Greece in Europe: Choosing the history we want to remember by Al Innes

As the referendum results are firming up in Greece with 61% in favour of NO, the article below by Al Innes becomes increasingly relevant. In this article, which was posted earlier today in his blog (, Al Innes draws a brilliant picture of the cultural complexity surrounding the political decision Greek people were asked to make today.

al innes

“I don’t know why they call us Greeks.”

Vlassis is a farmer, he tells me he will vote Yes in the referendum. He tells me that he’d rather have less money than none at all, and that he wants to stay in the Euro. He tells me he can’t understand why Greek debt should bother him.

“This isn’t Greece anyway, it’s Ελλάδα. Greek is what the Turks called us.”

I am in Pella. It is a small rural town by car an hour east of Vergina – the burial place of King Philip of Macedonia, father to Alexander the Great. In a neighbouring field, the sprawling ancient city of Pella (the new town shares it’s name, but not it’s past) surrounds half the town. Left largely untouched, except by the elements, until the 20th century; this ancient metropolis stood for a thousand years as a testament to the civilisation of Alexander and one part of the future country we know now as Greece.

In a country with so much history, too much perhaps, it seems strange to wonder that so much of what troubles them now is a consequence of their youth. Greece is not an old nation, it’s civil society not fully formed yet – and still we think that the alleyways of Plaka or the magnificence of Knossos infers some statesmanlike prowess.

“Europe is a Greek word.” Giannis, a musician from Thessaloniki tells me.

“How can they have a Europe without Greece?”

It seems that is already a question that the European Central Bank is ready to answer. As they prepare a trillion euro or more injection into the Eurozone, it remains to be seen whether it will be a Eurozone without Greece or not. Sunday’s vote too close to call, but the prospect of them exiting seeming more likely now than anytime since they joined the EU in 1981.

“In 81’ they gave all this money to poor people, uneducated people. They had no idea what do with it, what were they supposed to do? Refuse the money?”

Kostas works as a lecturer at a local university, and his reductive explanation about the situation Greece finds itself in summarises the opinions of many Cretans I’ve chatted with this week.

Though most of them admit that the vast majority of European money coming in since a brand-new Greek democracy emerged from dictatorship (and trail-blazed the way for Italy and Spain to join the European mission under the shadow of UK re-negotiating it’s own membership, a now familiar tactic) went upwards, into the elite echelons of Greek society. On my last eight days in Greece, from Salonica to Crete (at the poles of the Greek sub-continent), there is a sense of resignation among those who express they would vote Yes, that mistakes have been made, though mistakes are rarely deliberate. Kostas tells me he won’t be voting on July 5th.

“I won’t be here. I am taking my holidays in Kos. Not that it matters anyway, the vote doesn’t make sense.”

I sense that he is right. Over dinner on Wednesday among the waterfront bars of Greece’s second city a No march cascaded down the narrow street, bringing the usually laid back denizens in the tavernas of Leoforos Nikis onto the road themselves. I had not seen scenes like this (so regular in Athens) in Salonica since carnival in March – but this was not a celebration. It was a guttural cry from the desperate. The mass of young and old who have had enough. Those for whom Sunday’s vote won’t matter either way. They’ve already lost everything, and ten more years of austerity won’t return it.

“At least voting No will give us our pride.”

Ioannis is a taxi driver and has been for 20 years after leaving the army. He’s strongly committed to a No vote he tells me.

“It’s all I can do.” He explains fatalistically. “We are Greeks.”

Indeed these are all Greeks, whether they spell it Ελλάδα or not. I am only a bystander in this adopted home. I can return to the safety of the civilised Yes campaign in Scotland, without fearing personal bankruptcy, stun grenades or economic suicide. No other European country can vote, this is Greece’s choice. And yet, such a choice they had to make. Two versions of the unknown. But for Ioannis it cannot be escaped that their collective pride is on the line. He shares with Kostas one truth: there is no real choice. But they are wrong that it does not matter.

The dangerous rhetoric of Golden Dawn, and the familiar cries from across the political spectrum that depression leads to fascism, has been at the front of many a mind in the last seven years. What has perhaps not seemed so possible is that the radicalism of the left might be just as dangerous than the xenophobia of the right. The misplaced (misunderstood?) solidarity expressed in a Yes Scotland certainly speaks to this misunderstanding. Though this one is becoming quite clear. Food banks are one thing, state bankruptcy quite another.

If lessons are not learned, no matter today’s result, a Greek exit from the Eurozone (and potentially the EU) could strengthen the division between left and right in a country with wounds still raw from civil war. What is on the line is Greece’s chance to heal itself. The European mission had helped salve those wounds, but it had also distracted from the hard business of self reflection. When the Left in Greece leveraged 1940’s atrocities a few months ago, to once again shame Germany and hold a tough line, they failed to consider their own past – a past with many unanswered questions tied directly to the death camps of Poland. A past missing in the school books. A past that could now be all too reminiscent of the future. Only by coming to terms with their recent past, can Greece grow into the modern country it needs to be. Severing ties to Byzantium, ever more important than coming to terms with their otherness to ancient Macedonia, cannot be done without facing up to the war years now sanitised and sanctified by the Western powers. In this Greece can teach us all a lesson, it can teach Europe a lesson.

