She takes my call at her home in Paris. It’s the first time she’s ever agreed to a telephone interview, making an exception for Kathimerini. She cuts me off as I thank her: “Forget the thank-yous. We have a lot to talk about.” Helene Glykatzi-Ahrweiler, 92, is a great Greek, a great woman and a great academic. A respected Byzantinologist, she was the first woman to serve as principal at the University of Sorbonne, was also principal at the University of Europe and president of the board at the European Cultural Center of Delphi, among other distinguished career milestones, and is passionate about history, which she often references in our discussion. “It is not history’s duty to solve the problems of the future, but simply to remind us of the solutions that were chosen during similar situations. But history that teaches only one solution is a dangerous thing,” she says.
When we talk about Greece and the Greeks, Ahrweiler brings up the issue of self-awareness. The Greeks, she says, “suffer from seven mortal sins,” and arrogance among them. “Was that the cause of SYRIZA’s demise in the elections?” I ask, referring to the ruling party’s recent defeat in European and local elections. “Are you trying to lure me into a discussion about politics? I’d rather we talked about culture,” she says. “But, isn’t politics entirely a matter of culture?” I insist. “You’re right. I’ll answer with a parable we use here in France: All students come to the Sorbonne in order to learn, except for the Greeks, who think they know everything and come here to teach it to the others.”
Pro-European parties remained dominant in the European Parliament elections, but Euroskeptics saw a rise in popularity, with far-right or nationalist parties winning in Italy, Britain, France and Poland. What are your thoughts on that?
I expected the results to be worse. [Marine] Le Pen may have come first in France, but was only just ahead of [President Emmanuel] Macron, and she also got fewer votes than in the last elections. Overall in Europe, the big winners were without doubt the Greens, that is parties which are diametrically opposite to the far-right, and that’s a good sign. So, I’m not scared of the far-right: It’s like a growing boil that needs to be lanced and I have a feeling it’s already happening.
Are you still in favor of Brexit?
Yes, I haven’t changed my mind. For decades, anything that was decided in Europe came with a footnote, an asterisk, added by the British. But we can’t move forward with asterisks; they have to go.
You openly expressed your support for Emmanuel Macron when he was elected president of France. Do you still believe in him?
No. But my daughter does and we argue about it all the time. The French, you know, have a good quality: They don’t tolerate arrogance. I’m the same way. I voted for him, but when I heard him tell an unemployed man asking for a job to “go across the street” and get one, and especially after the cover-up of the Benalla scandal – when Macron’s security officer beat up a protester – he was finished as far as I was concerned.
You have said that Europe’s biggest mistake was expanding rather than deepening, and that this triggered its decline. Is there hope or is this irreversible?
What does hope even mean? Hope is something to comfort the weak. Europe doesn’t need to be comforted; it needs hard work and accountability. And it needs this not just from countries and their leaderships, but from each and every one of us individually. We have come to the point of believing complacency to be a virtue. Yet complacency is the biggest form of cowardice. The worst thing we can do to our children is to teach them to remain quiet. In ancient Greece, during periods of crisis and division, citizens who would not take a position were fined. We tell our young people to be irresponsible, to stay off the pitch, instead of teaching them that we all need to be on the pitch and to fight. When you deny yourself the right of participation and choice, you’re denying your freedom.
How European is Greece today?
Greece and Europe have been intrinsically linked notions since the time of Herodotus. We need to remember that. And we need to learn to live in a European and globalized society without saying “us” and “them.”
You often talk about the process of acculturation, of how a new culture emerges from the union of different cultures. Is this the case in Europe today, as a result of globalization and immigration?
Speaking as a historian, there has never been an empire that was not multinational. The Byzantine Empire was no exception. And Europe has always been mixed-race, it has never had such a thing as biological purity. The crucial question today is how the migrants and refugees will be assimilated. Unfortunately, we continue making the same huge mistake – in Europe and in Greece. We treat foreign nationals like a separate community that cannot be assimilated. By doing so, we create a foreign territory within our own. The Arabs say that the land of Islam is wherever there is a single Muslim. The people coming to Greece, therefore, need to learn our language and customs, to be assimilated into Greek institutions in a manner that is not just restricted to the islands of the eastern Aegean and the hot spots, but which includes the entire country. We’re afraid of losing our culture by sharing it. But without contact with others, culture ceases being a culture.
You also often talk about your leftist background. Do you believe that the left has been dealt a blow in Greece by some of its representatives?
Of course. Let us not name names, but a leftist is a person who does leftist things, not one who claims to be one. The left is a way of life, not a manner of speech. Someone who likes to talk but not listen, who is not willing to stand up for those who are wronged, including their rivals, is not a leftist in my book. Defending your rival’s rights is the greatest virtue. This is why there is no such thing as a virtuous politician as far as I’m concerned. And if I continue to claim that I am a leftist, it is because I still hope for a more just distribution of wealth and an education system that teaches this virtue.
Is the lack of credibility in politics a result of the absence of virtuous politicians?
When we elect people to the European Parliament who have no idea what Europe is or how it works, who don’t speak a single foreign language, the loss of credibility just grows bigger. The same thing happens when we send people like [Alternate Health Minister Pavlos] Polakis to Parliament. When the incompetent are allowed to govern, it is the fault of the able.
I remember my parents saying that we have been destroyed by two evils: history and politics. I have tried to tame the former, but have never been involved in the latter. I once told Constantine Karamanlis that Greece was in a state of political decline. He looked at me in a kind of angry way and asked me why. I explained that it was because national issues become political, political issues become party issues and party issues become personal. And the national vision is lost as a result. That still hasn’t changed.
Is it a question of personalities? Are we missing capable leaders?
Let us not confuse the long-term with the short-term and facts with phenomena. A leader is a fact. What Greece needs is to rein in bad mentalities and phenomena, to find a different education. This is what it suffers from. Today, unfortunately, education does not start in the home and school is in no position to fill that void. An American Nobelist in the sciences was once asked which of the famous universities he had attended was most influential and he said: None. He explained that he had been taught the most important lessons in life at kindergarten. That’s where he was taught to wash his hands before a meal, not to take other children’s toys, to play by the rules of the game and, most importantly, to hold hands with the other children when they were crossing the road. That’s what is missing in Greece today.
A couple of years ago you said that the crisis could act as a wake-up call if we viewed the memorandum as a result rather than a cause of our problems. Did this happen?
No, and what’s more the memorandums – those that finished and those that are certain to come – lasted a lot longer in Greece than in any other country. That tells us the memorandums were not the only problem. We are missing team spirit, even among the intellectuals: Everyone works for themselves, myself included. So it’s not always the others who are to blame, but something we are doing wrong.
What are your views on the Prespes name deal?
The choice of name was a huge mistake, even bigger than the issue of citizenship and language. I was always in favor of the term “New Macedonia,” because North Macedonia naturally suggests a South Macedonia and in this case, North Macedonia is a country and the South Macedonia that is implied is a region in another country. I hope I’m proved wrong, but I’m afraid that this may cause problems some day.