beyond their role as cotton merchants and bankers, the Greeks also provided important know how as agronomists. They also helped the economy by manufacturing the world renowned “Egyptian cigarette” and by also introducing paper manufacturing, wine production as well as the production of range of beverages, confectionaries and foodstuffs. When Egypt embarked on a sustained effort to diversify its economy and create a large manufacturing sector, the Greeks contributed by investing in textile mills, construction companies and build factories that produced oil and soap from cotton. In the second half of the 20th century when the Egyptianization of the economy began the Greeks remained economically active in partnership with Egyptians until the nationalizations in the 1960s forced them to leave.

greek egyptian cigarette resized
Egyptian cigarette industry, during the period between the 1880s and the end of the First World War, was a major export industry: Greek industrialists successfully produced and exported cigarettes using imported Turkish tobacco

We have all heard about the American Dream. Are the any distinct aspects to the “Greek American” dream and how has it changed in the last decades?

The concept of the American Dream is a highly idealized concept that anyone can achieve success in America, that regardless of social or ethnic origin anyone can achieve success through sustained effort and hard work. Although this myth has not applied to anyone, nonetheless, compared to many other societies, America does reward innovation and inventiveness and adheres to meritocracy. This provided extraordinary opportunities to the Greek immigrants throughout the twentieth century and there are countless of success stories. A few are about the first-generation Greek-born immigrants such as Spyros Skouras who left a mountain village in Peloponnesos and became president of twentieth Century Fox in Hollywood. Most success stories involve primarily the children of the immigrants who benefitted from the work of their parents, were educated and achieved success. Among them are former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, U.S. Senator Paul Sarbanes and businessmen and philanthropists such as George Behrakis, Michael Jaharis, Angelo Tsakopoulos and Roy P. Vagelos among many others.

Studies have shown that the embrace of market economics from the 1980s onwards have slowly eroded the chances Americans from underprivileged backgrounds have of achieving a version of the American Dream. But Greek Americans who can attain a good education still have the potential of gaining economic and social prominence.

sarbanis dukakis3
Two prominent Greek American politicians, Paul Sarbanes and Michael Dukakis

Do you find that there are common characteristics among the Greek Diaspora communities around the world?

Yes, I believe there are common characteristics among diaspora communities. In settling in a foreign country both in the past and the present, the Greek knows that he or she cannot rely on the support of a big powerful country as is the case of American, British, French and Italian expatriates for example. This is despite the excellent quality of the Greek Consular services around the world. Therefore, the Greek immigrant takes care to adapt to the conditions in the host countries and to also observe the laws. Yet at the same time the Greek carries with him or her the experiences of living in Greece where rules and regulations are more loosely applied, where bureaucracy and red tape force one to find loopholes or rely on political connections and personal networks.

Thus, the Greek immigrant is in a position to both play by the rules and when needed to find ways to resolve issue through creativity and imagination. By the same token, the Greek takes care to establish good relations with the citizens of the host country, even when they held a relatively more privileged position as was the case in Egypt and several African countries. Many diaspora Greeks throughout history have played the role of economic and cultural middlemen.

A second common characteristic is the reliance on family ties which is a reflection of one of the pre-modern features of Greece that survived into the modern era and was carried abroad by its emigrants. The assumption and acceptance that the family is a closely knit unit benefits family-run businesses such as restaurants and provides a support mechanism. And if the diaspora family can evolve away from its traditional patriarchal structures it can play an even more helpful role for all its members.

A third important characteristic is the universally strong connection Greeks abroad feel for both their particular place of origin and for Greece. The first is another relic of traditional society in which the primary allegiances after the family was the village or island. A little bit like the family this works both ways, as a means of networking and a support mechanism but can also engender undue insularity and even suspicion of outsiders. More straightforward is the attachment to the country. This is strengthened by the continued geopolitical uncertainties and threats Greece faces, which elicit a deep attachment and concern about Greece and its general wellbeing, even among second and third generation Greeks abroad.

kitroeff books resized
A selection of Alexander Kitroeff’s books: “The Greeks and the making of modern Egypt”, “Wrestling with the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics” and “Greek Orthodox Church in America:  A modern History”.

Philhellenism was ubiquitous in the US public sphere during the onset of the Greek Revolution in the 1820s. What is the significance of the Greek Revolution for Americans and Greek Americans today?

Americans identified with the Greeks during the revolution of 1821 because they saw close parallels with their War of Independence against the British, and they sympathized with a Christian people fighting for their religious freedom, with fellow white civilians who were suffering at the hands of a barbaric enemy. Because of its foreign policy interests, embodied in the Monroe Doctrine of non-intervention in European affairs, the United States did not offer diplomatic or military aid to Greece. But this unleashed a huge wave of humanitarian support that swept through the country and has been described as the “Greek Fire.”

Because this was a social movement focused on benevolence and philanthropic aid offered to the Greeks, it legitimized the involvement of women, and this was the first time they became so heavily involved in a public issue. The solidarity movement with Greece, that took the form of creating committees throughout the country aimed at gathering funds and supplies to the Greeks, prepared the ground for the movement for the abolition of slavery. This was the second major humanitarian issue that dominated American life in the ensuing decades, and thus the earlier involvement for the Greek cause provided a training ground for the abolitionists among whom many were women.

