July 31, 2020 marked the 100-year anniversary of the assassination of the Greek patriot, diplomat, politician and intellectual Ion Dragoumis. To me, Dragoumis is an important figure for a personal reason as well; I spent about 10 years of my life researching and writing about him. Initially I wanted to submit a column to be published around July 31, but then I had second thoughts. I assumed – correctly as it turns out – that many people would do something similar and maybe I should wait to see what others wrote and publish something close to August 13, the date of his death under the Gregorian calendar.
In the last few days I read many columns exalting Dragoumis’ work and ideas; all well-written and accurate. I also read of the annual celebration on the spot where he fell in 1920 (across the road from what is today the Athens Hilton hotel), as well as the unveiling of a statue in Thessaloniki. All well and good, but how do people today remember him? In general, my fellow Greeks celebrate his patriotic deeds in Macedonia; this is indeed an important part of his life worth remembering. But what do modern Greeks know about some of his other ideas? By that, I don’t mean his “big ideas” about enlarging the Greek state, but rather his more “mundane” ideas about how the Greeks can change themselves in order to achieve their goals in the future.
Dragoumis was concerned about the fact that modern Greeks adopted foreign systems and mores without examining them first to see if they should be applied in Greece. He called that “aping” and he thought his fellow Greeks made fools of themselves. The uncritical adoption of Western culture and systems did not make the Greeks Westerners; indeed, it put them in a no-man’s land, cut off from traditional Greek culture but also not exactly Europeans.
Reading some of Dragoumis’ works from the 1910s one would think they were written today. He called for a smaller and more efficient bureaucracy; a better educated and more well-behaved police force; a well-developed system of evaluating civil servants, helping them to improve while dismissing those who refused to change their ways.
Dragoumis envisioned a Greek political system where members of Parliament would work to achieve national aims regardless of their political affiliation. He also thought that the country needed a better administrative system with local city councils having greater authority to take care of local issues. Under his system it would be up to the municipal authorities to hire teachers and doctors for the local school and hospital, not the ministry in Athens. He even stated (in the 1910s!) that Greece needed a national land registry, something that is still not available in 2020.
I do not agree with many of his political and social ideas, but that remarkable man realized 100 years ago that Greece needed a better system, and above all else, a better mentality. Dragoumis pointed to the fact that Greece needed – and still needs – citizens willing to work together for a better future regardless of personal gain and political affiliation. I don’t think Ion Dragoumis was looking for a better Greece; he was looking for better Greeks. I believe that if he was alive in the 1960s he would have agreed with US President John F. Kennedy, who proclaimed, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Such sentiments were absent in the festivities honoring Dragoumis; it is so much easier to honor a hero in the abstract rather than work to make his ideas reality. I am sure he would have preferred the latter rather than the former.
John A. Mazis is a history professor at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author of the book “A Man For All Seasons: The Uncompromising Life of Ion Dragoumis.”