Why 'philhellenes'? A note on terminology

Statue of Lord Byron in Athens, Greece.

The term ‘philhellenes’, which been adopted to characterize this site and its contributors, is used here in its literal (and ancient) sense for lovers of Greece and Greek culture. The aim is not to align the site closely with the aims and values of nineteenth-century philhellenism, a movement which divides opinion. Though Western philhellenes certainly cared passionately about Greece and played an important role in the fight for Greek independence, it can be argued that they espoused a highly selective view of Greece that ignored large tracts of Greek history and culture (in particular, the influence of Orthodox Christianity), and some Greeks regard philhellenism as a burden rather than a blessing (see for example, Nikos Dimou’s book The Misfortune to be Greek). There are complex historical and political debates here, on which I do not wish to take sides.

Why then do I use the term ‘philhellenes’? There are two reasons. First, I needed some term, and Greek friends expressed a slight preference for this one over the alternative Latin-Greek hybrid ‘Grecophile’. Second, and more importantly, there are aspects of nineteenth-century philhellenism that the site does seek to evoke — love of Greece and Greek culture, of course, but also solidarity with the Greek people in a time of struggle. Today, as in the 1820s, the Greek people face a fight to define their identity, establish their place in Europe, and create a prosperous future for their children. And now, as then, those who love Greece will want to rally to the cause. A new philhelleneism is needed, clear-eyed, inclusive, and progressive, but just as passionate in spirit as its predecessor. I hope that this site may do something, in its small way, to help create such a movement.

Image: Statue of Lord Byron by Alexandre Falguière in Athens, Greece.

Ochi Day, 2012

The 28th of October is a public holiday in Greece, known as Ochi Day. It commemorates the day in 1940 when  Mussolini’s ambassador gave an ultimatum to Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas: allow Italian troops to occupy regions of Greece or face war. The reply was, “Alors, c’est la guerre” or, in the popular version, “Ochi” (No) — a reply which brought Greece into the Second World War on the side of the Allies.

The following Greco-Italian war lasted five months and did not go as Mussolini planned. The Hellenic Army repelled the invasion and went on the offensive, occupying large areas of Albania (then under Italian control) and tying down hundreds of thousands of Italian troops. The stalemate forced Hitler to intervene, diverting large numbers of troops to the invasion of Greece. British troops came to Greece’s aid, but the Allied forces were massively outnumbered and outgunned, and mainland Greece fell in late April 1941, starting a long and painful occupation.

Greeks are proud of their role in resisting the Axis forces. Their initial victory over the Italians was the first successful Allied campaign of the war, and it is arguable that the subsequent diversion of German troops to the Battle of Greece significantly altered the course of the war, delaying the start of Hitler’s Russian offensive and thus contributing to the German defeat at the Battle of Moscow.

Since 1942 Ochi day has been celebrated by Greeks with parades and displays of national pride. With the current crisis, the day has also become a focus for protests against the austerity measures imposed by Greece’s EU partners and the IMF. This year the mood seemed more subdued, or perhaps dejected. We spent the day with friends at a local children’s playground. The lines below reflect my own mood that day.

It’s easy to self-dramatize
Living in country that’s so tried of saying no
It’s started saying yes
To hopelessness and hate.
But right now I’m aware of nothing but
A headache,
Children’s happy shouts,
And sunlight through small green leaves.

Shakespeare on the crisis in Greece

The School of European Education in Heraklion, Crete, Greece, belongs to the European Schools network, and provides primary and secondary education in both English and Greek. Its students come from a variety of European backgrounds, and one of the aims of the school is to give pupils confidence in their own cultural identity, as the bedrock for their development as European citizens. Earlier this summer, the fifth grade class of the English section, and their teacher Maria Kasmirli, produced the following short video interpreting Shylock’s famous monologue from The Merchant of Venice in the light of the current crisis in Greece. The project brought together the class’s work on language, literature, ethics, and European studies, and their discussions of issues of prejudice and social exclusion. I repost the video here because I feel it offers an interesting perspective on the events in Greece from young people of a variety of European backgrounds. (For full disclosure, I note that the class teacher Maria Kasmirli is my partner.)

A note on malaria in Greece

In a piece in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper Jon Henley reports on how cutbacks to Greek health services have led to a sharp rise in communicable diseases in the country. It’s a sobering piece, and I recommend all philhellenes to read it and to consider donating to Médecins sans Frontières Greece or other medical agencies working here. However, I also want to add a word of reassurance for those considering visiting Greece this year. The article says that malaria has become endemic in Greece — which seems pretty frightening. But, while true, the claim isn’t as scary as it sounds. ‘Endemic’ simply means that cases of the disease have been contracted in the country, rather than carried in from abroad; it doesn’t mean that the disease is running riot. In fact, there have been very few cases of malaria in Greece, and most of them have been confined to a farming region in the south of the Peloponnese, where conditions particularly favour the disease. (The phrase ‘south of the country’, used in the article, means ‘south of the mainland’, not the southern islands, such as Crete.) For more details, see this article in the journal Eurosurveillance and this update from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. There is some information on action being taken to combat the outbreak in this report by the Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Google translation here). See also the UK’s National Health Service advice page on Greece.

Of course, one should not be complacent, and all visitors should check the latest travel advice issued by their government. Moreover, we should all heed Jon Henley’s warnings about effects of cutbacks in the Greek health services. But as a Greek resident with a young family, I am not worried about malaria, and I continue to encourage my family and friends to visit this beautiful country.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Finisterre67.

Stephen Fry's modest proposal

Stephen Fry is, in his own words, ‘a philhellene who believes that any debt Greece may be in now is as nothing compared to the debt we owe Greece’ (email to the site editor 12/3/12).

In December 2011, Stephen wrote an article entitled ‘A Modest Proposal’, in which he reflected on our Greek heritage and argued for the return of the Parthenon Marbles from London to Athens, for display in the new Acropolis Museum. Such an act, he argued, timed to coincide with the UK’s hosting of the Olympic Games, would be a beautiful gesture, demonstrating gratitude to, and solidarity with, a country that has given the world so much and is currently suffering so greatly:

Greece made us. We owe them. They are ready for [the Marbles’] return and have never needed such morale boosting achievement more. And it would be so graceful, so apt, so right.

What greater gesture could be made to Greece in its time of appalling financial distress? An act of friendship, atonement and an expression of faith in the future of the cradle of democracy would be so, well just so damned classy.

It would also, Stephen notes, be the perfect way to honour the memory of the late Christopher Hitchens, a fellow philhellene who argued vigorously for the return of the Marbles.

I urge everyone to read Stephen’s passionate, eloquent, and witty piece and to get involved in the campaign for the reunification of the Marbles. Greeks are tired, dispirited, and deeply worried for their children’s future. The restoration of the Marbles would be a powerful expression of moral support, which would lift Greeks’ spirits and boost their confidence. As Stephen emphasizes, it is right thing to do, and this is the right time to do it.