Boris Johnson and the Parthenon Marbles

Boris Johnson and the Parthenon Marbles

In the last few months there have been encouraging signs that what Cavafy might have termed “mia kapoia lysis” to the vexed question of the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens might be found. One of the most promising of these portents is that the chair of the trustees of the British Museum, George Osborne, a former senior Conservative politician, has been engaged in secret talks over the issue with Kyriakos Mitsotakis. It has been suggested that agreement might be close over the future of the marbles.

But earlier this month, Michelle Donelan, the minister of culture, in a discussion on BBC Radio 4 seemed determined to put an end to suggestions that any such agreement, which would entail lifting the legal prohibition on the British Museum disposing of its treasures, is imminent. To do this, she argued, would create “a can of worms” and would constitute “a dangerous road to go down,” opening “the gateway to the question of the entire contents of our museums.”

Much has been written recently about the possible fate of the marbles but I have yet to see any reference in the debate to Boris Johnson’s brief mention of them in his book about Churchill published in 2014. “The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History” is a predictably flawed work which gives the impression of having been dictated rather than written. Some indeed have seen it as indicating that Johnson sees himself as a latter-day Churchill.

In the book, Johnson devotes three short paragraphs to the possible consequences of Unternehmen Seelowe, Hitler’s planned invasion of Britain in 1940. He tells us that Hitler intended to transfer Nelson’s Column from Trafalgar Square to Berlin and that Goering planned to plunder the National Gallery and ship its pictures to Germany. Johnson mentions that the Nazis had drawn up a list of prominent British figures known to be hostile to the Nazis who would have likely to have been shot, and that Himmler proposed “killing or enslaving” 80 percent of the British population.

To argue that return of the marbles to the Acropolis would result in an ‘infamy of infamies,’ worse than any other consequences of occupation, is at once frivolous and grotesquely inappropriate

Johnson’s further assertion that Nazi plans to send the Parthenon Marbles back to Greece would have constituted an “infamy of infamies,” worse than any of the multitude of their inevitable atrocities, is absurd. In 1946, Konstantinos Doxiadis published “Ai Thysiai tis Ellados sto Deftero Pangkosmio Polemo,” which offered a detailed accounting, with captions in Greek, French, English and Russian, of the wanton devastation wrought by the German, Italian and Bulgarian occupiers of Greece. A Nazi occupation of Britain would no doubt have given rise to a similar record.

To argue, as Johnson does, that return of the marbles to the Acropolis would result in an “infamy of infamies,” worse than any other consequences of occupation, is at once frivolous and grotesquely inappropriate. Boris Johnson is given to slapdash writing which he presumably finds amusing but which often causes unnecessary offense. He has, for instance, described in print the children of single mothers as “ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate.” It is entirely characteristic that in referring to Hitler’s invasion plans in what purports to be a serious book on Churchill, Johnson should have included such a flippant, offensive and irrelevant remark about the Parthenon Marbles.

Richard Clogg is one of the most influential specialists in modern and contemporary Greek history. His best-known work, “A Concise History of Greece” (1992), was awarded with the Runciman Award in 1993. Clogg himself was decorated with the Gold Cross of the Greek Order of Honor by the president of Greece in 2002.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.