The history of the 20th century's new and emerging Greek nation was characterised by its gradual territorial constitution and foundation, an extreme political polarisation, several wars and a civil war. After the Balkan Wars, the Great War, the 1922 catastrophe in Asia Minor, the Metaxas dictatorship 1936, the Second World War, the civil war (1946-1949) and the subsequent military state under emergency law, Greece only experienced a slow return to normal from the late 1950s and only began to settle and consolidate in the early 1960s. The military coup of 1967, however, signified an abrupt end to this brief initial and somewhat democratic phase in the history of the young Greek nation - with disastrous consequences for the country's societal and cultural development. To this day, Greece remains a special case: It was the only Western European nation to install a military dictatorship two decades after the Second World War, a dictatorship lasting seven years. Neither NATO nor Greece's Western European partners or its allies in the USA were prepared to play their part in aiding the swift removal of the military regime. Instead, all of them accepted the dictatorship, a regime governing a people who - for the first time in modern history - had been privileged enough to enjoy a fleeting touch of democracy.
During the second half of the 20th century, the country's national identity had, most of all, been defined via the cultural identity of "Greekness". So, it is only apt and symptomatic that in the 1960s - during a terribly brief democratic respite of seven to eight years - a culture with enormous international appeal began to flourish, a culture that continued to influence the artistic and aesthetic concept and self-image of most Greek creatives well into the 1990s. At the same time, this take on culture met with a phenomenal response from all social strata. And that is not all. "Greekness" not only entailed a frequently recurring enthusiasm for antiquity, but also encompassed sophisticated modern culture. Greek artists developed international careers and soon rose to global fame. In a way, it almost felt as if Greece had suddenly decided to make up for time lost since the European renaissance and caught up to the world in record time. This particular cultural movement suffered heavily under the seven-year dictatorship and the era finally drew to a complete close in the early 1990s. It had lost its epigones and - in a slow, almost imperceptible process - was replaced by a cosmopolitan, often indifferent cultural landscape that increasingly lost its national characteristics. Ever since, most of the great art by Greek artists has come from the Greek diaspora in the USA, Australia and Europe - external outposts that harbour as many Greeks as their country of origin and play host to the likes of Jeffrey Eugenides, Alexander Paine and Aris Fioretos, for example.
This - in my thoughts and words - "New Golden Age", these Golden Sixties of Greek culture, constitutes a phenomenon that has left its mark on all artistic disciplines, on literature, music, fine arts and cinematography. One of the period's undisputed highlights remains the Nobel Prize for literature, awarded to Giorgos Seferis in 1963, while fellow writers and poets Odysseas Elytis (who received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1979) and Yannis Ritsos continued to rise in international significance. This brand of new Greek literature - best known across the world for the novels of Nikos Kazantzakis - soon transcended national borders and was translated into many languages. In terms of music, Manos Chatzidakis caught the limelight in 1960 when he received an Oscar for his soundtrack composition. Mikis Theodorakis, too, enjoyed growing popularity for both his symphonic works from the 1950s and his later song cycles. Also during the 1950s and 1960s, several Greek film-makers received Oscars or other awards for their work in Los Angeles, Cannes, Berlin, Paris, London etc., among them masters of their art like Mihalis Cacoyannis, Nikos Koundouros, Vassilis Photopoulos and others. During the 1960s alone, Greek films or actors were honoured with a total of 16 Academy Award nominations, more than in any preceding or subsequent decade. Works of fine art - e. g. those by Yannis Tsarouchis - entered the collections of the Louvre in Paris and the portfolios of other name collections and museums. Back then, several Greek artists were still at the beginning of their ascending and international careers (Constantin Costa-Gavras, Theodoros Angelopoulos, Yannis Kounellis, Vangelis, Olympia Doukaki, Petros Markaris), while other well-known and feted personalities had already reached the peak of their fame. Who could forget Maria Callas, Melina Merkouri, Dimitris Mitropoulos, Yannis Xenakis, Irini Pappas, Katina Paxinou, Nana Mouskouri and - not to forget - John Cassavetes or Elia Kazan (both with Greek roots), to name but a few?
