UCL European Institute


Economic crisis, heritage and identity in Greece

9 April 2014

With Greek society deeply divided as a result of the current economic crisis, certain historical events have been used to trigger narratives of unity. Consequently, national identities are often acquiring nationalistic values which threaten social cohesion at national and international level.

Dr Kalliopi Fouseki, Dr Eleni Vomvyla, Mina Dragouni

The onset of the on-going Greek debt crisis can be dated back to April 2010, when it became apparent that the country needed a bailout agreement in order to avoid bankruptcy, as it was unable to access financial markets. Two financial aid programmes were agreed in May 2010 and July 2011 respectively, co-ordinated by a tripartite committee, also known as the ‘Troika’, comprising the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The bailout agreements demanded  the implementation of austerity measures and structural reforms, which led to severe economic and social effects on the Greek population (e.g. high unemployment, heavy taxation and poverty). 

Being Greeks but having spent the years of economic crisis in the UK, we have been sensing a destabilization of national identity, both by following the Greek media from abroad and through our conversations with our friends and family in Greece. These observations triggered us to explore the relationship of heritage and identity in the current Greek socioeconomic and political crisis as played out in the Greek newspapers ‘Ta Nea’ (The News, centre-left), ‘Ethnos’ (Nation, centre-left), ‘Avgi’ (Dawn, radical left), ‘Kathimerini’ (Daily, right-wing) and ‘Stochos’ (Target, extreme right). We looked specifically at which symbols and periods of the past have become popular during this crisis as a means to re-establish and re-define Greek national identity. 

At a time when Greek society appears deeply divided, indeed finds itself in what has been called a ‘pre-civil-war state’ (Kathimerini 26.10.2013), as a result of the scale of the current economic crisis, certain historical events have been used to trigger narratives of unity. With few exceptions, most Greek newspapers try to draw a direct comparison between today’s public opposition to the austerity measures imposed by the “Troika” and Greek resistance against the Axis Powers during World War II - and even the Greek War of Independence (1821-32). The heroic acts of coming together as a nation become a source of hope and moral inspiration in these newspapers for guiding the insecure, precarious present. These dialogues of solidarity are cast in terms of struggle and resistance (Avgi (26.10.2012). The newspapers directly allude to the WWII era when defining the proliferating practices of opposing EU austerity measures and right-wing government policies, which are said to lead the Greek population into ‘a new era of starvation, poverty and enslavement’ (Avgi 26.10.2012).

As is to be expected, Germany plays a particular role in this context. Germany’s role in the austerity and debt-relief programme imposed on Greece is viewed as a second ‘Occupation’. It is worth noting that during the visit of Angela Merkel to Greece in October 2012 the capital was full of street posters that depicted the Chancellor in a Nazi uniform. This ‘second occupation’ has been vividly visualised by counter-posing two photographs displaying Greeks queuing for food in 1941 and 2012 respectively (Avgi, Fig.1).

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Figure 1: Greeks queuing for food in 1941 and 2012 (Source)

Lastly, material cultural heritage sites, in particular the most internationally recognised symbol of ancient Greece, the Acropolis of Athens, are regularly transformed into sites of protest or ‘settings’ for communicating political claims. Hanging banners on the Acropolis has become a popular practice, especially among left-wing groups such as the Greek Communist Party (KKE), as a way of expressing their disapproval of government and EU policies in response to the crisis. Similarly, riots and a clash of workers with police forces erupted on the site in October 2010, when lay-offs at the Ministry of Culture were announced (Ethnos, 15.10.2010; 28.10.2010). Here too, a group of demonstrators hung a black banner at the Propylaea to express their dissatisfaction– choosing for this intervention the 28th of October, Greece’s National Day.  Interestingly, all these incidents were heavily criticised not only inside and outside the political arena, but condemned by the more centrist newspapers Ta Nea, Ethnos and Kathimerini as ‘sacrilegious’ (Fig.2).  

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Figure 2: Cartoon image by Ilias Makris in Kathimerini (Source)

By contrast, the radical left Avgi (15.10.2010) expressed its support for the demonstrations stating that it had in actual fact been the ‘invasion’ of  the sacred rock by Greek riot forces - the first time in Greek post-war history – which had ‘offended’ the monument’s reputation. 

While the aforementioned newspapers make reference to recent historic events, the newspaper of Golden Dawn, Stochos, focuses on ancient Greece. Their main narrative stresses the idea of a ‘New Great Greek Nation’ similar to that of its ancestors. The neo-fascist movement thus aims to reinforce the birth of a new form of modern Hellenic identity through symbols from ancient Greece. The key emblematic figure here is Great Alexander, who symbolises the role of the ‘New Hellenic Hero’, a proud fighter resisting the foreign “invaders”. For instance, when Golden Dawn’s proposition to rename a street in Athens from 17th November street to Great Alexander street was opposed by left-wing groups, “Stochos” stated that such reactions “come at a difficult time in our country, a time when [the country] is attacked by internal and external enemies”. Here “internal enemies” are represented by the Left and “external enemies” by Troika. Their attempt to “heroise” Modern Greeks in order to confront the “enemies” can also be reflected by their response to a letter written by an 11 year old student who described “how honored she feels to be Greek”. Stochos commented: “There is a shaft of light that this Race will not become extinct, as intended by many [enemies] who take advantage of the crisis and globalization”. 

Greek society is deeply divided as a result of the economic and socio-political crisis. In this ‘pre-civil war’ context, heritage and recent historic events, especially World War II comparisons that cultivate anti-German feelings, are used by newspapers to boost national pride, hope and heroism. Consequently, national identities are often acquiring nationalistic values which threaten social cohesion at national and international level.  

  • Dr. Kalliopi Fouseki, Lecturer, UCL Centre for Sustainable Heritage
  • Dr Eleni Vomvyla, Research Associate, UCL Institute of Archaeology
  • Mina Dragouni, PhD Student, UCL Centre for Sustainable Heritage