Monday, November 05, 2007


Winston Churchill, the indomitable British War-Time leader, once made a famous speech where he stated, in the context of the home defence during the battle of Britain that “never in the field of human conflict, was so much owed by so many to so few,” echoing Cornelius Nepos’ evaluation of the Battle of Marathon, where he said: "Than this battle there has hitherto been none more glorious; for never did so small a band overthrow so numerous a host.” This disparity in numbers and the achievement of victory at all costs, which is so encapsulated by Pheidipiddes the runner’s message to the Athenians «νενικήκαμεν» before dropping off dead, having invented both die hard couriers and the Marathon, exemplifies the indomitability of the Greek spirit. Winston Churchill expressed this most eloquently when, commenting on the ferocity of the Greek resistance during World War II, he observed: “Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks.”
The extent of the Greek resistance and the fact that the Greek people had the courage to stand up to the Balkan bully of Italian Fascism should not surprise us. From time immemorial, Greeks, a fiercely territorial people, felt compelled to direct the word OXI to would-be liberators, rulers and conquerors, again and again, simply because they could not and cannot tolerate anyone else occupying their backyard.
One of the first and most famous instances of Hellenic nay saying took place when Darius and after him Xerxes, the shahs of the largest Empire the world had ever known, sent their emissaries to the Greek city states, seeking submission in the form of earth and water. Some of these states did submit. However, the Athenians responded at that time by throwing the emissaries into pit, and the Spartans by throwing others into a well, with a suggestion to dig it out for themselves, among other things. When asked by Xerxes whether the Spartans would surrender, Demaratus, his Greek adviser gave a rather long-winded rendition of OXI, saying: “First then, no matter what, the Spartans will never accept your terms. This would reduce Greece to slavery. They are sure to join battle with you even if all the rest of the Greeks surrendered to you. As for Spartan numbers, do not ask how many or few they are, hoping for them to surrender. For if a thousand of them should take the field, they will meet you in battle, and so will any other number, whether it is less than this, or more.”
Leonidas’ immortal phrase «Μολών Λαβέ» or come and get it, when requested to surrender to the Persians, is about as artful and conceive an OXI as one could ever conceive. When Xerxes attempted to bribe him by offering him the kingship of Greece, he scornfully declined, stating: “If you knew what is good in life, you would abstain from wishing for foreign things. For me it is better to die for Greece than to be monarch over my compatriots.”
Such negative attitudes towards others appropriating our pastures were further made manifest in such uneven and yet ultimately successful battles as that of Marathon, Salamis, Plataea and most famously tragic Battle of Thermopylae, where the Spartans “defended themselves to the last, such as still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth.” Eventually, our love of freedom was so intense that it cause the freedom loving Alexander the Great to destroy and level Thebes, (except for the house of Pindar), invade Syria and Egypt and destroy the Persian Empire. This freedom loving example inspired other peoples who lovingly and enthusiastically embraced the Greek stewardship of their land to espouse similar attitudes towards their Hellenic overlords, who transported the illuminating qualities of their flourescent civilisation to the barbarous, balacked-out East. Thus, the revolt of the Maccabbees in Judaea after the Greeks’ desecration of the Temple of Jerusalem and the Parthian princes, must be seen purely Hellenic expressions of the Greek ontological need not to be dominated by anyone else.
Byzantine OXI’s were generally as long-winded as those of Demaratus, but nonetheless more equivocal and comparative. Faced with the spectre/prospect of a Western domination that was intolerant of the eastern Greek traditions and culture, Loukas Notaras, the John Wayne-like «Μέγας Δουξ» or Big Duke of the Empire, famously remarked in the 1450’s: “I would rather see a Muslim turban in the midst of the City (ie. Constantinople) than the Latin mitre.” His wish came true and tragically, he was eventually murdered by the Mehmet the Conqueror for refusing to surrender his sons to his perverted lust.
The last emperor of Byzantium Constantine Dragases Palaeologos’ OXI, as sent to the same Sultan Mehmet, is just as long-winded but infinitely more noble and romantic: “Handing over the city is not up to me, or to any of its inhabitants, because we are all going to die by common decision, by our own free will, and we will not hesitate to lay down our lives… Being that you have chosen war and neither with oaths nor with sweet words can I dissuade you, do what you please; as for me, I take refuge in God and if it be His will to deliver this city unto you, who can stand in the way?... I, from this moment on, have closed the gates of the city and will protect its inhabitants by whatever means possible; you may exercise your oppressive power, but there will come a day when the Good Judge will pass just sentence on us both, on me and on you.” That hapless Emperor was killed in battle and Constantinople given over to the bloodbath of the traditional three days of merciless plundering.
If the popular legends are to be believed, the Greek people became particularly adept at saying OXI during the years of the Ottoman occupation, being afforded with ample opportunities to express their disagreement or negation at the abrogation of their liberties. In its most extreme form, such negation transcended its vocal execution, to be expressed physically, or through dance. The Souliot women for example, famously made their refusal to become Muslim and be sexually abused by a company of Turco-albanian soldiers by dancing their way off the cliff at Zalongo, all the while singing: «Στη στεριά δε ζει το ψάρι, ουδ' ανθός στην αμμουδιά και οι Σουλιώτισσες δεν ζούνε δίχως την ελευθεριά.» By incorporating elements of the natural world and subverting their habitats in the lyrics of their protest song, the Souliotisses were merely highlighting how their oppressors’ demand for willful submission was so extraordinary as to upset the natural order of things.
