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Friday, 26 October 2012

Moving on

Just lately, Greece has a lot to commemorate rather than to celebrate. Every day for the past two months, Greek TV has been reminding us of the catastrophic events that took place 90 years ago in Smyrna (a city of modern-day Turkey). Only another decade is needed for the centennial commemorations to take place, yet there are still people appearing in the programmes, describing the events that took place when they weren't even born. They are relating the events as they were told about them by their deceased relatives, for future generations to remember. The photographs and films of the time, despite their blurred and grainy images, depict the devastation very well.

Today, Greece commemorates the liberation of the city of Thessaloniki in Northern Greece, on the same day as the feastday of St Dimitris. Double celebrations are seen as auspicious in Greece (eg independence from the Ottomans), hence the alignment of certain feast days with national events . Thessaloniki's Hellenisation preceded the Smyrna events by a decade. Both events sought to maintain Hellenic territories: one was successful (most of what was known in ancient times as Macedonia is now Greek territory) while the other one wasn't (what was once known to Greeks as Asia Minor is now all lost).

Makedonomahos (Fighter for Macedonia), Thessaloniki
The Macedonian war reminds me of a story my husband told me, as he was told it by his father, who heard it from his father; my husband did not have the chance to hear it from his grandfather becuase he had died before my husband's birth. Many Cretan soldiers went to Northern Greece to fight in the Macedonian wars - this was at a time when the island of Crete was not formally a part of the modern state of Greece. My husband's grandfather had fought close to the border with Bulgaria. The soldiers went for many days without food. At one point, they saw a donkey eating the rind of a watermelon. They fought tooth and nail with the creature to prise the rind out of its mouth, so that they could eat it.

Today of all days, the Greek Prime Minister, speaking from Thessaloniki, told the Greeks that they don't need to be reminded that Alexander the Great was Greek; after all, he spoke Greek, he believed in the Greek gods and his teacher was Aristotle. But he also reminded us that it is now time to move on from Alexander the Great. He is of course alluding to Greece's official position concerning the name of a neighbouring country. That is enough to set off arguments that he is betraying his country.

Greeks rarely forget their glorious past. Just lately, they are coming to terms with some of the less glorious moments of their more recent past, like the post-WW2 civil war, which wiped out more than 150,000 of the Greek population of the time, half the number of Greek lives lost in WW2, while many Greeks who were against the allies (US and UK) fled the country, settling in communist countries, mainly Russia. Since the breakdown of communism, many returned to resettle in Greece, accompanied by the problems of healing old wounds.


The island of Crete will undergo its own question of identity next year, in 2013, when it commemorates 100 years of being part of the modern Greek state which had been created almost 90 years before that date. To understand why it took so long for the island to become a part of Greece means that it is necessary to understand the difference between modern Greece and ancient Greece, without forgetting that Crete has been Greek since the time of the Dorian invasion of the island. 

Knowing your past gives you the chance to carve your way into the future. But knowledge of the past can also keep you back there, as the past does not always coincide with the present; events that are supposed to unite us often end up dividing us. In the past, all that was needed was a state decree to make people comply with the official position of the state; a good example of this is how Christianity spread among the Hellenic world. The ancient Greeks may be said to have invented democracy, but coercion was still an important political tactic in their days. Coercion is not taken lightly by Greeks, the only country to stand up to the Nazis in WW2, and it continues to be opposed, as Greek politics has demonstrated very well in the last three years.


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