November 4, 2011

Greece is the cradle of democracy, but, as the world saw this past week, a financial crisis is no time to put important questions to the people. Prime Minister George Papandreou’s proposed referendum on the country’s loan deal with the European Union, called off quickly after intense international opposition, illustrated that perfectly. Plato and Aristotle would have approved of dropping the referendum. They didn’t like democracy of the direct kind. Neither trusted the people that much.

Sinking deeper into the gravest economic crisis in its postwar history, Greece is no nearer to finding an exit from its woes, despite the vote of confidence that Papandreou narrowly managed to win Friday night. A toxic mix of anxiety and fear hangs in the air in Athens. The ordeal shows that living up to lofty idealism is never easy. Modern Greeks know that well, for we are, in many ways, the imperfect reflection of an ideal that the West imagined for itself.

When the Greek crisis began two years ago, a popular German magazine printed an image of Aphrodite of Milo on its cover. She was depicted gesturing crudely to German readers, with the headline: “The fraudster in the euro family.” The story led to protests in the streets of Athens. In the article, modern Greeks were described as indolent sloths, cheats and liars, masters of corruption, unworthy descendents of their glorious Hellenic past. The irony of the article, and of the angry Greek protests against it, was that modern Greece has little in common with Pericles or Plato. If anything, it is a failed German project.

The year was 1832, and Greece had just won its independence from the Ottoman Empire. The “Big Powers” of the time — Britain, France and Russia — duly appointed a Bavarian prince as Greece’s first king. His name was Otto. He arrived in his new kingdom with an entourage of German architects, engineers, doctors and soldiers — and set out to reconfigure the country to the romantic ideal of the times.

The 19th century had seen a resurgence of Europeans’ interest in ancient Greece. Big names such as Goethe, Shelley, Byron, Delacroix and many other artists, poets and musicians sought inspiration in classical beauty. They marveled at the white marble and solemn temples of Hellas, and longed for a lost purity in thought, aesthetics and warm-blooded passion. Revisiting the sensual Greece of Orpheus and Sappho was ballast to the detached coolness of science or the dehumanizing onslaught of the Industrial Revolution.

Otto saw to it that modern Greece lived up to that romantic image. Athens, at that time a small hamlet of a few goatherds, was inaugurated as the new national capital. The architects from Munich designed and built a royal palace, an academy, a library, a university and all the beautiful neoclassical edifices that contemporary Greek anarchists adorn with graffiti. There was no Sparta in Otto’s kingdom, so a new Sparta was constructed from scratch by the banks of the Eurotas River, where brave Lacedemonians used to take their baths. Modern Greece was thus invented as a backdrop to contemporary European art and imagination, a historical precursor of many Disneylands to come.

Despite the Bavarian soldiers who escorted him, King Otto was eventually expelled by a coup. But the foundations of historical misunderstanding had been laid, to haunt Greece and its relations with itself and other European nations forever.

No matter what Otto may have imagined, the truth was that my real forefathers, the brave people who started fighting for their freedom against the Turks in 1821, had not been in suspended animation for 2,000 years. Although their bonds with the land, the ruined temples, the living Greek language, the names and the myths were strong and rich, they were not walking around in white cloaks wearing laurels on their heads. They were Christian orthodox, conservative and fiercely antagonistic toward their governing institutions. In other words, they were an embarrassment to all those folks in Berlin, Paris and London who expected resurrected philosophers sacrificing to Zeus. The profound gap between the ancient and the modern had to be bridged somehow, in order to satisfy the romantic expectations that Europe had of Greece. So a historical narrative was put together claiming uninterrupted continuity with the ancient past. With time, this narrative became the central dogma of Greek national policy and identity.

As a kid growing up in Greece in the 1970s, I had to learn not one, but three Greek languages. First, it was the demotic parlance of everyday life, the living words people exchanged at the marketplaces and in the streets. But at school, we were taught something different: It was called “katharevousa” — “cleansed” — a language designed by 19th-century intellectuals to purify demotic from the cornucopia of borrowed Turkish, Slavic and Latin words. Finally, we had to study ancient Greek, the language of our classical ancestors, the heroes of Marathon and Thermopylae. We were supposed to learn “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” in the original, by heart, in case some time machine transported us back to Homeric times. As it happened, most of us managed to learn none of the three, ending up mixing them in one grammatically anarchic jargon that communicated mostly the confusion of our age.

Like its language, Greek society suffers from an equal number of divisions. First, there is the political class that, for almost two centuries now, has shown great subservience to foreign masters. They discovered early that claiming to be Euripides’ relative goes a long way toward procuring handsome loans and diplomatic sympathies. The geopolitical position of Greece, controlling shipping routes from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, also helps. No wonder that modern Greece never became truly independent. It has always been much too easy to be dependent on foreign power and capital. Although there have been periods of vigorous economic development and industrial renaissance, our economic history is one of successive defaults. Becoming a member of the European Union and of the euro zone, only to amass a titanic debt, has been the latest chapter in this modern odyssey.

Second, the intellectuals, mostly foreign-educated and well traveled, dream of a truly westernized Greece through some miracle of economic and social science. When the loan referendum was announced, like a thunderbolt out of a clear sky, most of them opposed it. Greece had to show that it belonged to the European family of nations, whatever that may mean. Rebellion was not to be tolerated, lest the country was kicked out of the euro, the symbol of Greek westernization. In the end, the intellectuals and politicians — with a lot of persuasion from angry European leaders and technocrats — had the referendum quashed. Besides, the invention of fantastical modern Greece demanded that its people, the third division of society, also remained imaginary.

Naturally, they are real as anything. They despise the loss of their sovereignty, particularly to the Germans, as well as the bitter medicine prescribed by their European brethren for their “rescue.” Austerity enforced by unelected officials from the troika — the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank — is perceived not as a remedy but as a punishment, an alien and distasteful concept to the orthodox Greeks whose core value is mercy.

Burdened with the improbable weight of forefathers who supposedly laid the foundations of Western civilization, driven by strong cultural undercurrents that undermine the authority of the state, they long for the realization of a dream promised by their political class: that Greece can somehow be something different from the rest of the world, a utopia where mortals can live like Olympians. Like the children of famous parents they could never possibly surpass, they bask in impossible desires, unable to summon the self-confidence to make their own, independent way in the world.

The Greek financial crisis is a crisis of identity as much as anything else. Unless the people redefine themselves, this could become the perfect catastrophe: a country designed as a romantic theme park two centuries ago, propped up with loans ever since, and unable to adjust to the crude realities of 21st-century globalization.

George Zarkadakis is the author, most recently, of the novel “The Island Survival Guide” and the play “The Imitation Game.” He divides his time between Athens and London.

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