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“On The Misfortune Of Being Greek” - Germans Dig In To Ever Pertinent 1975 Essay

Greek intellectual Nikos Dimou published a book in 1975 slamming his native country's failure. Now published for the first time in German, “On the Misfortune of Being Greek” is painfully relevant to understanding the current crisis engulfing the

Nikos Dimou talks about the Greek need to mythologize their past (Drassi/Tilemahos)
Nikos Dimou talks about the Greek need to mythologize their past (Drassi/Tilemahos)

By Berthold Seewald
DIE WELT/Worldcrunch

BERLIN -- In late November 2011, some German journalists were ordered to appear before an Athens court to face defamation charges and allegations that they insulted a national symbol after they published a doctored photograph of the Venus de Milo giving the finger. The image appeared on the cover of "Focus' magazine.

The situation was not without irony. Here was a country with a long Christian-Orthodox tradition miffed that someone would dare disrespect a pagan goddess whom people there were barred from worshiping some 1,600 years ago. Not content to stop there, Greek authorities decided to sue nationals of another Christian nation about the matter. From there it's but a short step to the depictions of German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a whip-wielding dominatrix, a vampire, and a Wehrmacht Tiger tank that appeared in the Greek media.

Happily, there are some Greeks who can make sense of such displacement activity. "We create myths about ourselves. And then we're unhappy when we can't live up to the myths we ourselves created." Put another way: "A primary symptom of the modern Greek soul is mythologizing."

The words are those of Nikos Dimou, a leading Greek intellectual. And what's particularly interesting about them is that they are not reflections on the recent bouts of mutual German and Greek mudslinging. Instead they date back more than 35 years.

Dimou must possess the gift of prophesy, because he also wrote: "Here is a statistical parameter of the average Greek. Measured by the salary he or she receives, the Greek lives in the most expensive country in Europe. It has the worst social security system, the most traffic accidents, the most pathetic educational system and the fewest number of books published. (I'm hoping there's another country – maybe Portugal? – that can prove me a liar on at least one of these points.")

Dimou, who was born in Athens in 1935, received part of his higher education in Munich, has written over 60 books, is a familiar figure on Greek talk shows and radio programs and has even ventured into the blogosphere. In 1975, he published a book in Greek called "On the Misfortune of Being Greek." Most of those in Greece who read books have read this book. And now it's been translated into German.

The dismal thing about the 72-page essay is that its aphorisms, which Dimou recorded during another Greek drama -- the dictatorship of the colonels from 1967 to 1974 -- are for the most part as pertinent today as ever.

Take this example: "On principle, a Greek does not take reality into account. He or she lives not only once but two times above their means. They promise three times as much as they could possibly deliver. They know four times as much as what they actually know. And they multiply their feelings by five when they express them."

Masters of the blame game

Right there lies an explanation for the charges brought against the German journalists. How about the public and media outrage at the euro group's austerity measures? Dimou evokes another myth: "‘Foreign intervention." Modern Greeks have never enjoyed accepting responsibility. It's always somebody else's fault – the intelligence service, NATO, the CIA…" And apparently Angela Merkel and the Nazis.

A lot of this material would be funny if it didn't have such a bitter edge and wasn't quite so pertinent. That holds true not only for the compatriots Dimou portrays so mercilessly but for all the philhellenes who've been telling themselves for hundreds of years that they're the descendants of Aristotle: "We are a people without a face, without identity. Not because we don't have these things. But because we don't dare look in the mirror... So we've learned to play alternate roles – sometimes we're the descendants of the ancient Greeks, and sometimes we're Europeans."

Every page of Dimou's book is imbued with this double perspective, explaining how Greek-Orthodox subjects of the Sultan could perceive themselves as the heirs of Pericles slotted for a return to glory. When this failed to happen, Greece was schlepped along – into the European Union, into the euro, and into the debt crisis.

But Dimou's book doesn't only suggest that Greece's problems are down to confused ideas: Greece also lacks institutions, he says. "Other people have institutions; we have mirages." Or: "The worst thing you can say about the Greek bourgeoisie is that it doesn't exist. Our capitalists are profiting less from the work of others than representatives of that glorious Greek tradition, the windbag: middlemen, agents, tricksters and dealers…" And: "The only dangerous institutions in Greece are the gerontocracy, the bureaucracy, and the matriarchy."

To Dimou, Greece is the sum of a national history that began in the 19th century with foreign dynasties, went from one political and economic bankruptcy to another, and in the 20th century knew several dictatorships and a civil war besides two world wars. "With methods and systems we do not apply to daily life, we concentrate on our secret mission: destroying the wonderful country that is ours as effectively as possible."

But what saddens Dimou most is that his writings fell on deaf ears. Typically, he turns it into a joke. "What's the bleakest thing in the world?" the passionate patriot quips. "Ten Greek intellectuals in a room, each one trying to get the other to listen."

Nikos Dimou: "Über das Unglück, ein Grieche zu sein". Translated by V. Maro Mariolea. Kunstmann, Munich. 72 pages, 7.95 euros. ISBN9783888977657.

Read the original article in German

Photo - Drassi/Tilemahos


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