How geography can become destiny

Cultural Insights, politics and culture — By on April 28, 2010 at 11:19 am


The geography of Greece.

How much influence does geography have on a nation’s culture? Quite a bit, actually, and not only for the reasons you might initially consider. Sure, people who live on islands tend to be a bit more insular than those who don’t, and cultures that develop near navigable rivers often grow into societies that are comfortable with trade and exploration. But geography also plays a significant role in determining a country’s neighbors and its history.

Robert Kaplan makes these points in a very interesting op-ed that he just penned for the NY Times. While pivoting off the current Greek debt crisis, he suggests that Greece’s geography has, in many ways, determined its destiny. An excerpt about the north-south divide in Europe:

Greece is where the historically underdeveloped worlds of the Mediterranean and the Balkans overlap, and this has huge implications for its politics and economy…That Europe’s problem economies — Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal — are all in the south is no accident. Mediterranean societies, despite their innovations in politics (Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic) were … defined by “traditionalism and rigidity.”

The relatively poor quality of Mediterranean soils favored large holdings that were, perforce, under the control of the wealthy. This contributed to an inflexible social order, in which middle classes developed much later than in northern Europe, and which led to economic and political pathologies like statism and autocracy. It’s no surprise that for the last half-century Greek politics have been dominated by two families, the Karamanlises and the Papandreous…

And about the East-West divide:

It is not only the division between north and south that bedevils Europe. In the fourth century, the Roman Empire split into western and eastern halves, with dueling capitals at Rome and Constantinople. Rome’s western empire gave way to Charlemagne’s kingdom and the Vatican: Western Europe, that is. The eastern empire, Byzantium, was populated mainly by Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians, and then by Muslims after the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453.

The Carpathian Mountains, which run northeast of the former Yugoslavia and divide Romania into two parts, partly reinforced this boundary between Rome and Byzantium, and later between the prosperous Hapsburg Empire in Vienna and the poorer Turkish Empire in Constantinople. Greece is far more the child of Byzantine and Turkish despotism than of Periclean Athens…

To see just how much geography and old empires shape today’s Europe, look at how former Communist Eastern Europe has turned out: the countries in the north, heirs to Prussian and Hapsburg traditions — Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary — have performed much better economically than the heirs to Byzantium and Ottoman Turkey: Romania, Bulgaria, Albania and Greece. And the parts of the former Yugoslavia that were under Hapsburg influence, Slovenia and Croatia, have surged ahead of their more Turkish neighbors, Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia. The breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, at least initially, mirrored the divisions between Rome and Byzantium.

It’s a fascinating piece, and if you’re interested in the interaction between history, geography and culture you should check out the full column.

Photo credit: Captain Blood via Wikimedia Commons.

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