Diamantis, Apostolos. 2007. “Homo Sapiens: Monoi me tis stahtes” (Homo Sapiens: Alone with the Ashes). E of Eleftherotypia, Sunday, September 2,.
Chapter 8. 1974–2007: After History
Burn, Forest, Burn
There is never an end in history, despite the egregious announcements of such a possibility. When I was looking for an epilogue in the summer of 2007, Greece was facing the worst forest fires in memory and record. Three separate fire cycles managed to burn almost all the olive groves in southern Greece (in the south and western Peloponnese), vast areas of pine, spruce, and deciduous forest throughout the Peloponnese, on Euboea, in western Greece, on Mount Pelion, on islands of the Northern Aegean, on Crete, on all three mountains of Athens (Párnetha, Pentéle, and Hymettus), 73 human beings, 110 villages, thousands of homes, thousands of rare and protected species (animals and vegetation), and two of the forests that the ancient Greeks used to call “ancient”: the forest on Párnetha and the forest that surrounds ancient Olympia, including Kronion Hill, the sacred hill dedicated to Zeus around which the first sanctuaries at Olympia were built in the tenth and ninth centuries b.c., touching the buildings of the Sacred Altis (the oldest organized buildings at the site), licking the museum, burning the top of the warehouse of the German Archaeological Expedition, leaving its traces on the sides of the stadium. Huddled together in front of the television set, as family, friends, and neighbors we could not stop crying, sobbing for this most emblematic of all the destructions that Greece has endured as a modern state. In the face of this destruction, the government, unable to find ways of stopping it or even managing it, resorted to communication spins: it was the fault of the wind, the fault of the drought, it was something that was happening throughout the circum-Mediterranean world—but really, the government said, through its minister of foreign affairs, Dora Bakoyianni, and the minister of public order, Vyron Polydoras, it was the doing of the anarchists, the urban guerrilla groups, and what in Europe are called antipower units, who, in this way, brought about an “asymmetrical threat” to the country.
The country responded accordingly: “asymmetrical stupidity,” “asymmetrical criminality,” “asymmetrical idiocy,” “asymmetrical state” were only some of the responses that appeared in the leaders of newspapers, on commentaries on television, in every discussion that took place every day during the fires, over cell phones and land lines, in restaurants, over breakfast, lunch, and dinner, in the courtyards of houses, in shops, among shop owners, academics, housewives, employees in the private sector. “Is this our 9/11?” someone asked as, once again, the particular history of Greece since the Second World War came up. “χμκμχ αλλως ιχμακης” posted this comment on bavzer.blogspot .com (August 27, 2007):
The Morea [Peloponnese] had not been burned like this since the time of Ibrahim Pasha. The olive trees that are burning today had been planted immediately after their destruction by the Turkoegyptians. Time goes in cycles: yesterday's enemy is nowadays in our midst: the self who has lost and forgotten the sense of worth of what it has and owns governs the country now. He is ready to leave everything fodder to much more base and personal interests. When everything that is dear and familiar is being burned by the already-familiar calamities that are endemic in us what it shows is that Greece has not been liberated yet from the civil war and its bequest, which means that the partisan state is based on relationships of submission, the lack of clear laws (Roides had already intuited something of this when he referred to the existence but not application of the laws: every law contains within it the possibility of its non-application…) the essential absence of functioning democratic institutions in Greece.
The easy accusation of the groups of the extreme Left as being the ones not simply responsible (through negligence) but actively involved in the devastating fires by the minister of foreign affairs goes to the heart of the history of the modern Greek state and the Left: the accusation is that those groups are engaged in the active destruction of the state, an accusation that reverberates through the indictments of the Leftists from 1924 to now, through all the trials, mock trials, special tribunals, and Right-wing discourse of almost a century. The fact that the governments of the past twenty-five years (since 1981, but possibly since the post–civil-war period) have actively facilitated and supported illegal building and the plundering of public forest lands by not prosecuting illegal settlers is brushed aside as irrelevant. The fact that all governments since the Metaxas dictatorship have engaged actively in the production not of citizens, responsible and accountable to the polity, but of snitches and collaborators by rewarding them with public offices, pensions, and respectability was repeatedly brought up during the fires of the summer, primarily by cartoonists, who delivered the most acrid commentary. The political language from the postwar and junta eras was deployed again: the dosilogoi (“accountables and collaborators”), the tagmatasphalites (the Security Battalions of the German occupation), the paramilitaries, the junto-royalists, the ethnikophrones became again indexical of the relationship of the state to the citizens (and not the other around).
