The latest stage in the Greek debt crisis has been the referendum called by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, whose ruling Syriza party was elected on a platform of opposition to the austerity measures imposed by the Eurozone and the International Monetary Fund, in exchange for loans to service what almost everyone recognized are sovereign debts that Athens can never repay.
With the collapse of talks between the Greek government and its creditors, Tsipras called the referendum, seeking a "no" vote on the latest bailout terms offered by the Eurozone and IMF. Not surprisingly, many business commentators and economists have savaged the negotiating tactic being employed by Tsipras, essentially claiming that such an approach will lead to the inevitable ejection of Greece from the Eurozone, and an even worse contraction of the already depressed Greek economy.
On the basis of cold logic, those pundits may be correct. However, the affairs of human societies are rarely played out in a purely logical manner. Those observers, and the leadership of the Eurozone and IMF, have ignored the lessons from Greek history of the last century.
In asking Greek voters to render a vote for "Οχι" (pronounced "Ohi," which is "no" in Greek), Tsipras was echoing one of the most important dates on the Greek national calendar, "Ohi Day," held every October 28. "Ohi Day" commemorates an event that occurred on October 28, 1940 which has influenced the Greek national character ever since.
It was on that day that the Italian ambassador to Greece handed an ultimatum to the Greek Prime Minister, Ioannis Metaxas. Mussolini, who was jealous of the military successes achieved by his Axis partner, Hitler, decided he would attempt the game of conquest as well. Despite the fact that Metaxas was a dictator, sympathetic to both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, Mussolini decided on attacking Greece for no other reason than it appearing to be a defenseless country, ripe for easy conquest.
At 3 a.m., Metaxas was informed by Rome's ambassador that an Italian army would march into Greece from Albania in less than three hours, and he must capitulate or expect war. The answer from Metaxas was "Ohi."
That one word rallied Greek resistance to the invasion mounted by Fascist Italy. Metaxas, who was an ill man who would die within months, underwent a profound metamorphosis. He abandoned his previous empathy for fascism, and became a stalwart fighter for democracy. On the day of the Italian invasion, Metaxas issued a proclamation to the Greek people which began with these words, "The hour has come to fight for the liberty of Greece, her integrity and honor."
In a stirring radio broadcast made a month later, Metaxas told his nation, "All must know that the struggle must be hard and long, and that our road will not be strewn with flowers, but we shall overcome all difficulties, face all perils... We are fighting for values the significance of which goes beyond our own frontiers and those of the Balkan countries and extends to all humanity. Let us thank God that His will has again destined Greece to fight for such a lofty cause."
To the surprise of the entire world, the Greek army utterly routed the Italian invaders, and even liberated a large party of Italian-occupied Albania. It was the first time in World War II that an Axis army had been defeated in a land campaign. At a dark time in human history, the courage of the Greek nation was a rare beacon of light.
Eventually, Nazi Germany intervened in the fighting, and its massive war machine overcame Greek resistance. However, even under Nazi occupation, the Greek people continued to resist by mounting guerrilla warfare. The war brought much suffering to Greece, and an argument could have been made that accepting the Italian ultimatum might have spared the nation much material suffering. However, the cost would have been severe to the Greek people's sense of national dignity. In 1940, they followed in the direction set by Metaxas and established an example of national honor that inspired the world.
On July 5, 2015 the Greek people have again said "no." As in 1940, despite the hard road mandated by their decision, the Greek people have placed national honor and dignity on a higher plane than the only other alternative on offer: an ultimatum based on collective indignity and national impoverishment .