Certificates of patriotism

History ignites passions and splits the people of Greece. A leading politician recently confessed that «the school history textbook has cost us more than the bond.» Everyday on my desk, I find letters, from specialists and laymen, arguing whether Eleftherios Venizelos was right in sending Greek troops into Smyrna in 1919. I often meet young people who ask me, anxiously: «What exactly happened in Cyprus in 1974?» All of this illustrates Greeks’ passionate regard for history. Why, then, are we so poor when it comes to the study of history? Visit a downtown bookstore and look for a solid collection on Trikoupis, Venizelos or Metaxas. All you will find are portraits of sainthood, diatribes or fragmentary scholarly studies. On no shelf will you find what one would expect, what one finds anywhere else in Europe – a readable yet «weighty» book on Clemenceau or Churchill. I have often heard the cliche: «well, it’s all still very fresh.» This phrase, however, shows just how politically immature we are. How many centuries need to pass before we can discuss, in a calm yet frank manner, the tragic mistakes made by Archbishop Makarios, paid for at a high price by Cyprus as well as by Greek politics? How many decades will it take before we can discuss not what happened on the Smyrna waterfront in 1922, but what had preceded those events and whether Venizelos made a geopolitical mistake? We, unfortunately, grew up during the period of democratic transition with palatable cliches concerning the pseudo-Left and a xenophobic intellectualism that completely ruled out the expression of any divergent points of view. The stereotype ruled and protected, with its particular form of asylum, historical figures and incidents. When you combine passion with ignorance you rarely get the best mix of historical knowledge and judgement. Add to that the nomenclature of self-styled patriots (a system that has over the past years has replaced the so-called «conviction certificates» once granted by the anti-communist authorities) and things get even more complicated. It’s these same people who see themselves as the only purveyors of the truth and who demand that we all get a similar certificate before expressing our views on history or foreign policy issues. I do not belong to the Simitis school of thought that strove to turn the modern, Mediterranean Greek into a Calvinist, rationalist European. I like getting passionate about things; in fact, I get quite excited at the sight of a Greek flag on an Orthodox church on a small faraway island. And I don’t mind preserving a couple of national myths to maintain the big narrative that is crucial to every country’s survival. But I will not stand any self-professed nationalist pundit, posing as the local version of Israel’s ultraorthodox group, judging what is permitted and what is not. What I wish is for a type of nationalism that is based neither on cliches nor on conspiracy theories but on a serious and cool-headed study of history.

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.