Back in Athens: History takes place in Greece first.

Back in Athens: History takes place in Greece first.

Acropolis in a rainy day. All photos by Joshua Tartakovsky (C) All Rights Reserved 2016.
I am back in Athens after a long absence.

The weather is still warm for a winter, the water – offered freely every time one sits down for a coffee, fresh and cold. The vegetables and meat – fresh and tasty.

But the system collapsed here, and will never recover as anyone who has eyes to see can admit. The economy will never recover. (Greece can never pay back its debt which is at least 175% of its GDP and every week businesses are closing down with unemployment at 50% among youth and 26% among adults).

The dying middle class can still pretend otherwise, as Ekathimerini makes desperate attempt to engage in a child’s dream that all this will pass and the banks will resume growth.  But Greeks are still limited to pulling out 80 euro a day from the bank, more children are begging for food or money, more homeless people in the street. There are also major discounts on everything. One can buy a small ancient Greek deity figurine + soap for a single euro.

In Exharcheia, the graffiti-ridden neighborhood, dominant is the spirit of nihilism and anarchism. Youngsters everywhere smoking marijuana, drinking beer or coffee for hours. No future to look forward to or a solution.

The young who can leave and who have the money are leaving. But most get paid about 500 Euro per month in total. In the mean time, the pro-austerity, pro-EU, Left-wing Syriza government is cutting down on pensions and may even repossess homes.

Greeks joined the EU due to their desire to be part of a wider structure of the west, but the truth is they would be a lot more better off if they would cut themselves off from Germany’s banks and the IMF and resort to simple basic village life. Greece was always more of the east than of the west and the people’s mentality is provincial. Why entertain the feeling of grandeur by being part of the EU when the result is poverty and hunger?

The saddest part of all this is the shame people feel, the humiliation.

In a bookshop by Panepistimio, I picked up a book of essays on modern Greek history by Stathis Kalyvas (Modern Greece: What Everyone Needs to Know, (Oxford University Press: 2015)). There was a note there that caught my attention.

The historian of the Balkans, Mark Mazower, argues that there are five recent historical events that point out that what happens in Greece later happens among other late modernizers or in general. The Greek war of independence of 1820 was the first independence war in a subsequent chain that broke the shackles of the Ottoman Empire, and was also unique in developing a modern form of ethnic nationalism new to the region. The mass transfer of populations in the 1920s, was copied by the Nazis and other actors. Resistance to the German occupation in World War II broke out earliest in Greece. The Greek Civil War as communists and right-wingers were vying for control, marked the beginning of the Cold War. Greece’s democratization of 1974 preceded the democratization tsunami in Latin America and Southeast Asia. 

Kalyvas argues that it is not that Greeks were always ahead of their time or trailblazers, though this was true too in many cases, but also that at times processes happened first there since Greece is a late-modernizer to the west. While it is to a large degree eastern in its ways and practices, at the same time it was a first among non-western countries in joining the western sphere. Therefore processes that began there were seen elsewhere.

In my opinion, Greece was not always a head of its time, but it appears as if it has almost been destined to be the ancient land where historical tsunamis hit first. The current economic crisis in Greece and the severe devastation that ensued will spread to other countries in the European continent and beyond but the crisis can be located in Greece in the here and now. If one wants to see what other parts of the world will look like in several years, perhaps one should come to Greece.

For better and worse, history happens in Greece first.

Acripolis in the background.


Homeless person sleeping in Plaka.


14859852_532148373655629_8371393953307236798_oYoung Greeks marching to mark Oxi Day when Prime Minister Metaxas rejected Mussolini’s request to enter the country, October 28, 1940.


14882332_532148603655606_8876684107568033897_oAbandoned home with graffiti, Athens


14890369_532148433655623_899666409591829989_oDignitaries and public servants overlooking Oxi Day procession, Athens.


14902792_532147826989017_5840075666963792105_oElderly man, Athens. The elderly have been particularly hit by the sliced-down pensions.