Difficult Nations

I have never been to Greece before, but at the level of the life-world it feels completely familiar: numerous small markets, cafes, apothecaries, the occasional bookstore, chaotic traffic patterns with death-defying scooter-riders weaving between buses and taxis. In one sense Athens seems a generic southern European city. Of course there are differences, especially compared to Rome. The economic fragility is more palpable; an elegant turn of the century shopping centre that reminds me of the big one in Central Milano now sits completely abandoned, the windows still bearing the names of jewellers, upscale clothing stores and restaurants that catered to people with incomes they no longer have. Then there is the empty shell of the Hotel Sans Rival just down the street from where I am staying. Around the corner from it one finds a derelict school alongside a forlorn and garbage-filled basketball court populated by the stray cats which are ubiquitous in Athens. (Giorgos, my host from the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, misses no opportunity to pet them, which reminds me slightly of Emanuela.) The graffiti is also bolder and more colourful than in Rome, rising to cover most of the buildings from street-level to three or four feet off the ground. But these are all differences of degree rather than kind.

Another striking similarity between Rome and Athens is the way they exemplify the difficult relationship between their national and ancient pasts. One of the things that drove Emanuela mad about the tourists in Rome was how little interest they usually expressed in the country’s national history. The crowds would rush past Il museo del Risorgimento on their way to Trajan’s Market or the Forum. How many of them paid attention to the massive statue of Garibaldi that overlooks the Janiculum Hill above the Vatican? I have the same sense in Athens; in fact, here it is even more extreme. In the morning I visited the Museum of National History located in the old parliament building. The exhibits commemorating the 200th anniversary of the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence tell a story of the struggle of the ‘enslaved’ Hellenes against their Ottoman oppressors.

There are certain oddities about the tale, such as the fact that no one seemed to know quite what or where ‘Greece’ was. The attempt by Alexander Ypsilantis (the Greek Garibaldi) to raise an army of volunteers known to history as the ‘Sacred Band’ unfolded in Moldavia and Wallachia – present-day Romania. As the exhibit shows, the Greeks were scattered throughout the eastern Mediterranean in small, basically self-governing units. Did they imagine themselves to be a nation? The curators in any case had clearly read their Benedict Anderson. A printing press was prominently displayed alongside the ‘traditional costumes’ and other artefacts of Greek life before independence. But the most striking thing about the place was that it was almost empty except for myself and a middle-aged American couple, the three of us dutifully reading the plaques as we silently moved around the upper balcony.

The contrast with my early afternoon visit to the Acropolis was enormous. When I finally reached the ticket office it was approaching noon and a lengthy cosmopolitan line stretched out before me. Snippets of French, Spanish, Italian, English, German and Russian floated above the throng, but there was very little Greek. As we tourists waited, the sun cooked us from above and also from below as it bounced off the white marble paving stones that had been installed sometime in the sixties. It was a good-natured queue: polite and relaxed families with couples young and old. I was the only single person as far as I could see; a poignant reminder that I should have been doing this with her.

Affixed to the ticket office was a large white sign with the EU flag on it, announcing that the Acropolis had been decreed a ‘European Heritage Site’ and declaring that this was the place ‘where Europe began’. Here, it stated, democracy, science, philosophy and theatre had been invented. Since these pursuits and institutions were supposedly the defining features of ‘Europe’, then it too must have been invented here. It was hard to swallow this massive dose of Euro-Ideology for several reasons. First there’s the problem of veracity. Is it really true, no matter how remarkable classical Athens was, that all of these things were invented on the Acropolis? Second, even if it were true, why was this the beginning of ‘Europe’? How can Europe, or even worse the EU, claim to be the sole legitimate heir of Athens? After all, until the nineteenth century there was both a mosque and a church inside the Parthenon; Alexander spread Greek civilization far into Asia; and there is the obvious problem of North Africa and the significance of Aristotle for the Muslim world. Third, what of the current relationship between Europe and Greece? To call it strained would be an understatement, given how much damage the Troika’s ferocious belt-tightening measures have done. It’s no surprise that EU flags are very often defaced here.

Perhaps the deeper issue, which creates a certain commonality between Italy and Greece, is the difficulty of linking a pre-national past of purportedly universal significance to a national present that seems to be a second-hand version of the more ‘advanced’ west. Emanuela’s irritation expressed precisely this sense. Both Italy and Greece face such a problem: their greatness as civilizations preceded by centuries the arrival of the nation-state, and the universalization of that political form relegated them to a ‘semi-peripheral’ status. Thus the paradox of Italian or Greek national identity is that these nationalisms, while seeming to have an extremely strong symbolic basis in a charismatic past, can only access that past through the mediation of third-parties who legitimate it as a common ‘European’ one. The national population in both cases is condemned to play the role of curator of a heritage which is not quite its own.