Moving from the chorological to the culinary facets of Hellenic negativity, the case of Athanasios Diakos is particularly instructive. If we consider as admissible, the evidence of a demotic folk song of the time, Omer Vryoni, the Albanian military commander, having captured this deacon of the Orthodox Church, offered him a chance of survival, if he would deny his faith and espouse Islam. Athanasios Diakos response was resolute and decidedly lacking in subtlety: «Πάτε κι εσείς και η πίστη σας, μουρτάτες να χαθείτε. Εγώ γραικός γεννήθηκα, γραικός θελ’ αποθάνω.» This statement is informative because it highlights how it was the change of religion that Diakos felt would compromise his ethnic identity. His further comment, after learning of his imminent execution, is eerily reminiscent of Demaratus in Herodotus’ Histories: “If you kill me, this will only mean the death of a single Greek. Long live Odysseus [Androutsos] and Captain Nikitas, who will burn all of Turkey and your entire State.” As a result of his recalcitrance, Athanasios Diakos was, as we say in Greek, skewered, or as David Brewer elucidates: “The sickening reality of the impalement was that the victim was spreadeagled face down, and held in place by ropes attached to each leg while a man with a heavy mallet drove a long sharpened pole in his anus.”
Given this tradition, it comes as a slight disapointment to note that dictator Ioannis Metaxas did not actually say “OXI” to the ultimatum, which was presented to Metaxas by the Italian ambassador in Greece, Emanuele Grazzi on 28 October 1940, at dawn (04:00 AM), after a party in the German embassy in Athens, demanded that Greece allow Axis forces to enter Greek territory and occupy certain unspecified “strategic locations” or otherwise face war. Instead, the genteel Metaxas is held by most scholars to have exclaimed in perfectly accented French: “Alors, c'est la guerre” (Then it is war).
The ensuing “Epic of 1940” as it is referred to in Greece, constitutes one of that country’s finest hours of nay-saying. The Greek victory over the initial Italian offensive of October 1940 was the first Allied land victory of the Second World War, and helped raise morale in occupied Europe. Some historians argue that it may have influenced the course of the entire war by forcing Germany to postpone the invasion of the Soviet Union in order to assist Italy against Greece. This led to a delayed attack and subjected the German forces to the conditions of the harsh Russian winter, leading to their defeat at the Battle of Moscow.
The fact that a poorly equipped and trained group of peasant conscripts could turn back and defeat the technologically and logistically superior Italian War machine is no miracle. It simply is the manifestation of one of the most important elements that comprise the Greek psyche - both fascinating and frustrating in their own right: the propensity to cling steadfast to the idea of Greece and Hellenism and to defend it to the last. Why? Simply because the Greek people’s collective identity is inextricably linked to their homeland to an extent that it transcends the collective and becomes personal. Accordingly, given that all Greeks partake of Hellenism and are bearers of it, any compromise on any Hellenic issue is seen as a personal compromise and an impugning of the Greek’s individual hypostasis and thus, very existence. This indivduality of the collective identity would explain why the Greek Kings were known as kings of “the Hellenes” rather than kings “of Greece,” and should be well regarded by those politicians and scholars who would impugn the relevance and immediacy of so-called ‘ethnika themata’ to the Greek people. The recent debate in Greece about whether OXI Day should be commemorated. (given that in Greece, such commemorations have an intensely militaristic character that cobncentrates more on the display of a happy medium of mechanised artillery and nubile teenage girls in increasingly short skirts) is thus a milestone in the evolution of the Greek conception of ethnic idenity.
Invariably, if anything casts a shadow over the marvelllous achievement of OXI Day and our propensity to say OXI and fight till the last is that when all is said and done, and our stand is bravely made, we tend to turn on each other. The Persian War was followed by the Peloponnesian War. The destruction of the Persian Empire was followed by the internecine warfare of the Hellenistic kingdoms. The reconquest of Constantinople from the Latins was followed by interminable civil wars between Byzantine successor states. The liberation of Greece after the 1821 revolution was followed by a civil war in which great heores of that Revolution were killed or incarcerated. And of course, OXI Day is overshadowed by the horrific Greek Civil War of 1944-1949, whose effects, in the manner the first generation and a portion of the second generation identify with each other along political lines and are completely intolerant of dissenting viewpoints, plague us and our community to the present day. Today, though, Diatribe pays homage to those who selflessly sacrificed themsleves for Greece in 1940, braving the freezing and appalling conditions of the Albanian mountains, in the name of freedom. To them, this tribute, by Yiannis Ritsos: «Λοιπόν παιδιά μου συλλογιέμαι τώρα μια λέξη να ταιριάζει στο μπόι της λευτεριάς.»


First published in NKEE on 5 November 2007