Greece and Newfoundland in Turmoil: A Comparison of the 1930s and the Modern Crisis

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As a historian, I often find myself studying the world as it is and comparing it to what was before. Tracing the continuities of people and culture and noting the divergences and evolutions that occur can be endlessly fascinating. Occasionally, a current event can be evocative of another place and time and the "repeating of history" can be seen. The economic and political turmoil that is ongoing in Greece is a prime example, whereby I have had discussions with friends about the comparison of modern Greece to Newfoundland during economic trouble of the 1930s. I originally thought the comparison would be valid and that Greece might have to consider the possible political fate that Newfoundland endured. It is only when the details of each situation are reviewed that the circumstances of both Greece and Newfoundland become wildly disparate.

    It is indisputable that both modern Greece and 1930s Newfoundland are economic basket-cases with horrendous debts. Both situations also involved vast levels of unemployment, economic mismanagement, disastrous spending on vanity projects (the Newfoundland railway versus the Athens' Olympics), and international financial bailouts. While this might seem like a lot of commonalities between Newfoundland and Greece, the exact economic details paint a far different picture. First is the level of debts, with 1930s Newfoundland having public debt of more than 300% of GDP compared to Greece's current debt of approximately 140% of GDP. Then there is the wealth held by the population and taxation resources. With the collapse of Newfoundland's main industries and the spending binges of the previous decades, much of the wealth of Newfoundland was completely destroyed and thus there was nothing to actually tax and government revenues were crippled. Conversely, Greece's lack of tax revenue stems not from poverty but from obscene levels of tax evasion that cumulatively total tens of billions of Euros, which would easily address much of the fiscal troubles of Greece. Sources ranging from NGOs to European newspapers (Der Spiegel) to Wikipedia articles all comment on and provide illustrations of this. Then there is the level of economic desperation, whereby Newfoundland willingly attempted to sell much of its territory (Labrador) in an attempt to avert total disaster, while Greece will not even consider selling small, superfluous islands (perhaps as military bases or private retreats for the wealthy and corporations). Despite occasionally citing desperation in their bargaining positions with unions, NGOs, and governments, societal rigidity, self-righteousness, and unyielding maintenance of the status quo combine to fuel Greek intransigence. I could go into further comparisons ranging from proportions of budget devoted to debt servicing to public service costs to personal wealth, but it would just be reiterating the point that there are actually vast differences between Greece and Newfoundland.

    The political aspect is also important when looking at any comparison. Granted while the issue of corruption plagues both the governments of modern Greece and 1930s Newfoundland, there are some marked differences in the functioning of their politics during their crises. The rampant dissembling of Greek politicians during their crisis, ranging from falsifying government budgets and accounting to ludicrous suggestion of a Greek public referendum of acceptance of required debt support from the Eurozone, has displayed nothing but arrogance, ignorance, and an utter disregard for the reality of their circumstances. There are times, when reading news stories about the crisis, that I get the feeling Greece does not think anything disastrous will happen to it and does not care how its fate affects its cohorts in Europe. Conversely, 1930s Newfoundland was obsessively focused on finding solutions to ensure the survival of its people, culminating in a royal commission under Lord Amulree that analysed the problems and concluded the end of democracy in Newfoundland. This was not only accepted by the people and government, but the parliament voted itself out of existence and turned full authority over to Britain in exchange for an appointed government commission and full financial support. It is doubtful that Greece would ever be willing to accept an appointed government from France or Germany in exchange for a desperately needed bailout after considering the political turmoil Greece expresses of its current financial support it receives from the world.

    I know that many people look at the development of Commission of Government and the loss of our democratic Dominion as the darkest point in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. It is difficult to disagree with that sentiment. However, I regard it as a heroic moment when we faced reality, stared into the abyss of destruction as a people and culture, and made the choice that would allow us to survive and retain the hope of rising to something better in the future. It was a terrible choice, but one that ultimately made us stronger. When I consider what Greece is enduring at that moment, I am left to wonder if they will ever get a chance to make such a fateful choice. Then again, they don't have to. Their situation is far different from our past (and in many instances, exceptionally better off) and their people and culture are far different than that of Newfoundland and Labrador. Hopefully, if Greece ever does face the situation of 1930s Newfoundland, it will make the decisions needed to save it. Perhaps that greatest show of democracy is to willingly end it to best serve the people who comprise it.

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  • California Pete from NFLD
    September 10, 2013 - 13:50

    Well let me see. NL railroad was a narrow gauge and therein was the problem of transfer at Port aux Baques. So much for that. Then there was the world depression. Then NL was under British control like India .Screw NL and give to GB. I personally think a little more studying of NL history ane needed to be don before writing. How can one compare with 1930 verses 2013 it just can't be done. Have we forget the year 1948 or is that just an other number. Or the sixtys when it all was upside down and ther was not a decant road in NL. It dose take time to come back. Also check out howe many are not paying property tax in NL. It might supprise you. Sorry for the spelling mistakes but then who cares in responce to this artical.

  • Dave
    February 05, 2013 - 09:07

    This is an excellent short article. Prof. Fudge has added some useful context for us to interpret current events and compare them to a seminal event in our own history. "An historian" vs "A historian" - reasonable people can disagree, but eschew the insults, please.

  • Nick
    January 28, 2013 - 04:06

    a is used before consonant sounds. Both a or an are acceptable for the word "historian". Maybe he's not from the west side of NL and therefore doesn't drop his H's?

  • Bayman
    January 02, 2013 - 18:34

    You should start your article with: As an historian, Not As a historian. Where did you learn grammar.