One can therefore understand the hatred that the futurists felt for the past combined with the fetishization of speed, the cult of the new, and the elevation of Milan to the status of an anti-Rome. Futurism was really an attempt to escape the trap of antiquity by establishing a tabula rasa on which to build a renewed national spirit. But this attempt was also doomed to failure, since futurism’s cult of the new was compelled to refer to, and thereby carry within itself, the very antiquity that it rejected.

Black Sheep

We must have walked four or five miles wending our way first through the upscale shopping districts, and then passing by Syntagma Square where the communist party was holding a protest against rising fuel prices, before finally strolling along the broad marble-paved walking path that skirts the southern edge of the Acropolis. The setting sun had painted the Parthenon pink. Giorgos pointed out the massive apartments whose broad windows and balconies opened onto views of the temple. Many were empty – a consequence of the fact that some of their politician-owners were languishing in jail on corruption charges. We stopped to take a selfie in front of the Hellenic parliament, and as we continued our walk he gave me a brief history lesson. The main points he wanted to convey were these.

First, the Greek bourgeoisie was fundamentally diasporic. It had returned to ‘Greece’ only after being expelled from the Ottoman lands as nationalism took hold. Second, Greece has historically lacked a class of large landholders. This was partly the result of the policy of its liberal national leadership to distribute land in small plots so as to avoid the agrarian problem. Third, Greek urbanization had been extremely rapid in the 1960s, and this had created a paradoxical cityscape; one that is both ancient and hyper-modern with little in between. The layering of historical levels one feels in London, Rome or Paris is largely missing in Athens.

Our conversation wrapped up as we neared The Black Sheep – the restaurant where we were to meet two of Giorgos’s colleagues from the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Rosa and Phoebe. Rosa appeared just as we settled down at our table. She and Giorgos embraced, and their connection seemed to embody an overlapping set of bonds that were almost familial; they were friends, colleagues, political comrades. Physically the two contrasted sharply: Giorgos tall, dark, slightly heavy-set with an angular nose and intelligent brown eyes under a sharply defined brow; he appeared stereotypically ‘Greek’. Rosa by contrast had bleach blonde hair and soft features. She exuded energy, positivity, fitness. The food arrived, along with the simple refreshing wine that lubricated every evening I spent in Athens, and the conversation ranged widely: from Rosa’s boxing classes and observations about how her fellow pugilists seemed to be searching for an outlet more fulfilling than unemployment or their shitty jobs, to the legacy of the civil war of the late 1940s, to the American west and the foibles of US progressivism.

Rosa described her upbringing as the daughter of a communist family in a deeply conservative village in northern Greece. The communist kids, she explained, played, ate and socialized together, and above all did not go to church on Sundays. Her father travelled regularly to Bulgaria to meet comrades and perhaps to vacation – though when he returned to Greece he would try to point out that not everything was going well up north. Given this background, it was no accident that she shared a name with the Stiftung: Luxemburg was her namesake. Phoebe also described her political formation, explaining that she had worked in some capacity for a UN agency in Berlin but had grown disillusioned with their do-nothingism and was now back in Athens, excited to be involved in the Stiftung.

Toward the end of the evening I posed a question to the group. ‘Could any of you ever imagine being romantically involved with someone not on the left?’ They laughed, a bit taken aback by my query. All of them, after a brief consideration, rejected the idea. ‘It might be exciting at first,’ said Rosa, ‘but to be on the left is to adopt a view of the world, a way of life.’ The others agreed. This of course points to an important difference between the US and those countries that have had substantial communist or at least Marxist movements and parties. In Greece, or Italy or France, political traditions are rooted in a social milieu that spreads out from the sphere of formal politics and toward leisure time, friendship and romantic attachment. In the US, however, the sphere of politics and everyday life remain sharply distinct. To restrict one’s friends or circle of potential partners to ‘the left’ would mean either social isolation or membership in a cult or sect. It is possible that this is changing to some extent now as the widely condemned but in my opinion quite healthy and normal phenomenon of ‘political polarization’ would seem to show.