The significance of America’s support for the Greek revolution functions, for all Americans as a reminded of the legacy of humanitarian support that the United States has offered peoples throughout the world. While other forms of U.S. involvement abroad have been controversial, the humanitarian impulse that was expressed in reaction to the 1821 revolution and other similar events around the world stands out as a beacon that shines a light on the good sides of America’s global reach. And the same applies to Greek Americans, they can also learn from America’s support of 1821 and understand that the common interests of Greece and the United States are especially significant when they are built upon the principles of humanitarianism and of mutual respect.

greekemerican revolution2
Left to right: Sheet music cover for “Song of the Greek Amazon”, Bostonian Abolitionist and Philhellene Samuel Gridley Howe painted in the dress of a Greek soldier; Autobiography of Ottoman Greek Christophorus Plato Castanis who migrated to the US in the 1820’s after the Chios massacre.

In a recent presentation you outlined some modern historical perspectives that examine the Greek Revolution through the prism of American history, such as the research on Philhellenism and the Development of Female-led Reform in the United States. Could you talk to us about these approaches?

Inevitably, the earliest historiographic approaches to topics such as the Greek diaspora or relations between Greece and countries that have hosted the Greek diaspora were conceived as basic history recounting the main events. In the case of diaspora histories I am thinking of the works by Greek diplomat Athanasios Polites on the Greeks in Egypt, and of the work of scholars such as Theodore Saloutos and Charles Moskos on the Greeks of America. And among the earliest studies on American philanthropy towards Greece were those by George G. Arnakis on 1821 and Louis P. Cassimatis on the help Americans offered Greece in the wake of the 1922 Asia Minor Disaster.

Based on those valuable foundations, a new generation of historians are employing new perspectives that examine Greece and its diaspora through a lens that takes into account the dynamics of hist societies such as the United States and on the significance that gender, race and social class. For example, American philhellenism examined as a phenomenon that not only affects Greece but also America. Other example would be focusing on the position of women or on how racial discrimination in America both benefitted and harmed Greek immigrants. Overall, it is a way of understanding the past as a transnational, global process. The impact of 1821 on American society is just one example.

I can think of others along the lines of the title of my recent book “The Greeks and the Making of Modern Egypt.” We can have studies on how the Greeks helped make the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany and other countries. And studies of how other major events such as the Asia Minor Disaster affected other countries and elicited their responses. Greece and its diaspora in other words have a global significance and that is a story we need to start narrating.

In your 2004 book “Wrestling with Ancients” you talk about Greeks’ multi-faceted relationship with antiquity and with the way other nations view Greece through a history of the modern Olympics. Seventeen years later, how do you think Modern Greek identity and our relationship with antiquity has evolved?

My book on Greek identity and the Olympics appeared six months before the opening of the Athens Olympics of 2004. Based on Greece’s historically close association with the Olympics and the significance of Ancient Greece for Greek identity, I predicted that Athens would host the Games successfully. And that is what happened. Unfortunately, as soon as the international spotlight moved away from Greece, the authorities did nothing to capitalize on the spirit Greece had displayed and it also failed to find ways to reimagine and use the athletic facilities that had been built for the Olympics. But this was a failure of governance, not an indication that antiquity was somehow now being discounted. Indeed, the opening of the New Acropolis Museum in 2009 confirmed the continued pride the Greeks have for their ancient past and the continuity with it that they embrace.

And speaking about the close relationship of the Modern Greeks with their Classical era ancestry, we should note how this relationship is also very strong in the Greek diaspora. Naturally, Greek immigrants around the world invoke their connections with Ancient Greece not only because it is part of their identity but also because it enhances their status. Nonetheless this relationship remains strong and it is expressed clearly in many ways, as for example the concern Greek Americans have shown at times when Classical studies in U.S. higher education have been threatened.

Indeed, the diaspora’s attachment to Ancient Greece is an important reason why Athens functions as the unofficial capital of the Greek diaspora. Most Greeks living abroad originated from the provinces where conditions were more difficult than those in the cities. But for them Athens is Greece’s window to the world and they are attached to it. Many public buildings in Athens such as the Polytechnic, the old National Library and the Zappeion Hall were funded by diaspora merchants in the 19th century. When travel back to the homeland became easier, diaspora Greeks when they return to Greece, aside from going to their villages or islands they stay in Athens, visiting government officials, laying a wreath at the monument to the unknown soldier, visiting institutions they have funded such as hospitals. Major diaspora organizations such as AHEPA regularly hold their conferences or conventions in Athens.

What I would like to see would be for Athens to honor and recognize the diaspora’s strong attachment to it by establishing a diaspora museum. It could house exhibits showcasing the lives and the achievements of the Greeks around the world. Such a building would serve as a cultural bridge between the Greeks abroad and the Greeks of Greece, bring them together and help them understand each other together. And it would remind everyone that Athens is not only the city with the Parthenon and not only the capital of Greece but the capital of world Hellenism.

LC B2 2532 9
Greek Immigrants Leaving New York City on MADONNA to return to Greece to fight in the Balkan Wars (1912)

*Interview by: Ioulia Livaditi


About the author

Related Post

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *