Richard Pine Monday, December 1, 2014
Country celebrates, frequently and assiduously, key dates in its history
Tourists look out from behind the door of a hotel in Athens during a demonstration remembering the victims of a 1973 uprising against the military junta last month. Photograph: Yannis Kolesidis/Epa
Recent debate about how to commemorate 1914 and 1916 in Ireland came to mind when I was travelling in the Peloponnese. I live in Corfu, which was not directly affected by the Greek War of Independence (1821-1830). In the Peloponnese and its offshore islands, by contrast, it is a recurring presence in modern life.
War against the Turks began in the Peloponnese on March 25th, 1821, with the raising of a Greek flag. It would be 10 years before the Greek state was recognised.
In the Peloponnese and islands like Spetses and Hydra, one is struck at almost every street corner by the numerous statues, memorials and plaques commemorating the start of something with an uncertain outcome. The brutal thuggish reprisals of the Turks, in which tens of thousands of Greeks were slaughtered, were similar to those of the Black-and-Tans in Ireland, and might well have extinguished Greek nationalist ambitions.
Day of liberation1821 was more of a gesture than an achievement. In this it isn’t unlike Easter 1916, when Ireland fired a shot across England’s bows, but didn’t sink anything. But in Greece, March 25th became National Independence Day, as if it marked the day of liberation rather than aspiration.
Greece commemorates frequently and assiduously. The key dates after 1821 are 1864 (the first major growth of the Greek state with the acquisition of the Ionian islands); the black mark of 1922 (when Greece was ignominiously defeated by Turkey in its feeble attempt to invade Istanbul); “Ochi” day, October 28th, 1940, when Greece rejected the Italian threat of invasion; and another black mark in the form of the civil war after the second World War. More recently, 1974 saw the dismissal of the seven-year-old military dictatorship.
Some of these are marked by activities to keep remembrance alive: “Ochi” day is habitually celebrated in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, with a presidential address. The suppression of the communist partisans in the civil war is the subject of annual pilgrimages to places of mass execution (such as Lazareto island in Corfu bay). This year, the 40th anniversary of the student uprising that brought about the fall of the colonels was widely celebrated.
All of this raises the questions: what is to be remembered? Why? Who initiates the commemorations? How are they conducted? It’s instructive to note how different states choose to commemorate their origins and key milestones. Or to forget them.
In Ireland there is a perennial debate over how Easter 1916 is to be portrayed; with its centenary coming up in less than two years, the control of this event and input into it is a political hot potato. In Greece, street parades with brass bands are the normal way of marking these events, and streets are named after “Ochi” day and the 1973 student anti-junta protest. Otherwise, there is little public or academic debate on the context of these events, or our interpretation of them. For example, a discussion of enosis (Greek for “union”) might not only shed light on the union of the Ionian islands with Greece in 1864 and the failed attempt by Cyprus in the 1950s but also create an opportunity to look at similar events elsewhere, such as the Act of Union of 1800: Ireland joined Britain only 64 years before the Ionians joined Greece.
‘Revisionism’School history textbooks (which are published by the state) have been withdrawn in Greece in recent years on accusations of “revisionism”. There is what has been called a “history war” over what history should be taught and how. The recent discussion in Ireland over the role of history in schools comes to mind: without a collective memory, a people cannot move forward. But that memory must be convincing and all-embracing, allowing room for dissent and discussion. There are many aspects of Greek experience which are almost no-go areas for historians, perhaps because it brings us too close to the realities of the present day. In these circumstances, these aspects are not admitted to the collective memory.
Because of the instability of the Greek state, some – especially the terrorists on one side and the fascists on the other – would argue that the war of independence and the civil war have yet to be brought to a convincing conclusion. And therefore have yet to be acceptably commemorated.