Two cartoons by Giannis Kalaitzis, both published in the daily Eleutherotypia after the fire at Párnetha (the fires in the region of ancient Olympia had not yet happened) rest precisely on this management of modern Greek history. One portrays the minister of the environment, George Souflias, as the wolf who has become shepherd, facing the wrath of the rest of the animals: sheep, birds, turtles. The background announces the owners of the national forest, which in the cartoon is called “Ethnikophron Forest of Párnetha,” various small settlement cooperatives that claim ownership: the settlement of junto-royalists, of dosilogoi, of hafiédes, of the paramilitaries, of the paraecclesiastical circles. A sheep asks the wolf: “Why are you not removing the settlers who own the villas?” “Because they are a protected species,” responds the wolf.
The anger, outrage, sense of helplessness, is palpable in all. Analyses, commentaries, the primacy of experience all mingle with invocations of history in an attempt to understand what is incomprehensible: How could, in the course of roughly eighty days, one-tenth of the country be burnt to charred remnants? The reporter Apostolos Diamantis, writing for the Sunday supplement of Eleutherotypia, dedicates his piece, a chronicle of his travel to ancient Olympia at the time of the fire, to the memory of ancestors: ancestors, without an article, definite, indefinite, possessive or not. Just ancestors. As he is approaching the area he thinks: “Nothing bad can happen to me here. Here I am protected by ancestors. By history… Moreas is in no need of anything; the old psyches protect him.” But he finally concedes: “Only, our fathers have no water hoses, they cannot fly a CanadAir [fire fighting airplanes]. They have long been dead” (Diamantis 2007).
How can anyone, even polemically and provocatively, pronounce history dead in the celebratory spirit in which it has been done, say by Francis Fukuyama? Where is it that history cannot be found, that it is absent from the ways in which we constantly make and remake ourselves? Is there a possibility for making ourselves understood by the world outside of history? The answers to these questions have been, tentatively and hesitantly, given in the pages you have just read. There is no hopeful conclusion here, just the painful realization of what the human is and how s/he makes a world that surrounds and envelopes everything. The last words go to a firefighter who was injured in the fire at Pentéle:
And I will not forget to still call myself ánthropos and owe nature a big apology for all the destruction that my species has caused it.
My question is: Will the villas that you are going to build have any meaning when there is not going to be anything green around you? When the air will smell of ashes and burn your lungs? How the hell will you, up there, and we, down here, be able to breathe at all? How can I expect that a state [krátos] with rigged elections and prefabricated parties would create a better future out of the ashes that have filled my lungs…
Philippopoulos 2007. The Philippopoulos letter circulated by e-mail throughout Greece on August 28, 2007. I am using it here as it appeared in the Sunday Eleutherotypia.
Ibrahim Pasha was the son of the Ottoman governor in Egypt and was sent to suppress the revolution in the Morea (the Peloponnese) in July 1824, with a squadron of seventeen thousand men. He was not able to penetrate the Greek navy and land on the Peloponnese until February 1825. Ibrahim's destruction of the Peloponnese has remained legendary, because of the burning of villages, olive groves, and forests, and the pillaging and rape of the population. He was stopped by the intervention of the Great Powers and capitulated to them in 1827. See Finlay 1871 for Ibrahim's expedition to the Morea.
Emmanouel Roides (1836–1904) is one of the most important writers of modern Greece. Although he wrote almost exclusively in the official purist language (katharevousa), he supported the development and wide use of the vernacular demotic. His magnum opus is Papissa Ioanna (Pope Joan) which has been translated into many languages and recently has been retold from its purist katharevousa in demotic by Dimitris Kalokyris. Papissa Ioanna is a scathing critique of the Catholic Church, although it is also a veiled critique of the Greek Orthodox Church and its meddling in Greek state affairs. The book was excommunicated by the Holy Synod (a decree that was later repealed) for its critique of the Catholic Church. Roides engaged in a serious critique of the Greek state, Greek character, Greek stereotypes, and anything that he understood as being the product of intellectual laziness. His writing is tight and complex, using words that he invents or reintroduces after they had been abandoned for centuries, ironic and playful. He considered his style to be the equivalent of a calabash banging the head of the reader to wake him up, and he often compared human and animal behavior, finding the human to be lacking.
A cartoon commenting on the role played by land speculation in the forest fires of 2007. The civil war is in the background on various levels.