This cultural boom and bloom of a new Greek nation during the 1960s had its roots in the 1950s. Back then, both the disillusioned and traumatised leftist intelligentsia and the so-called bourgeois artists defined their artistic identity and aesthetics via the relationship to:
1. recent Greek art, i. e. since the 19th century (e. g. the "discovery" of Makriyannis' memoirs, Theofilos' naive paintings, Karagiosis' puppetry and "alternative" Rembetiko music)
2. European Modernity (e. g. the ostensibly revolutionary tradition of Sovjet novels, French surrealism, modern ballet and New Music) and
3. antiquity (e. g. on the one hand the aesthetics of laconian Constantinos Cavafys, on the other the anthemic Angelos Sikelianos).
At the same time, the Second World War and, most of all, the subsequent civil war and their psychological processing, assimilation pressures and repression played a decisive role as aspects of an almost imperceptible reflection, an almost never openly discussed and yet clearly existing traumatic experience anchored in the collective subconscious. Yet another fact held equal importance: All of the above-mentioned artistic processes took place under a latent, yet ever-present diasporic reality of "Greekness", a reality thrown into sharp relief by the dramatic repercussions of the 1922 catastrophe in Asia Minor and the final loss of Constantinople. If you expand these observations to include the aftermath and repercussions of the Cold War and the peculiarities of both pro- and anti communist propaganda in Greece, the context of the developing cultural and national self-image becomes even clearer.
The 1967 coup was not only meant to prevent the anticipated phenomenal electoral success of the liberal Center Union (Enosi Kentrou), a group hardly threatening to the governing system, but most of all a reaction to precisely this cultural revolution promoted and embraced by wide swathes of society, especially its younger constituents, and suffused by a leftist-libertarian and simultaneously enlightened and educational spirit. So, although the cultural tradition of the Golden Sixties continued to reverberate well into the 1990s, it was - as mentioned above - brutally suppressed by the seven years under Greece's junta regime and subsequently, from 1974, actively fought by the governing parties and - due to its implied postulate of freedom - even to a certain extent by the Communist Party.
Ever since the early 1990s, neoliberal politics have steered Greek society towards a "transcendental homelessness" (to use a term coined by the young Georg Lukacs) as the political and economical push towards a European and global market gave rise to a marginalisation of national and ethnic characteristics. This new, finance-driven model of society treated such deviations from the norm as obstacles to progress.
The new model did not favour headstrong Greeks, but preferred "faceless" consumers, especially those who would not question the status quo and were easily swayed by the vanity of feeling - and acting - like global citizens. Since 2009, and in line with the Greek economic crisis, this has fostered strong tendencies - from both intellectual circles and official government sources, especially the Ministry of Education - to "rewrite" recent Greek history from 1821, that is since the uprising against Ottoman rule. All of a sudden, many clearly established national landmarks in recent Greek history were being redefined by official agencies.
The Greek people started to lose their heroes, their ideals, their history; their national identity was called into question. In Greece, this discussion on a rigorous reinterpretation and rewriting of history - all the way into the school room - launched a veritable cultural battle, in part conducted with brute force and by very emotional means. At the height of the dispute, one of the country's most significant publicists and representatives of the "Golden Sixties", Kostas Georgasopoulos, wrote an essay titled On Vexillology, which included the following passages: "Many years after the phase of uprisings (to achieve Greek independence, A.K.) university professors and several other intellectuals described the flags born by people on the street as "rags", "nationalist symbols" or "idols of idolatry" in public statements. Now these self-same "theoreticians" wish to persuade us that nations are "constructs", states "machines of violence" and our people's history a scenario suitable for a daytime soap opera. Opinions of this kind are actually voiced in lecture halls and spread via text books. And the population, to a large extent, is pacified with cultural imports from countries in decline, countries who introduced the culture of exchange at the global stock market of drugs, of light entertainment, of monotony, silence and screams, of pathetic sex games..."
This multi-layered attack on all aspects of social life as well as Greek "historical awareness" and "integrity" sparked a previously unseen identity crisis among the traditionally self-confident Greek people. At the same time, this was also an inner battle between a neoliberal government dedicated to globalisation and thus "anti-Greek" and an older generation that had experienced war, civil war and the junta and had always drawn its strength and resilience from terms like "Greece", "home" and "freedom" - terms not used in a nationalistic way - as well as Greek history and culture. Now, their entire life and ideals were to be sacrificed to a new, "cosmopolitan" world-view. Thus, the entire population became the government's enemy - it needed to be incapacitated. This included denigrating the value of its cultural traditions as well as targeted attempts at subverting and destroying the Greeks' national consciousness; that is erasing their shared memories and culture. All of this was labelled "nationalism".
