Saturday, October 25, 2014


There are a number of reasons why OXI, an event that took place some seventy four years ago, still resonates with the Greek people, quite apart from the obvious fact that it is an event that is still within living memory. OXI is one of those events that fits neatly within the national mythology of the small, plucky, fiercely independent and ultimately patriotic and self-sacrificing people that we have constructed around ourselves. We may be dysfunctional, fractious and self-destructive, but when all is said and done, we come together in times of crisis to defend our fraught patch of earth, with fearsome results.
            The traditional celebration of OXI thus invites parallels with other events in Greek history in which it is believed that similar traits are exhibited. The 1821 Revolution in particular, is considered to be a close parallel, for there, much like in the case of the 1940 fighters, an oppressed, weak David combined to slay a gigantic Goliath and in the process, secure freedom. Furthermore, as was the case in 1940, that freedom was largely secured in the mountains of Greece.
            Those who seek to prove doughtiness as a Greek trait may even be tempted to proceed further into the mists of history, seeking parallels in the Persian Wars of ancient times. In those wars, the fragmented and perpetually squabbling Greek city states put aside their differences and combined to defeat a superpower, in much the same way as the Greeks did in 1821 and 1940. If one was to draw the parallel further, one could claim that in the century after the Persian Wars, the Greek people combined under Alexander to take the fight to the Persians themselves, though this may be stretching the paradigm too far.
            Our characterization of ourselves as indomitable rascals who come through in the end acts as balsam to our assuaged egos, at times of crisis. We tend to point to key events in our history such as OXI, 1821 and the Persian Wars, in order to prove that though we may be bankrupt, socially disintegrating and lacking in the esteem of the rest of the world, we still harbor within us, the dormant seeds of greatness, which seek only some further crisis as the catalyst by which to re-generate it. National poet Kostis Palamas expresses this aptly in the prophecy section of his epic poem “The Dodecalogue of the Gypsy,” in which he foresees: “Having no further step, down which to descend, upon the stair of Evil, you will feel, for the ascent which calls you, the sprouting of your wings, your former, great wings.” It comes as no great surprise that Kostis Palamas penned this work in response to another great catastrophe that blighted Greece: the failed war of 1897 and Greece’s resulting bankruptcy.
            Yet to view these key events isolated from the context in which they took place is to perhaps obfuscate our true nature. For while it is true that the freedom loving Greeks sacrificed a good deal in order to secure their independence in 1940 and we are right to commemorate them, it is also true that the organized freedom fighters also divided in warring factions, concerned more with securing their own position and interests (which generally corresponded with that of their patrons), so that with the inevitable withdrawal of the Germans from Greece, they could seize power. A bloody and brutal Civil War ensued, whereby patriots bent on securing the freedom of Greece exterminated each other for having different views as to how that freedom actually was constituted. This in turn caused the armed intervention and in some cases, occupation by foreign powers such as Britain and Yugoslavia. The bitter after-effects of this conflict have blighted Greek society ever since.
            Such internecine strife was not without precedent. The “glorious” 1821 captains, who so boldly led the Greek people in their fight against the oppressive Ottoman Empire, often proved to be more interested in abrogating to themselves, the perquisites of the Pashas, rather than securing the equality and freedom of their people. In the furtherance of these interests, they feel upon each other, squabbling for power and position and ultimately, causing the first civil war of free Greece, in 1823-1824, when the heroic Kolokotronis refused to return the fort of Nafplion to the Greek state, and then, the second Greek civil war, between 1824, 1825, when the noble Kolokotronis roused the residents of Tripolitsa against the local tax collectors of the government. As a result of the infighting, the Revolution itself was placed in peril and in fact it was through the intervention of no less a  personage than Ibrahim Pasha, who was well on the way to conquering Peloponnesus for the Ottomans, that Kolokotronis, captured by Kolettis, was eventually released. Finally, the intervention of a British fleet was required to secure the independence that Greek infighting almost lost.
            This too is not without precedent. For in the aftermath of the Persian Wars, the victorious Greek city states, instead of relishing their freedom, fell to fighting against each other in the Peloponnesian Wars and beyond. In doing so, they enlisted the assistance of their erstwhile enemy, Persia, which ended up, not only re-taking the Asia Minor coastline of Ionia, whose revolt proved the catalyst for the war, but also becoming the arbiter of disputes between the Greeks. Again, Greek rule of the Greek areas liberated by the Persians was decidedly more brutal than that of the enemy itself. Archaeologists generally agree that the cities of Ionia exhibited markedly greater development after their re-subjugation to the Persians, than during the time of their rule by their Athenian compatriots.
            Finally, if we are to include the Persian-empire busting achievements of Alexander within this paradigm, it is worthwhile considering that his diadochoi, fell to fighting each other, a fight that continued for centuries, culminating in their enlistment of the emerging Roman juggernaut as an arbiter of their disputes, and finally, their conqueror.      
OXI then should not only function as a celebration and conduit for the expression of national pride, but also as a cautionary tale. After all, if the Persian Wars have an Ephialtes, the 1821 Revolution has a Pilios Goussis and 1940 has any number of sell-outs or traitors. We have a right to be proud of our spirited defence of our motherland throughout history. We do not however, have a right to completely ignore our inability to maintain a state of cohesion and our tendency to turn on each other in pursuit of our own interests, at the moment of triumph. Celebrating, as we have done, OXI from the bottom rungs of Kostis Palamas’ ladder, we would do well to remember this, when next our erstwhile waxen wings sprout, and we fly yet again, too close to the sun.