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No, no and no again

28/08/2015

On 28 October of each year, Greece celebrates the Επέτειος του Όχι (‘Epétios tou Óchi’), literally Anniversary of the No, but often rendered in English as ‘No’ Day.

Much of the world will have become familiar with the Modern Greek word for ‘No’ from posters and banners during the recent referendum in which a majority of the Greek electorate said precisely that to the bailout terms proposed by Greece’s international creditors. Not that it did them much good, for the terms imposed on them are now essentially unchanged, and the country’s chances of escaping from its morass of debt seem more remote than ever. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter, I can’t help agreeing with maverick finance minister Yánis Varoufákis’s statement that this is like ‘whipping a sick cow to make it give more milk’. A whole country is being squeezed to the limit pour encourager les autres.

To those who dismiss the Greeks as a congenitally recalcitrant nation of no-sayers, it will come as no surprise that they appear to celebrate that very word each year (‘lest we forget: always say no!’). But of course the truth is more complicated – much more complicated – than that.

75 years ago this year, in the early hours of 28 October 1940, the Greek dictator (though nominally prime minister with allegiance to King George II) Ioánnis Metaxás had a brief and stormy encounter with the Italian ambassador Emanuele Grazzi, who had come to inform him that Italy would invade Greece a little later that morning unless Axis forces were allowed to enter Greek territory and occupy certain strategic locations – whereupon the hitherto much-hated Metaxás redeemed himself in his people’s eyes by uttering the single word Όχι.

Only he didn’t. For one thing, the two men were almost certainly not speaking Greek, but French – then still the main language of diplomacy, especially in southern Europe. If Ambassador Grazzi had spoken Greek well enough to deliver such an ultimatum, this would surely have been reported somewhere, for the language is seldom learned by people in other countries who are not of Greek descent (and Italians are not generally known for their command of foreign languages). Metaxás may conceivably have spoken Italian, but again there is no evidence that he did. Historians now seem to agree that the conversation was in French, and that no interpreter was present. So Metaxás didn’t say Όχι – he said Non.

Wrong again. According to both Grazzi and whoever was listening through the door (variously said to be the Greek dictator’s wife or their daughter), what he almost certainly said was Alors, c’est la guerre! (‘This means war!’). But by the time the chilling news hit the streets, and the newspaper stands, this had condensed into a single Greek word of refusal, which was apparently chanted by Athenian crowds. So, in the end, it was the Greek people that said no to Mussolini’s ultimatum. And that is what they celebrate on 28 October.

Not surprisingly, there have been echoes of all this during the recent wrangling over Greek sovereign debt. Although the creditors have carefully avoided using such words as ‘ultimatum’, Greece’s media and politicians have not hesitated to do so, and to treat this year’s events as a re-run of 1940. It does not help, of course, that the main European creditor is Germany. Although many Germans may feel they have been treated ungratefully after dipping deep into their pockets to help the Greeks out before, many Greeks cannot help feeling that their country once again has its back to the wall, at the mercy of a wealthier, more powerful northern Europe – and that once again all they can do is say no, as firmly as they can.

It may not be fair to compare the two crises, but they are two of the gravest in modern Greek history – and history looks rather different from where the Greeks stand. Take the two world wars.

As far as most Europeans are concerned, the First World War lasted from 1914 to 1918, and the Second World War from 1939 (in some cases later) to 1945. But Greece was embroiled in one war or another for much longer than this, for a decade at a time: from 1912 to 1922, and from 1940 to 1949.

In the run-up to the First World War, starting in 1912, it fought both with and against all its northern neighbours for what was left of Turkey-in-Europe (the Ottoman empire’s Balkan provinces), almost doubling its territory and population in the process. After the war, heady with victory over the Turks (and encouraged by Western politicians such as David Lloyd George who should have known better – but this was a time of great political stupidity, as the Versailles peace conference made clear), it tried to colonise Asia Minor from its ancient bridgehead at Smyrna (the Turkish city of Izmir). Maybe it could even realise the Megáli Idéa (‘Great Idea’) – the old dream of returning to the Byzantine capital Constantinople (now Istanbul). There was a persistent legend that Greece would again rule ‘the City’ when another Constantine sat on the throne; and a few days before Christmas 1920, just in time to make the legend seem plausible (perhaps even divinely inspired?), King Alexander – who had died, improbably, of a bite from a pet monkey – was succeeded by a king with exactly that name. It was even rumoured he would take the name Constantine XII, as the ‘successor’ to the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI.

Legend notwithstanding, the plan was a catastrophic failure. The resilient Turks under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk routed the Greek army (which had almost reached Ankara but had badly overstretched its supply lines), much of Smyrna was burned to the ground, and Greece’s population was again greatly increased – only this time by over a million refugees from Turkey.

Greece did not come into the Second World War until 1940 (on 28 October!), and the war might have ended there in 1944 as German troops fled north; but instead, with the imminent threat of a communist takeover, a civil war broke out between right- and left-wing forces. This dragged on until 1949, with much death and atrocity on both sides, and might have lasted even longer but for Yugoslavia’s quarrel the previous year with its ostensible overlords in Moscow. The Yugoslav leader Tito now closed his country’s border to the communist-led forces in northern Greece, and without their former supplies and places of refuge they were soon defeated. But the scars remained, with thousands of people who had ended up on the wrong side still languishing in jail, or denied proper employment, many years later (leading to fierce public protests during a state visit to Britain by the uncompromisingly right-wing Greek king and queen in the 1960s).

After both wars the Greeks lived under alternating military dictatorships (including that of Metaxás) and mostly ineffectual civilian rule. Peace and stability were relatively rare, and never to be taken for granted.

Of course, the eastern European countries that were absorbed into the Soviet orbit after the Second World War did not have it easy either. But at least they had a semblance of peace and stability, if only because these were imposed on them by the rigours of the Cold War (until the 1980s, despite sporadic bloody uprisings in such places as Hungary and Czechoslovakia, it seemed unlikely that things would ever change).

What they did not have was freedom of expression, or prosperity; Greece often had the former, and increasingly the latter. And as memories of the colonels’ dictatorship faded following its collapse in 1974, Greece began to be truly prosperous for the first time since gaining independence 150 years earlier. In 1981 it became the tenth member state of the EEC (later the EU), and in 2002 it was accepted into the eurozone – overhasty decisions, with hindsight, but at the time there were few voices raised in protest. And to the Greeks all this meant the promise of peace and stability that might actually last.

Little did they know it was built on a shaky foundation of cooked books, clientelism and political overconfidence – or perhaps they did know, but simply assumed other countries operated in precisely the same way. If so, they weren’t entirely wrong – but they weren’t entirely right either.

Now, after nearly 40 years, the dream has been abruptly shattered; and the prospect of instability and even violence looms once more. As if to hammer home the historical similarity, refugees are again flooding the Greek islands just off Turkey’s western coast, a few of whose most elderly inhabitants must still have painful memories of the ‘Asia Minor catastrophe’ in 1922. This time, to be sure, the refugees are not Greek; but the sense of catastrophe is surely much the same.

And once again, just as in their finest hour 75 years ago (when overnight they became Britain’s only active European ally), the Greeks are saying No.

Perhaps an immature, and above all unrealistic, response – but who can really blame them?

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From → Languages, Politics

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