Yet long before Greece's economic downturn, its societal decline became apparent - and openly obvious to all when, in December 2008, one year before the crisis took hold, the country experienced a violent youth rebellion. The smouldering dissatisfaction with the status quo established by their parents' generation, the exasperation with the state's social indifference and especially the existential threat of a perceived lack of perspective, unleashed a previously unfathomable explosion of protests - the country had become a veritable powder keg. All this happened at a time where an entire generation of 17 to 30-year-olds saw Greece as a land without future, a land doomed in terms of its wealth, culture and social development.
It all started with the death of 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos on December 12th, 2008, shot by a policeman in cold blood according to witnesses, but killed accidentally by a ricocheting bullet from a policeman's gun according to official sources. Whatever the truth may be - Alexis Grigoropoulos became the symbol of a rejected generation. Not the son of a supermarket cashier, but a jeweller's offspring. Now, the dissolution of state systems started to tug all of those towards the abyss who had previously considered themselves economically secure. No one could feel safe from this dire reality anymore due to lucky circumstances or the right biography. The following letter by Alexis' friends, handed out at his funeral, serves as an emphatic document of this existential crisis and marks an expression of protest against a completely commercialised everyday life:
"We want a better world! Help us! We are no terrorists, hoodies - WE ARE YOUR CHILDREN! We have dreams - do not kill them. REMEMBER! You, too, were young once. And now all you ever do is chase your money and care about superficial stuff; you have turned fat and lost your hair, you have FORGOTTEN! We thought you would support us; we thought you would care, thought you would make us proud some day, too. IN VAIN! You live wrong lives, hang your heads, let your trousers down and wait for the day that you die. You no longer let your imagination roam, fall in love or create something. All you are still able to do is buy and sell. MATERIAL VALUES EVERYWHERE. NOWHERE LOVE - NOWHERE TRUTH. Where are the parents? Where are the artists? Why don't they step out to protect us? THEY ARE KILLING US! HELP US!
PS: No need for more tear gas. We will cry anyway."
For weeks on end, ten thousands of school children and students took to the street and occupied schools and universities. And these were no isolated protests, but an angry youthful uprising that eventually spread to the entire nation. All of a sudden, the deep generation gap and conflict as well as the young Greeks' resentment of the social conditions became amply apparent. The youth revolt was triggered by a clear lack of social perspective for this so-called "700 euro generation" (and the following "400 euro generation" in 2013). The mostly well-educated college and university graduates found themselves fighting over a tiny number of vacancies - and even those were badly paid and offered little in terms of promotion prospects.
Each and every day, these young people were confronted with the fact that they were not "needed", no matter how much time, energy and funds they and their family had invested in their own education. For them, there was no longer room in a country that had boasted the European Union's highest development rates until 2007. These young adults were forced to remain at their parents - and often showered in derision by outsiders and foreigners who labelled them "Mama's boys", afraid to leave the comforts of "Hotel Mama" behind. In actual fact, most of them simply could not afford the rent for even a tiny studio apartment on their meagre income. Quite obviously, the Greece of their parents had given up on them, they were nothing but tolerated guests and often felt like "home- and nationless" Greeks in a country abandoned to disarray and decay. And a mere year later, the most serious economic crisis of the last 50 years struck.
Time and again, in the years after 2009, Greeks would say that their country had been "bombed back to the level of the 1960s". In those dark days, hundreds of thousands of Greeks had been forced by the country's backward economic and social state to leave their own nation behind and try their luck as migrant workers in order to escape poverty and a still relatively unstable political system. Since 2010, all signs once again point into the same direction. Thousands of Greeks, especially the young ones, have fled and continue to flee their homeland. This brain drain of professionals and loss of creative potential will sooner or later seal the future fate of Greece. For a society that traditionally sets great store by parental support, these are tragic conditions - especially as the parental generation of those who are between 40 and 60 years of age today also finds itself confronted with the accusation that it is they who have consigned their children to this traumatic lack of prospects.
Thanks to the past forty years of Greek politics - and the repercussions of several potent measures introduced via foreign economic and political influence - Greece has effectively lost its young generation and thus its future. Its history is being rewritten as we speak; and so the country also loses its past. Its national identity is in question. It has lost the ability to face the present. This not only beggars the question whether "Greece" even still exists, but also - and most of all - if it can ever reinvent itself again.
Los Angeles, June 2012/ New York, February 2013
© Asteris Kutulas