A Greek Odyssey: 1821-2201

By Nikos Konstandaras

One-hundred-and-ninety years stand between us and the start of the war of liberation in 1821 -- as many as the years that stand between us and 2201. When they rose up against the Ottoman Empire, did any of our ancestors imagine what Greece would look like today? And do we dare imagine Greece 190 years from now, and how future Greeks will look back on the independence day that we commemorated last Friday? What will Greece look like in 2201, when Greeks will have been free of the Turkish yoke for longer than they were under it? What will we have done with our freedom? To imagine the future we have to look for whatever common traits exist between the Greeks of 1821 and today. As Thucydides noted, as long as human nature does not change, history is bound to repeat itself. Is there some national characteristic which determines our fate at this crossroads of armies and civilizations?

We will not get caught up in the 200-year-old debate on the racial roots of modern Greeks. We need only note the bravery of peasants and workers who took part in the war of liberation; merchants and shipowners who risked all to become revolutionaries; women who lost children, men, their freedom and their lives; civil strife and temporary agreements with friend and foe; middlemen and looters who grew rich; lunatics whose madness went unnoticed in the chaos and the innocents crushed in the gears of history.

Theodoros Kolokotronis, one of the greatest of the heroes of 1821, encapsulated the history of the Greeks in a few simple words -- words that his era and ours knew only to well. ?The ancient Greeks, our ancestors, fell out with each other and were divided, that?s why they fell first under the Romans, then other barbarians came and ruled over them. Then came the Muslims??, he told his students in Athens in 1838. He urged the youth: ?Your advancement and your learning should not be instruments only for your personal gain, but you must look to the good of the community, because it is in this good that your good resides,? he said. The weaknesses he noted are at the root of our current predicament.

Kolokotronis, Ioannis Makriyiannis and other fighters of 1821 would have recognized a country that is continually bankrupt or on the verge of default (it defaulted in 1826, 1843, 1860 and 1893), in which institutions are weak and citizens depend on the will of the mighty, laws are applied selectively, and selfishness and lawlessness reign. Here, reformers are either murdered (as was independent Greece?s first governor, Ioannis Capodistrias) or pushed aside, and the education system is in a perpetual state of collapse. We are in constant need of foreign loans and intervention and yet at the same time we believe that we are unique in our virtues and the victims of those who envy us. The Greeks of 1821 would also have no problem recognizing the nation state that exists today, as their struggle took place against the backdrop of a great rise in nationalism that shaped European history through the creation of nation states.

In the last 30 years, as a member of the European Union, Greece has enjoyed the longest period of peace and prosperity that it has known. Today, the EU is trying to find its way forward to secure stability and prosperity for its people -- benefits that only a transnational entity of 500 million people can hope to achieve in a globalized world. In Greece, though, the problems of injustice, irresponsibility and selfishness, continue to coexist with the intelligence, the flexibility (one could say ruthlessness) and the love of homeland that Odysseus represented and which have always helped Greeks thrive.

In 1821, the nation was fighting for the right to determine its own fate. Today no country can stand alone. Our future depends on the future of the EU. In 190 years it will be clear whether the European nations managed to hold on to their languages, customs, identity and borders as parts of a larger entity -- or whether the ?Greeks? of the future will simply be the progeny of a great nation of adventurers: A race with unquestionable virtues and incomprehensible weaknesses, who always had their mind on their future and their heart in the past as they struggled with the present.