But caution should be used here, as the specificity of the US often forecloses comparisons and apparent convergences. For the phenomenon of US political polarization cannot be understood in terms of the historical categories of left and right as they emerged in Europe after the French Revolution. One might restrict oneself exclusively to Democratic Party voters in social interaction for decades without ever meeting a person of the left. This is true even within the Sanders wing of the party, which encompasses an amorphous spectrum of opinion stretching from Brandeis-type partisans of the regulatory state to the varieties of Kautskyist who shelter under the DSA banner. The lack of a tradition, or a shared set of intellectual references, or a worldview in the strong sense will take decades to repair. In the meantime, to be on the left but also to be a person in the US demands a sort of lived eclecticism or embodied pluralism which is quite distinct from the experience described by my Greek hosts.


The Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung is an admirably internationalist organization as befits its name – with branches in several European countries as well as the US and Mexico. But it is an internationalism with ‘German characteristics’. This is particularly evident in the leadership of the local offices. Each branch must have a German director; in the Athens office, this post is held by a man named Fritz. The evening of the presentation, he stood out immediately as an exemplar of his national type among the Greeks; he had close-cropped white hair, a triangular nose, an earring, and wore a pink linen shirt that seemed a bit like beach clothing. I was most struck by his sad grey eyes. His manner was ever so slightly formal and deferential, something I had not experienced from any of the Greeks. But he later revealed himself to be a profoundly sensitive and perceptive soul.

We were seated across from one another at the lovely taverna where the Stiftung hosted a post-seminar dinner and he explained the difficulties of his situation. Above all, there was the matter of the language. Fritz was taking classes but it was slow going, and the Greek alphabet added another layer of difficulty. He felt isolated, and missed Berlin. At dinner he was the only person to order a beer; I had briefly considered asking for one too in order to soften his sense of isolation, but chose at the last moment to drink wine because it went so well with the food. As I did so I felt slightly guilty, as if I had somehow betrayed him. He then asked if I had a family. This was the first time since Emanuela’s passing that the question had arisen in this sort of setting, and it recalled the numerous times I had spoken of her and described our lives together to relative strangers after giving a paper or speaking. I found myself saying in reply that I had once had a family, but that my wife had died tragically and that my son now attends college in Texas.

Poor Fritz clearly felt that he had committed a tremendous faux pas by asking me, but it was quite natural for him to do so since I was, and still am, wearing my wedding ring. In fact Fritz’s question had been prompted by an observation that showed him, at least in my view, to be a remarkably observant person. He said that he had noticed during the Q&A session that I was touching my ring as if to draw comfort from it. I was not aware of this, but was grateful to him for having pointed it out. It made me feel somehow near to her. I then asked if he had ever been married. ‘Once, for five years,’ he replied. ‘We parted amicably and I realized that I’m just not meant for that sort of thing; better to be alone.’

At this point, a fascinating episode started to unfold. It began with Rosa, who wielded an easy authority in dinner conversation, turning the discussion toward a mysterious episode in her father’s past involving a deployment to Cyprus in the sixties. Fritz seized the opportunity opened by Rosa’s story to share a rather extraordinary piece of his own family history. He was going through his grandfather’s papers and found a letter of recommendation; it must have been from the late 1930s, written by the local party official warmly recommending his grandfather for a position as a veterinarian. The letter deplored the local situation where non-party individuals were advancing in their careers while old NSDAP members such as Fritz’s grandfather could not progress. The situation was all the more scandalous since the grandfather had been involved in an important paramilitary action as a member of the SA (the earlier, more plebeian version of the SS) which had resulted in the death of a communist. Fritz had become obsessed with researching the incident, which took place in 1932, so as to better understand his grandfather’s part in it. This led him to the discovery of a large archival box containing a photograph that, to Fritz’s astonishment, showed his grandfather not only participating in the action but leading a column of SA men through the town where it had taken place.

He then pulled out his cell phone and showed us a picture of the column with an imposing bald man at its head who, he said, was his grandfather. ‘What became of him?’ Rosa asked. To which Fritz simply replied, ‘Stalingrad.’ We all expressed some scepticism, as he was clearly already well into middle age in 1932 and must have been in his fifties by the winter of 1941. But Fritz reminded us that he was a veterinarian and such people were highly valued in the Wehrmacht because of the importance of horses to Hitler’s armies. ‘Family history is fascinating,’ Rosa remarked. ‘There is always a dark secret to be revealed.’ ‘Especially among you Europeans,’ I joked. To which she quite rightly responded that there were certainly dark secrets in American family histories too. True enough, I thought to myself, although the American twentieth century had been so comparatively placid that its population has been somewhat insulated from those fundamental political choices that many Europeans have had to face, and which generate, after all, the dark secrets to which Rosa referred.

Read on: Dylan Riley, ‘Lockdown Limbo’, NLR 127.