Saturday, April 13, 2019


Are we, as Greek-Australians, defined by the institutions that we create? Do we make them in our image so that they reflect us and our aspirations? If so, what can a study of the institutions we construct, tell us about ourselves? Conversely, do others seek to define us by imposing upon us, their own institutional framework, so that while we attempt to organise ourselves as ethno-cultural entities, we are in fact playing to custom-made stereotypes that serve the purposes of the dominant culture? And how do our institutions legitimise the ruling class’s own created institutions of sovereignty and control?
All these questions and many more are posed and in part answered by Dr Christos Fifis’ latest history: “The First Greek Community of Australia, a history of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria 1897-2018.” A study of the GOCMV can in no way be held to encompass the entire and extremely diverse historical experience of the Greeks of Melbourne. For one thing, traditionally male dominated Greek community organisations leave records that largely efface the experience of women and indeed, actively exclude them until recently, something that the author acknowledges in his analysis of the demographics of the early GOCMV. What it can do however, is serve as a vehicle in order to raise the central question that pervades the work: What does it mean to be a Greek in Australia? What aspects of Hellenism are relevant to our future? The study of the GOCMV, our oldest institution is therefore, a study in identity formation.
Through a thorough examination of primary sources, including excerpts of GOCMV minutes of meetings, contemporary newspaper articles and interviews, Christos Fifis presents a GOCMV that was founded at the same time as one of the modern Greek state’s lowest ebbs: the disastrous war with Turkey that resulted in the bankruptcy of Greece. It is thus somehow ironic that, with Greece currently facing a similar set of circumstances, the GOCMV is reinventing itself and is compelled to address those issues of identity formation that so preoccupy Christos Fifis in his book.
What emerges from Christos Fifis’ fascinating and meticulously researched study is a dialectic whereby the GOCMV can only be viewed and defined by reference to its “rivals,” first, the cultural and social organisation “Orfeas” and then, by the Orthodox Church, with both institutions attempting to assert their own articulation and definition of Hellenism within a “host country.” Thus, even though the author juxtaposes the ‘democratic’ nature of the governance processes of the GOCMV, (although he expertly interposes within his narrative an analysis of the class distinctions and power imbalances based on income, and length of settlement in Australia, within the early GOCMV, that subverts the myth of popular and equal access to the decision making process), with the hierarchical structure of the Church, as all these groups vied for dominance of the Greek discourse, he ultimately offers a perspective that casts all rivals as defining themselves, at least in their early years, as foreign entities within the broader Australian social context. Even further subverting the democratic context is the implication of the GOCMV organising itself as a legal entity in a form prescribed by the law of the Colony of Victoria, rather than a form of its own choosing, in contrast with the Church, which follows its own ancient canons.
Instead, Christos Fifis presents the second era of GOCMV- Orthodox Church conflict, where the GOCMV became involved in movements for broader social welfare, workers’ rights and multiculturalism, as one in transition into an acculturated, local entity, with a Hellenism grounded within the broader Australian context. This argument is augmented by the presentation of the constant politicking and seeking of favours from Greek politicians, the active involvement of the GOCMV against the Junta as suggestive of an organisation, at least for most of the period covered, espousing a middle position, one where it still considered itself as a Greek entity but also, an increasingly Australian one, especially for the purpose of funding.
On the other hand, the Church is portrayed as persisting in seeing itself as a malign foreign entity, one that still sees Australia as a “host country” rather than “home.” As the work is intended as a history of the GOCMV, save for materials made available to and by the GOCMV, there seems to have been no research into Church primary sources, nor is there room for much analysis on the theological and social parameters of the Greek Orthodox Church’s mission in Australia, work that must necessarily be undertaken by future historians if the history and legacy of the Church upon this continent is to be viewed in a balanced way, rather than as a mere counterfoil to another institution. The work undertaken by the Church to entrench Greek language learning in local tertiary institutions, requires further scrutiny in this context.

The history of the relationship and conflict between Church and GOCMV, makes for traumatic reading, and yet it provides a perfect platform to address the modern GOCMV, which, during the Fountas and current eras, repaired its relationship with the Church, to the extent where currently both institutions co-exist in harmony. In posing questions of identity, Christos Fifis identities a key issue: Where to from here, for an organisation that has evolved in contrast to and in spite of a Church that is now a collaborator rather than a rival? This in itself allows the author to pose deeper questions about what form the Greek identity will take in the future.

Interviews with historical GOCMV and other community personages, conducted by the author over many years vivify long forgotten voices that shed light on these important questions. One interview with acclaimed poet Dimitris Tsaloumas mirrors the acculturative progression of the GOCMV, for in it, the poet reveals why he chose to shift from Greek to English, this being the search for greater acclaim and a larger audience. What is lost in the process of weaving oneself within the warp and the weft of the mainstream? Do the mirrored evolutions of Tsaloumas and the GOCMV hint at the redundancy of inherited language and traditions? What implications does this have for the future of the GOCMV and the organised community in general? If an interview with my own insufficiency in 2008, also quoted in the book is anything to go by, the future is bleak indeed. 

The rationale offered by Herodotus for the writing of his own history was the need to delve into past events in order to explain how the Persian Wars came about. Similarly, Thucydides felt the need to examine past events in order to rationalise the catastrophic effects of the Peloponnesian Wars that so divided the Greek world. Christos Fifis on the other hand, returns to the past in order to understand the future, one which fills him with misgivings.

As such, Christos Fifis’ history of the GOCMV is an inordinately valuable tool for the comprehension and further development of both our community and ethnic narrative. Somehow, although our presence in Victoria as an organised entity covers a century, the same period as Fifis’ book, the historical events that have led to the development of our community are not part of local lore. Our own consciousness of who we are seems to have only our place of origin and the individual experiences of our family as its yardstick and there is either widespread ignorance or amnesia as to the deeds of our forebears in this country, especially as relates to the pre-war period.

 In attempting to articulate an Australian based discourse, Christos Fifis provides us with the raw materials with which we can assemble a viable local identity as Greeks in Australia, freeing our dependence upon a place of origin whose social realities and understanding of our common past, as the key component of identity, increasingly diverges from our own. The answer therefore, to the central question posed by the author in his study, is ourselves. It is to our own life together, our shared experiences, both positive, negative, life-affirming and unsavoury that we need to turn, in order to determine which course Australian-based Hellenism will take as a discourse, in the future. The fact that the question is largely posed by first generation migrants with direct experience of both countries, speaks volumes in itself. In the case of Christos Fifis’ book, the question is asked in the Greek language, one that can no longer be read with ease by large sections of our community, who are called upon to examine the identity making process and will be affected by it in the future.

Eminently readable and profoundly considered in its exposition of the GOCMV’s progress, it cannot be doubted that Christos Fifis’ “The First Greek Community of Australia, a history of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria 1897-2018,” will prove the foundation stone for further studies on the place and influence of the Greek community and its constituent entities within the framework of the multifaceted social history of Victoria. Its projected English translation is eagerly anticipated.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 13 April 2019