Reflections on the events of 28th October
National celebrations in the 21st century
Maria Sotiropoulou: President of the Greek affiliate of IPPNW, the international anti-nuclear organization of medical doctors
translation Wayne Hall
“The events during the celebration of 28th October restore to the national anniversary its true meaning” said the legendary symbol of the celebration in question Manolis Glezos. “The parades before the disabled, the youth and the monuments as they took place in all Greece brought back to this occasion its authentic meaning”, he continued. And it reminded us yet again that in Greece, in contrast to other states, in our national festivals we do not celebrate the victories and triumphs of leaders but the beginnings of sacrifices for freedom. And today we find ourselves again at such a turning point for the defence of our national self-respect.
Because all the parties apart from the SYRIZA party (European Left) hastened to condemn as “disrupters” the totality of the populace who for the first time forbade the political leadership to mount the official podium, seeking disingenuously to erect distinctions between “justified indignation” and the conferring of honour on departed heroes, this is perhaps an appropriate time to recall some relevant, and basic, truths.
From the viewpoint of scholars the nation is something spectral. Despite the fact that blood is shed in its name, nobody can describe precisely what it denotes. Tribal solidarity, language, religion, all the factors that once comprised its connective tissue have now more than ever been deconstructed under the pressure of floods of incoming immigrants. The nation, moreover, has never been synonymous with the state. It remains a concept that is defined on the basis of immanent, predominantly cultural, factors. It has thus, through the ages, undergone continual transformations. The warring city-states of ancient Greece and their descendants in places inhabited by Greeks today were, and are, conscious of sharing a common nationhood. This was why they came together in the pan-Hellenic gatherings at Olympia, Nemea, Delphi, and so that all might participate without impediment the Truce was introduced. American citizens from a multitude of nations develop an American national consciousness while, at least in an initial phase, retaining the traditions of their country of origin. The Soviet Union did not succeed in creating a national consciousness in its citizens, while in the European Union the events of recent years show that national conflicts are revived by economic crisis which reopens gaps between the rich North and the poor South, the prudent Germans and the incorrigibly spendthrift Mediterraneans.
Europe is like classical Greece. The age-old and extremely intense national hatreds, which led to so many wars and just in the 20th century claimed millions of victims, have been revived, and countries like Slovakia that have still to derive any benefit from the EU withhold their solidarity. Propaganda and suspicion predominate. The imposition of conditions by the economically dominant and the submissiveness and ineffectuality of the Greek government are equally conspicuous. The dream of the culturally unified Europe is dissipated and there remains merely the hideous mask of the Common Market, within which, in accordance with the laws of a jungle called “the market”, the rich exploit the poor, imposing a now naked dominance.
What we Greeks are living through now as a nation cannot but revive our conviction of the immortality of Hellas. It is a conviction offered not as a joke, or as a burst of enthusiasm after a win in the Eurovision song context or some sporting event, but as a historical paradox. Whatever happened, whatever was to happen, Hellas would be reborn. For over three thousand years this little corner of the Earth has been inhabited by people who speak exactly the same language, who – however much they have changed – have exactly the same strong points and weak points as their ancestors. The analogies to this, historically speaking, are not numerous. The Egyptians today speak an entirely different language to that of the people who built the Pyramids. There are no Fallmerayers today disputing the Hellenic character of the Hellenes. The DNA of every country will reveal the generational continuity, and the tablets of Pylos prove that the Minoan and Mycenaean scripts were in the Greek language.
This is truly a miracle. Think about it. What are we? A handful of people stubbornly clinging to a few barren rocks. The only thing we were cultivating prior to tourism was the mind, and that was something we bequeathed to all of humanity. We gathered pearls of wisdom from older civilizations to formulate a masterful synthesis, historically unique, which was then disseminated throughout the world. In the first phase, astride Bucephalus, in Alexander the Great’s triumphal procession, Hellas journeyed to the farthest reaches of the Orient, where it survives to this day. In the second, subordinated to the Romans, it spread its civilization everywhere. Rome was simply a bridge for Byzantium, a Roman Empire that became entirely Hellenized in a fruitful union with Christianity. In the Byzantine period Greece was the bastion of Europe, the heart of civilization and its salvation in a benighted age where barbarian hordes were striking from all directions. The harsh winter of the Middle Ages. Byzantium was obliged to go under for spring to come again. The Byzantine diaspora brought the Renaissance. And Islam, like the West, would not exist without classical Greece, whose heritage they fruitfully assimilated.
