Yes/No: Greece’s future schisms

The story of modern Greece is a story of schisms: sharp, bitter and far too often violent divisions that run deep and last for generations. And there has been no more powerful word in the modern framing of the national character than the word NO.

In the years prior to WW1, the most impactful and charismatic of the C20th prime ministers, Eleftherios Venizelos, was in deep and debilitating conflict with King Constantine I over Greece’s position in relation to the upcoming war. Venizelos saw Greece politically aligned with the Allies. Constantine sympathised with Germany and wished to remain neutral and therefore remain out of the war. Venizelos said “no,” precipitating a civil war when he permitted Allied forces to land in Greece’s north, and set himself up in a competing strategic capital city, thus physically dividing the country. The effect of this conflict, and the way it played out not only politically but also within families, was so profound that it still bears the name Εθνικός Διχασμός – the National Schism.

How could the views of the royal and the political leader be so divergent at so critical a time? Because – in a chilling parallel to today’s situation, a parallel that will repeat again in my brief genealogy – the monarchy was not a Greek institution. Rather, a monarchy with German heritage had been imposed upon Greece by European agreement back in 1832, following the human and economic devastation wreaked by the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire (1821-1832). European powers sought to introduce stability; ideological and political conflict was inevitable.

During WW2 and then the Greek civil war (1944-1949), the schism was threefold at least, with Εθνικό Απελευθερωτικό Μέτωπο (the National Liberation Front) and its military arm the Ελληνικός Λαϊκός Απελευθερωτικός Στρατός (Greek People’s Liberation Army) fighting Greek and other armies and militants. All of us have family members who chose a side, who strategised, struggled, fought, killed, did whatever it would take to protect their families and rebuild a nation.

It was during these years that the greatest NO of Greece’s modern life was expressed. Another devastating ultimatum was presented to the nation, this time by Mussolini in 1940: allow troops to enter and cross Greece to reach unidentified targets, or be invaded as an act of war. The response of the then Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas is now the stuff of legend: the single word «’Οχι» meaning “No.” So powerful was the gesture and its widespread reporting that, even though the rhetorical victory resulted in bloody war, with the “no” ultimately superfluous, the Greek National Day commemorated each year on 28 October is the commemoration of this event, and is known as the Επέτειος του «’Οχι» or ‘Οχι Day. I can think of no other nation that defines itself so powerfully through the capacity to exercise its own choice.

The American occupation under the Marshall Plan followed the Nazi occupation, and with it a new schism between American sympathisers and rebels. Many years later, when the highly accomplished and internationally educated Georgios Papandreou would try to channel his father’s great 1980s reformist legacy to lead as one of the first GFC prime ministers (2009-2011), his opponents ridiculed him as το Aμερικανάκι: the little American. In a striking parallel, when Papandreou announced a referendum to allow the Greek people to express themselves on the terms of the then bailout package, it cost him his leadership – and the referendum was never held.

On Sunday 5 July, the people of Greece will be asked to vote YES or NO on whether to accept the terms of the latest bailout package and their prescribed austerity measures – measures which through years of implementation have proved disastrous for the Greek economy and its people.

Although Greece has not been a monarchy since the coup of 21 April 1967, the schism between royalists and democrats remains a live one to this day – dividing families, communities and political parties. Alexis Tsipras’ first symbolic act as Prime Minister of Greece was to visit the memorial to resistance fighters murdered en masse by Nazis during the occupation of Greece. The parallels he wished his fellow Greeks to draw to the contemporary situation could not have been more ideologically stark.

And yet Alexis Tsipras is serious. Yanis Varoufakis is serious. What’s at stake here is far greater than the future of Greece as a sovereign nation: what’s at stake is the future of capitalism. That Varoufakis is entering negotiations with explicit consciousness of this is world-historic. For a man of his ethics and his intellectual appetite, there could be no lesser goal than to demonstrate and then to effect the redundancy of an economic system that is blind to the human costs of its relentless flows.

And so it may well be a game – the expertise area for which Varoufakis is well known – but it is no rank gamble. If capitalism is a relentlessly appropriative scheme – consuming left and right, yes and no – then Varoufakis wants to test its next permutation – with conviction, not recklessness.

The future Greek schism is inevitable. What form will it take? With military service having long been compulsory, the Greek population is trained, armed and confident. This is what makes Golden Dawn so frightening. Several generations have seen worse, and got through with exceptional resilience, resourcefulness and good humour; everything I describe here is within living memory for Greeks who were there, for my parents who are there, for family spread across the country and spanning several living generations, and for the compelling oral histories that have come to define the national character.

Greeks know the power of the redundant NO. Whether the European offer is on the table come Sunday, Greece will exercise its right to self-determination – a right that for far too long has had the capacity to be exercised only rhetorically. My hope is that the next of the inevitable schisms will be between this rhetorical confidence and a genuine nation-building effort, for a practical confidence that shapes the future Greece: a tension that is constructive, not violent. There is so much at stake, and so much good work to be done.