Friday, 12 June 2015

Greece: it's the history, stupid.

Acropolis, c 600 BC
I'm sure you're all so used to the unending 'Greek crisis' you'd be forgiven for never wanting to hear another word about it. I went to Greece last month, having never been before, with the aim of leering at archaeological remains, rather than anything political, so I was surprised when one led me to think about the other quite differently. The first thing that struck me in Greece was the amazing oldness of the place. We all know ancient Greece existed prior to the Roman Empire. What I hadn't understood was that 'ancient' Greece was actually the last flourishing of a culture that really started a couple of millennia before, and was, by the time of the Romans, almost past its sell-by date.

Women drivers, c 1600 BC
Classical Athens was already in decline by the time the Romans arrived (overstretched on foreign wars, apparently), and Athens itself had risen to predominance after Myceanean and Minoan cultures on the Aegean Islands collapsed as a result of volcanic eruptions. At the time of the eruption, in about 1600 BC, Minoan civilisation was in full swing, and had been for some time. At the time we were paddling dugout canoes through the marshes of Britain, Minoa had a large trading fleet, actual hairstyles, towns of 100000 inhabitents, and genuine flushing toilets. I know, I know.

Anyway, once you've got past the Minoans, any museum in Greece then proceeds to confront you with a bewildering list of people who have at some point invaded or attempted to invade. The Persians, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Turks, the Venetians, and last and most recently, the Germans. Working one's way up through the local history museum in Heraklion, Crete, one starts with the local, ancient culture, and wades upwards through all these visitors, before you get to the bit about the German occupation in World War Two, which is the most unambiguously angry museum display I have ever seen.

Having overdosed on museums, I decided to head to the beach, and randomly picked somewhere on the South Coast I could get to by bus. It turned out that Sfakia port was the place where the Allies evacuated their forces as the Germans took over Crete in 1940. Lesson one of Greece: there's no getting away from history, anywhere, ever. I walked up the hill and found this: a shrine built around the skulls of villagers who were shot for aiding the escape of Allied stragglers. They are not replicas, or art, but the actual skulls, and you can see where they have been smashed by bullets. The atmosphere in the vicinity was creepy and oppressive: I backed out in a hurry.

Of course, one might say that the Greeks should get over this, like the rest of Europe has got over war, fascism, and communism, etc. In some ways, it has: the town was crawling with German tourists who seemed unbothered by the stacked, smashed bones. Nonetheless, when you see how the time frame of Greece is a bit different to other places, you realise that to the Greeks, with 4000 years of civilisation on your doorstep, something that happened 70 years ago is really very recent, and why it might be a bit well - insensitive - to turn up, after all that sort of thing, and start trying to order people around. 

All this history helped me understand why Alex Tsipras and Syriza think they can see off the EU and its ghastly austerity plans. Although Greece has been taken over by foreign powers dozens of times, they have, in the end, always left. Greece's history has been marked by multiple invasions, multiple collapses, and repeated tragedies. Ancient Greece invented tragedy, and they aren't above playing one. Perhaps Tsipras doesn't think of himself as a modern, managerial type of politician, always finding the neat compromise with an eye to his career, he thinks he's handling some bloody last stand on a hilltop. Perhaps, in a way, he's right.

If you think that this is a fight about debt repayment, or about one or two percent of GDP, you are missing the point. Whether they owe the money or not is a irrelevance, a red herring. This is a fight about autonomy, and maybe about honour. What matters for the Greeks is that they exist as an entity with meaning, a small country with a culture and self-determination, or get subsumed into some larger, faceless thing.

I'm fairly sure that's actually what the EU think it's about as well. The EU and its Austerity-bureaucrats think they're the Romans, subduing a rebellious province. They think they're ensuring the onward march of civilisation, and saving the Empire from ruin. I think the Greeks think a bit like this too: except in their version they are the defenders of civilised society, holding out for democracy, against the Philistines of Rome. 

Library cuts in Athens. If you didn't return your scroll in time, your fine is now 21,850,678 denarii, or enough to clear the entire Greek debt.

1 comment:

  1. Franck Leduc gfleduc@gmail.com15 June 2015 at 09:19

    banks, pension funds and credit ratings agencies will never leave a single chance to Syriza, not for financial reasons, it is peanuts for them, but simply for ideological reasons. The financial world have decided to make Greece a laboratory of Ultra ulta liberalism, and therefore know until what level we can impoverish a Western country to grab their public services, but also stealing historical, tourist and geographical heritage. That is why the members of The EU, the IMF, the ECB, under the orders of finance internationnal execute Greece.