Rising above the ‘Ochi’
When Ioannis Metaxas rejected an ultimatum by Benito Mussolini’s Italy on this day in 1940, he did not have any democratic legitimacy, he had not been elected by the people of this country to speak for them. He was a dictator. Nevertheless, he expressed the sentiment of all Greeks – from every political camp – who earned the world’s admiration with their resistance against Italy at the border with Albania.
I note this without any sense of admiration or acknowledgement of some kind of superiority of dictatorial regimes against democracy, but simply to underscore that there are certain moments in history when everything hangs on a single decision. These are the moments when madness has taken over and they demand that convention is swept aside and the rules of judging political systems are broken. These are also the moments that make heroes out of otherwise insecure, selfish and insignificant individuals. All it takes is being the right person, in the right moment, at the right time. And Ioannis Metaxas was such a person. This is a fact despite the desire of some who want to erase the role of certain people in the shaping of history.
The problem with such moments of rising above is that they tend to have a very short lifespan. The Greco-Italian War was succeeded a few years later by the Greek Civil War, which formed the backdrop of the political divisions we are experiencing to this very day. There are some things for which we Greeks have a relentless memory.
Greece has never had a prime minister who has not invoked the need for unity in helping the nation navigate its rocky course and who has not lambasted the opposition for sowing division. But unity can never be accomplished with such rhetorical proclamations.
For more than a decade, Greece has suffered through the worst economic crisis it has ever experienced in times of peace, while at the same time dealing with ever-mounting tension with Turkey. Greece’s political system may indeed have changed radically over the past decades, but unity remains elusive.
Waiting for that moment when the political system and society both rise above their narrow interests, similar to that which swept through the country 80 years ago, is an exercise in futility. Perhaps this is because the crisis is not as severe as we think or because the tension does not have an equal impact on all Greeks. Instead, we settle for celebrations and parades, just to go back to the same and worse the very next day. The fact is that we have become so complacent, there is nowhere for the seed of rising above to grow.