We know surely now that there are two Europes. The Europe of the haves, the industrious north with its immigration embargos and it’s heavy rhetoric of prosperity and cost-cutting; it’s 40 hour week and it’s belt-tightening austerity. Then there is the Europe of the have nots, the Mediterranean slumberers that hark back to a corrupt past. Those that don’t understand business the way we do in the City, their naivety anathema to the Protestant work ethic.

This of course has never been true. It is a simplification redolent with xenophobia. And yet it is what the European mission has meant since millennial enlargement failed to bring about any reform of Club Europe. As long as some members hold vetoes where others hold none, where some members wield their membership of the G7 like a club, there can be no Europe. At least not a Europe of fairness, of justice.

Europe, like Byzantium before it, was a dream so delicate that to have whispered it’s name might have destroyed it. Neither have truly existed. But we have come a long way from the Red Apple – just as we have come a long way (perhaps Isis would argue otherwise)from the Janissaries who coveted it – and It is in our power to make Europe a reality.

Greece has been used as a buffer in the games of the Great Powers from the days of the Ottomans. From Kemal Ataturk to Henry Kissinger, regional powers and cold warriors from within and without have subjected the Greeks to stifling cultural violence for centuries. Certainly, the Greeks have indulged in their own atrocities, often acted upon themselves, but I say this only to demonstrate the insular, awkward infant that signed up to the EU in 1981 – and how far it has come since then speaks of a European dream, with the opportunity for lessons learned, not punishments meted out.

When the UK waves it’s VE flags, and trots out the veterans to the Cenotaph we celebrate a “victory” only made possible by the sacrifice of other nations. What anniversary do they celebrate in Poland on the 8th of May? Where was Britain’s bold help then?

It was arming fascists in the streets and mountains of a Greece buckling under the pressure of civil war. We, who hold the vetoes, our prosperity we owe to the rest of Europe’s sacrifices, but how easily we forget. Oh Greece, where has the money gone? Into a black hole, created in large part by the rest of Europe’s realpolitik. Without Greek failures, Poland too would never have needed prepared its economy so much more rigorously for entry into Club Europe.

But when we talk of Europe, we are not talking of 1945 – we are talking about today. And a Europe of 2015 is no Europe at all if it cannot help one another. If we cannot remember our mistakes, learn from our past, and forge ahead with forgiveness and patience as we did back then, and as we should always treat the young. The young of Greece, 50% of whom have no future, and their young country. Those fragile democracies that threw off the shackles of fascism. Who want now to be part of Europe – who embody the best of us, with their family, their community and their pride – who have always been a part of the dream itself, who have taught the barbarians so much.

We are talking about the meshing together of unique cultures. Carved in unique ways and squeezed over the last 70 years into an ever-changing (but always demanding) framework that hasn’t always eradicated inequalities. In 16 years of the Euro, and an international meltdown, we haven’t solved the problems of the single currency – but we can solve the problems of fairness, of how we act as Europeans, Where else in the world do so many different cultures, creeds and languages rub shoulders in (relative) peace? No, it’s not perfect, but it’s the best we have. It’s the best the world has. Sharing our failures, learning to be patient and to forgive, making us all (slowly) better. Growing together isn’t easy, but it isn’t helped with the cultural violence we see now from all sides. Europe can no longer be a place that exists in holidays alone. We must see that those cultures that enrich us exist apart, as we exist apart from them. There are divisions in Europe, but they make us stronger; we should celebrate them rather than strive to write them out of time.

An economic union alone cannot last. But a union that says to one another that in all countries the majority are decent, honest and hardworking. A union that talks to itself, talks to each of us. A union that understands each of our fears and our weaknesses and embraces the young countries as we should embrace our own young. The generations that now suffers with austerity designed by past generations. Only in that Europe can we hope to have a chance to make things right, to progress. Understanding our own failures first, and seeing in others our chance to learn from those mistakes.

Ancient Pella has stood, in one condition or another, for six thousand years. It was hit by a series of earthquakes in the 4th century AD. It’s glory faded, though the inhabitants lingered on, until a final earthquake of sizeable proportions finished it off around 100 years later. The god-fearing inhabitants never dared go back, and the treasures beneath the rubble remained undisturbed. Time, as it is want to do, passed the site by. The sea that once lapped on its docks, receded hundreds of kilometres south (turning the island watchtower that sat in the bay into a desolate hillock) and it passed from history into legend.

A similar fate befell Byzantium, though in different circumstances. Tomorrow we are told could herald the beginning of the end of Europe. Whether the vote yields a voice of defiance, or a resigned capitulation – the binary narratives my own small glimpse – Europe, and that means all of us, has to face a test. It also has to be patient. It has to be supportive, and above all it has it to be forgiving.

No matter the fallout tomorrow the dignity of the Greek people in the face of blackmail and injustice should send a message about forgiveness. It should send a message of hope and dignity to Europe and the world. More than that it should send a message about pragmatism and the nuances of our reality. Our European reality, and the history we want to remember.

*all names provided have been changed to preserve anonymity

Leave a comment

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.