Defiance, Greek Style

My husband recently tweeted a picture of Paul Newman and Robert Redford as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid charging out with guns blazing in Bolivia, about to get slaughtered, and likened them to Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis meeting with the EU.

We're both Greek-American, and I laughed nervously at his tweet, sharing the same doubt and discomfort about the new Greek government's showdown with the European union: What naiveté, bluster, irreverence. What makes them think they can rebel against all of Europe? This will not end well.

But reading and watching news of Syriza party's attempts to renegotiate a bailout agreement with the EU and ease austerity in what they term a humanitarian crisis for the Greek people, I've traded doubt and discomfort for a new feeling: respect. It's inspiring to see young elected officials saying "no." No, our people can't bear any more austerity. No, these economic policies aren't working. No, we won't continue with business and politics as usual. No, we don't wear ties.

The Greeks are defiant people. They've been saying "oxi," or "no," since ancient times, and been immortalized for it. The Jacques-Louis David painting "The Death of Socrates" in the Metropolitan Museum depicts a non-repentant Socrates continuing to teach his pupils even as he holds a cup of hemlock that will constitute his own execution. The movie 300 dramatizes the heroic last stand of King Leonidas of Sparta against the much larger Persian army during the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C.

Less known, perhaps, is the modern Greek legacy of digging in their heels and fighting to the death to defend the very democracy they invented.

Take World War II for example: Greece, a poor nation of eight million, was the first country to defeat Axis forces on land. Most of Europe had already folded to Hitler and Mussolini, but on the morning of Oct 28, 1940, Greek Prime Minister Metaxas uttered a bald "oxi"! to the Italian ambassador's ultimatum to allow Mussolini's troops to enter Greek borders unopposed (in effect, a surrender). Mussolini's army invaded, but Greeks ran through the streets shouting "oxi" and mounted a successful resistance, four months later pushing the Italian army back into Albania armed with little more than farm tools at times.

President Franklin Roosevelt lauded Greek defiance: "When the entire world had lost all hope, the Greek people dared to question the invincibility of the German monster raising against it the proud spirit of freedom."

Winston Churchill said, "Hence, we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks." Greek soldiers were featured on the cover of Life magazine. Many historians agree that Greece's fierce resistance changed the course of the war, disrupting Hitler's timetable and forcing him deeper into the Russian winter, where he met defeat.

In Greece, the national holiday "OXI Day" is celebrated every October 28th commemorating the spirit of defiance during World War II.

The word "oxi" had another iteration in modern Greek history.

Alexander Panagoulis, a 28-year-old activist, attempted to assassinate Greece's dictator George Papadopoulos in 1968, in effect saying a big "oxi" to the military junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974. Panagoulis crouched on a coastal road outside Athens in his bathing trunks waiting to detonate a homemade bomb as the dictator rode by in his limousine, but he missed by a fraction of a second.

He became internationally known when the junta brutally tortured and sentenced him to death. At his trial, Panagoulis gave a two hour-defense, saying, "I am not in favor of violence or political assassination, but when a government is imposed with violence it can only change with violence. And it will change, it will be overthrown. It doesn't matter that we failed, others will follow." After being sentenced to death, he said: "The greatest swan song of the true fighter is the death rattle he emits when shot by the firing squad of tyranny. This is the position I accept."

An outcry from Lyndon Johnson to the Pope helped transmute Panagoulis' death sentence to life imprisonment. He suffered physical and psychological torture during five years of solitary confinement, but never stopped trying to escape, writing poetry with a matchstick dipped in his blood and smuggling it out of prison, winning the Viareggio Prize in Italy.

In 1973, Panagoulis was released in a general amnesty and when the dictatorship collapsed in 1974, he was elected a Member of Parliament. He continued saying "oxi" -- no to the monarchy, no to party politics as usual. Especially, no to "the wolves dressed in democrats' clothing," the junta collaborators he was convinced were still high up in government. He got his hands on military police files he believed implicated these collaborators, but two days before he was to present his evidence to parliament, he was killed in a suspicious car crash. Oriana Fallaci, the famous Italian journalist who was his partner during the last three years of his life, called it "murder," as many in Greece did.

In 2012, the Greek government erected a two-meter statue of Panagoulis in Athens center. Present at the unveiling ceremony was Manolis Glezos, the soldier who in 1941 removed the German flag flying from the Acropolis in the first act of resistance against the Nazis.

Oxi is a time-honored Greek position. Maybe the people with democracy in their DNA understand on a cellular level that democracy and freedom are always being threatened. And sometimes, you have to get off the couch or computer, and get out into the street or in front of the troika -- and even if it's hopeless or naïve or misguided, even if you might lose, just say "oxi."