When History Elects a Government


On April 23rd, 2010, Prime Minister George Papandreou issued an announcement from Kastelorizo: "It is absolutely necessary - a matter of national and imperative necessity - that we make a formal request to our partners to activate the support mechanism we and the other members of the EU have created together." Over the years that have followed, the concepts of 'national necessity,' 'partners' and 'EU' have all suffered serious damage in the consciousness of the Greek people.

Almost at the same time this announcement was being made, the German press were beginning to portray the Greeks as the contemporary Lotus-eaters of Europe, wallowing in a life of idle luxury, while their Greek counterparts were publishing images of Chancellor Merkel in an SS uniform, plotting a second occupation of Greece. These images were used frequently by both sides, reviving political stereotypes which had, for many years, been assumed to have disappeared from the collective consciousness. The use of history in the public sphere thus opened a new chapter in the Greece of the public finance crisis, a chapter that would have a decisive effect on the course of political events in the years that followed.

Critical revision of the past, recourse to the 'great and glorious' pages of our heroic national history, invocation of the 'national interest,' and finally the challenge to our country's historic 'mission' have all been used in the political discourse of all the parties and factions, although not always - fortunately - with the same degree of passion. The phenomenon that really deserves attention is the selective use of historic symbolisms made by the representatives of the Greek parliament, who - against all reason - have harped incessantly on the political and national history of the country, but only rarely made any reference to its economic history. Throughout the whole five-year period, reference has almost never been made to the country's history of bankruptcies, and when reference was made it was with awkwardness and embarrassment. Infinitely more attention has been paid to issues relating to the 'German Occupation,' claims for war reparations and the repayment of forced loans extracted from the country during the occupation, presented as the 'moral duty' of a proud people, all leading unwittingly to serious problems with social, political and psychological dimensions.

This instrumental use of history in the public sphere has encouraged many people, more comfortable with historical narratives than current facts, to believe that such narratives can take the place of a coherent economic program, a viable and practical economic plan for the regeneration of the Greek economy. There have been almost no serious, realistic economic studies to back the government programs of all those who have sought, in pursuit of their own objectives, to make party political capital from the 'Indignados' and the 'spirit of resistance' of those Greeks who 'refuse to be slaves.' The trouble is that this recourse to glib fairy tales, where history is consciously recruited to serve political ends, does nothing to help solve the problem of the public finances.

In public discourse, both the shifting of the problem from the memorandum to the need to create a new national narrative, and the squandering of history in disapproving slogans and caricatures, have had the effect of misleading Greek society, resulting in the coalition of a radical left faction with a party from the far right - two groupings whose principles of governance could not be farther apart, even on the most fundamental issues. In the end, it was the binary opposition of Occupation-Resistance, and the dimensions it assumed, which led Greece to a governing coalition of two diametrically opposed political factions, the spectacular rise of a neo-fascist party, an explosion of populist nationalism, a mushrooming of conspiracy theories, an upsurge in political violence, encroaching even into otherwise peaceful processions and marches, and also - and this is extremely important - a keen sense of victimization in Greek society. To find satisfaction,this feeling of victimhood demands enemies and traitors, it vents itself in anger and rage, evoking collective memories of the last century and leading, finally, to traumatic aberrations.

The need to take refuge and comfort in history and the harping on the heroic past of the nation have characterized politicians of all parties and shades of political opinion in their response to a problem which is, in fact, purely economic. Insofar, then, as historicity can serve as a political plan, can sideline economic problems, can shape public consciousness and opinion, and, finally, can change political and electoral circumstances, it would be interesting to learn if those who voted for ANEL (the Independent Greeks party, partners with SYRIZA in the current government) really wish to see a radical restructuring of the productive and social model of the country, of the sort envisioned by the even more moderate wing of SYRIZA, or whether they cast in their lot with a radical left alliance in the hope that they would thus be able to make good on some of the economic losses sustained in recent years. Whatever the answer, it is a question that deserves to be asked and, conversely, those who voted for SYRIZA should explain how the economic policies of ANEL can possibly be reconciled with those of their own party. A few days prior to re-application to the polls, it is worth it to watch "how" all the political parties will enlist historical factions in the electoral race, and "historicity" will once more be a modulation factor of the election result.

This blog originally appeared on HuffPost Greece and has been translated from the original Greek.