So let’s not allow other peoples to forget what they owe to this country. In an environment of Americanized globalization steamrollering over everything everywhere that might signify something different, it is not nationalism to nurture the roots that through the ages have nourished, and continue to sustain, human civilization. In a Europe where Germany is calling the shots it is appropriate to remind Germans, and not only Germans, of the sacrifices of Greeks for the freeing of all Europe from the deadly grip of fascism and our contribution to the victory of the forces of equality and democracy.
For the Greek people the German occupation was not the first national ordeal. It was preceded by 400 years of slavery under the Ottoman yoke. The 400 most creative years of European history were for us 400 years of continual insurrections. Right from the very first moment. And of course we were made us of by foreigners at that time also. From all countries, as today. It is evidently the destiny of small countries to become pawns on the chessboards of the mighty. As symbolized by the sword of Lambros Katsonis: a preliminary throwing down of the gauntlet in the Aegean. This was performed by the sole Greek to take control of the Greek seas and not to allow a single Turkish ship to emerge from the Dardanelles.
I remember in Hungary, after the changes, a colleague saying to me: “In Greece such a regime would not have hung on for so many years.” It was one of the few tributes for which I am inclined to feel proud.
The same applies for Albania, when the borders had just opened and we were visiting Tirana with a view to establishing the corresponding Albanian section of our organization. The political situation was so unstable (there had been some trouble, resulting in the expulsion of a priest, before Archbishop Anastasios assumed office) and our European colleagues feared for my safety. On the last evening in the humble household that was hosting us the Albanian student condemned the Europeans, who were then travelling only to make money out of the disintegrated country. “We were, for so many years, the rampart of Europe. If there had not been Greece to stand up to the Ottoman Empire, it would have suffocated us.” And it was there, despite the fact that I had my first meeting with the Chams and perceived the first traces of the problems that were to emerge with Albanian nationalism, that I become conscious of the common roots of all the Balkan peoples, which Rigas Feraios had so early detected and which despite the two Balkan wars and the more recent troubles leave some ground for hoping for the development of an international Balkan consciousness.
The 20th century, with the spread of internationalist and atheist regimes, promoted – at least theoretically – the dissolution of the boundaries between nations within a vision of social well-being for all people in a classless society. It proved illusory. The collapse of the Soviet Union triggered an explosion of nationalist movements, culminating in the wars in Yugoslavia and the unrest that continues to smoulder in all the former Soviet territories. Because the Balkans are utilized politically on the chessboard of vested interests, their situation continues to be explosive, ready to erupt around the outcome of a football match or the screening of some serial. We saw the name Macedonia elevated to a priority of the first rank both in Greece and in Skopje, so that perforce we are driven back into our respective national fortresses, taking up our positions of battle and rallying around a flag.
National celebrations take place for the sake of building connecting links, and they are useful, particularly today, when more and more immigrants – over 10% of our population – are making an honest attempt, without losing their roots, to become integrated into the historic Greek nation. This is not the first time that our country has beneficially absorbed migrants from all over the world. The Jews, when they were driven from Spain, the Palestinians and the Kurds, who for so many years found asylum here, the Arvanites, who were front-line fighters in the Revolution of 1821 and were customarily Hellenized.
The 25th March was carefully chosen to be the most important festival of national independence. Historically the raising of the flag by Bishop Germanos of Patras is has lesser claims to authenticity as a symbol of genesis of the struggle. It was merely the day when the infant’s birth was proclaimed for the historical record. It was expedient because it coincided with the feast of the Annunciation and so could acquire a dual significance. And why not? What is most admirable is not 1821 but the endless series of failed insurrections that culminated in 1821.
And we should not let anyone tell us that our freedom was granted to us by the foreign powers because of the naval battle of Navarino, and that the way we fought between ourselves the Turks would have drowned the Revolution in blood finally.
Generations of Greeks have until recently being paying off the interest on the interest on the loans that certain “Philhellene” bankers saddled the Greek people with from 1823 onwards. It is not the first time the country has been bankrupted, nor the first time that fraudsters and black marketers have battened on the sacrifices of ordinary citizens. Today the outrage surpasses all limits and people are called upon to take their future into their own hands. With the risk, again, of making wrong decisions. In a democracy the government is authorized to act only with a clear popular mandate. And not to appoint foreign overseers and super-ministers in a climate of triumphalism when after two years of failure and despite the harshest of sacrifices by all honest Greeks, it has led us essentially to bankruptcy.
Maria Arvaniti Sotiropoulou