Lessons from a trip to Europe

Visits to Greece and France show how vulnerable democratic systems are to change, suppression and repression


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My wife and I were lucky enough to spend 16 days in the Greek islands and France at the end of May and the beginning of June. While the observation that the more new places you visit broadens your experience and perspective is always true, various parts of the trip pointed out specific lessons concerning international relations, politics and governments as well as the pervasive effect of European history on the places we visited.

First, we went to Kos, a Greek island four miles off the coast of Turkey, to meet relatives who have a boat based there. Kos demonstrates the historic power of the Greek navy, which claimed all of the Mediterranean islands between Greece and Turkey, notwithstanding their proximity to Turkey!

A visit to Kos, the island where Hippocrates had his medical facility and developed his oath, also reflects current events, since the change in government in Turkey has made that beautiful and desirable destination off-limits to many who fear terrorism, repression and anti-democratic action, something that makes those who otherwise would visit Turkey very sad.

Next, we went to Crete, the 141-mile-long island rich in history, both ancient and modern. Greece’s highest mountain, Mount Ida, is located on Crete, and the rugged mountains and rugged people have been significant for thousands of years, as the island has been occupied by many nations.

While visiting Crete, I was reading “Natural Born Heroes,” a book about the role Crete had in the Second World War as well as the role diet plays in the ability of its people to survive and navigate the rocky terrain.

Hitler decided that Crete was a strategic midpoint for his air forces supplying the Russian invasion and, when gliders dropped paratroopers, the residents of Crete came out and gave them a fierce battle, tying them up for many months, delaying Hitler’s invasion in Russia and trapping him in the same mud and winter that defeated Napoleon over a century before.

The Cretans, along with brave, irregular British commandos, even captured one of the two top Nazi generals on Crete and created a major ruckus as the Nazis searched for their missing commander. 

Santorini was next, unique because it is perched on a volcano’s ring, is a popular tourist destination and belies the economics the Greeks face today. Greece, the birthplace of democracy, currently has a dysfunctional society in which not paying taxes appears to be the norm, stability is rare and the social contract largely has broken down, a lesson to any society that wants to preserve self-government.

We then went to Paris for the first time in 40 years. There, welcoming and friendly people were gracious and, instead of being critical of America under its recent political changes, seemed sympathetic, especially in light of their recent rejection of an extreme right, anti-immigrant candidate in favor of centrist government.

Against that, however, contrast the comments of educated and sophisticated people who noted the presence of so many immigrants from the Middle East whom they believe threatened the European way of life. Clearly, northern Europe, with its low birth rate, faces many challenges that could cause reaction and possible embracing of extremists, if the recent waves of immigrants are not integrated into society. The French are very aware of that issue. 

At Normandy, the week before the D-Day anniversary, we saw the French and American flags flying over Utah Beach – a meaningful reminder of what altruism and generosity in the defense of common values can accomplish, as opposed to isolationism and criticism of others.

Tours of Normandy’s Utah and Omaha Beaches along with a visit through the American Cemetery, reminds anyone of how American assistance indeed saved the world less than a century ago.

Walking among the 9,000+ graves in the American Cemetery at the top of the bluffs overlooking the English Channel is sobering, but stirs legitimate pride and patriotism. The obvious affection of the people of Normandy for Americans is real, and reflects their recognition of the efforts to liberate them 73 years ago.

The entire trip shows how vulnerable democratic systems are to change, suppression, repression and, as in the case of Greece, when the people abandon their belief in the system and its ability to work, how quickly it can deteriorate, or in the case of Turkey, how a strongman can change a nation virtually overnight. 

Brad Cook, a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass & Green, heads its government relations and estate planning groups. 

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