Provoking the Past in the Greek Referendum

People queue outside of a National bank branch in Thessaloniki on July 10, 2015. Lawmakers in Greece will vote whether to bac
People queue outside of a National bank branch in Thessaloniki on July 10, 2015. Lawmakers in Greece will vote whether to back a last-ditch reform plan the government submitted to creditors overnight in a bid to stave off financial collapse and a possible exit from the eurozone. AFP PHOTO / SAKIS MITROLIDIS (Photo credit should read SAKIS MITROLIDIS/AFP/Getty Images)

By Daniel M. Knight, Durham University

On June 26th the Greek government announced a snap referendum on a new Troika (European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) austerity package, causing the European Central Bank to cap Emergency Liquidity Assistance. Capital controls were immediately imposed, restricting Greek account holders to withdrawals of 60 euros per day. In ATM queues up and down the country it became particularly striking how people discussed their fears and aspirations for the future through extensive reference to poignant pasts.

Scenes of queuing strike an emotive chord with my research participants in Trikala (a mid-sized town on the Plain of Thessaly, central Greece, where I have worked since 2003) as people recall queues for petrol during the 2010 haulage strikes that lasted for over a week and left hospitals and airports without fuel. To go deeper into the vaults of history, the scenes resonate with queuing for rations during World War II. Now, in homes and cafeterias televisions play all day long, with various political figures selling their versions of referendum propaganda, framing their stories of social suffering and poverty according to their own agendas. These top-down narratives are interspersed with sound-bites from 'everyday people' voicing concerns over the closed banks, unpaid wages, and fears of possible hunger somewhere in the near future. An 87-year-old man tells a reporter that he has lived through many crises, including World War II, and he cannot remember a more painful time. A man claiming to be 103 says that he lived through two world wars and fought the Italians on the Albanian border in the 1940s. He now fears for his grandchildren's lives in a country pummeled into the ground by a mixture of poor economic strategy and political ineptitude on all sides. The 1946-49 civil war fought between nationalists and communists (put somewhat simplistically), as well as the 1973-74 polytechnic uprising and resultant toppling of the dictatorship, and the historic "Oxi (no) Day" in 1940, are all events regularly referenced in media discussions and among locals.

I have written at length about the significance of the past in the way Greeks experience the current economic turmoil. As I argue in my recent book, History, Time, and Economic Crisis in Central Greece, the cultural and temporal "proximity" of selective moments of the past help people understand dramatic social change. By embodying moments of the past, locals discuss their fears of returning to previous epochs of hardship while drawing courage that even the worst crises can be overcome. On the intimacy of pasts-presents-futures, renowned historian Mark Mazower wrote an interesting piece about the referendum in the New York Times. Likening the referendum and a potential Grexit to the collective suicide of Greeks who blew themselves up rather than surrendering to Turkish forces two centuries ago, Mazower also supposed that the Greek government may be playing on people's obsession with civil war resistance heroes, prevalent in popular culture and the education curriculum since the fall of the military dictatorship in 1974. Mazower's point that particular pasts are inextricably woven into how Greeks perceive their present struggle with fiscal austerity and their visions of the future fits well with Eric Hirsch and Charles Stewart's thesis on 'historicity', whereby versions of the past and future assume present form in relation to events, political needs, and available cultural and emotional dispositions. Upon notions of familiar pasts, elongated presents and emergent futures the Greek public went to vote on what was widely framed as a decision between Europe or the Orient, the Euro or the Drachma.

On the day of the referendum, July 5th, I am back in an ATM queue and talking histories and futures with the locals. Giorgos, a 72-year-old salesman, repeats a common line by telling me that greedy Germans have put Greece into a state of "occupation" that he compares with World War II. An alternative voice comes from Kostas, a 77-year-old retired plumber, who, over the course of twenty minutes, talks about the current crisis through disparate, seemingly unconnected moments of the past - Ottoman landlords in the mid-1800s, Eleftherios Venizelos's attempts to realize the "Megali Idea", the Asia Minor catastrophe, the World War II Axis occupation and Great Famine, Civil War, 1967-74 dictatorship and socio-political divides during debates around Greece's 1981 European Union accession. This "bouncing around through the past" is employed by Kostas to explain such things as the current anti-foreigner sentiments, the fear of going hungry, the rise of Greek nationalism, class wars, the social injustice of international markets, and the refugee crisis facing southern Europe. It is quite a tour de force of Modern Greek history, told through personal experiences, collective and intergenerational memories and "official" institutionalized narratives of the past.

The referendum returned a landslide victory for the "No" campaign, gaining 61.31% of the overall vote. In Trikala, "No" also prevailed with 58.67%. On 20th July the banks reopened, but I have no doubt that these days of crisis will leave an indelible mark, sedimented in mind and body, to be discussed in future times of social upheaval and suffering.

Daniel M. Knight is an Addison Wheeler Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at Durham University and Visiting Fellow at the Hellenic Observatory, London School of Economics and Political Science. He is author of History, Time, and Economic Crisis in Central Greece (Palgrave, 2015) and Associate Editor of History and Anthropology.