The Eudæmonist‘s latest post sent me to a review of David Roessel’s In Byron’s Shadow: Modern Greece in the English and American Imagination that got me interested in that book; the review’s mention of the Dilessi murders of 1870 (Δήλεσι [Dílesi] being a coastal town in eastern Boeotia where British and Italian tourists were killed by brigands) sent me off on a research binge that brought me to a brief but far-ranging article by David Brewer (whose book The Greek War of Independence I own and am eager to read) called “Ethnic Truth and Modern Greek History,” which resonated strongly with ideas I have long been mulling over (and have written about in my PURITY VS. HISTORY series of posts: 1, 2, 3, 4).
Brewer begins with Romilly Jenkins’s concept of “ethnic truth,” the idea that a nationalist conception of history can trump inconvenient facts:
In the furore over the Dilessi murders the Greeks denied all responsibility and argued, when the facts were clearly otherwise, that the travellers had rashly brought the tragedy on themselves and that the brigands involved were not Greeks but… Vlachs from the north. The ‘ethnic truth’ of the Greeks was completely opposed to the facts as perceived by the rest of the world. Yet ‘ethnic truth’ won.
He mentions the Karakasidou scandal of a decade ago (discussed by me here) and proceeds to an analysis of why Greece is particularly prone to this neurosis:
However, the roots of ethnic truth probably go deeper than this, to three divisions in Greek consciousness and culture. The first such split is between History and histories. History (with a capital H) is formal history, officially sanctioned, and an essential part of the national identity. On the other hand, histories (with a small h) are the stories of individual experiences. Anastasia Karakasidou found that the villagers she listened to easily believed both a version of events from History (that they were all Greeks descended from Alexander the Great) and a totally different one from their own histories (that many were Slav speakers from elsewhere). They could accept both—until forced to accept one or the other, when they chose History.
This division is reinforced by a second split, between two forms of the Greek language, katharevousa and demotic. Katharevousa is formal Greek, with many similarities to ancient Greek and purged (hence its name) of foreign words; demotic is Greek as spoken, with all the accretions and elisions that an everyday language naturally acquires. Katharevousa was the language of school books throughout the nineteenth century, and for much of the twentieth whenever a conservative government was in power. Generations of school children thus easily accepted that classroom History written in katharevousa was one thing, and that (hi)stories recounted in demotic by their elders round the fireside was quite another.
The third distinction, from which perhaps all the others flow, brings us back to Jenkins’ original idea. It is the conflict between two archetypes of the Greek temperament, the Hellene and the Romios. This was first proposed by Patrick Leigh Fermor in his 1966 book Roumeli, and no anthropologist working in Greece can now be without it. The Hellene, said Leigh Fermor, was the heir of ancient Greece, Hellas; the Romios was shaped by Byzantium, the new Rome, and by four centuries of Turkish occupation of Greece. He went on to list sixty-four characteristics of the Romios and the Hellene, in opposing pairs except for a few which were common to both, such as unstinting hospitality and a passion for the political sections of newspapers. Whereas the Romios favours practice, for instance, the Hellene favours theory; Romios lived by instinct, Hellene by principle and logic; the former is at home with demotic Greek, the latter with katharevousa. The argument is that in all Greeks there are elements of both, and that this is the origin of an inner turmoil in the Greek psyche which can lead to reactions which are incomprehensible to outsiders.
Romilly Jenkins’ concept of ‘ethnic truth’ was not intended to mock the Greeks: it was the basis of a plea for understanding. Ethnic truths, he wrote, ‘had held the Greek people together as a race, and nerved it to endure in patience and hope nearly four centuries of slavery’. So the next time we read a biography which savages the reputation of a great man, or hear a revisionist historian arguing that one of our own nation’s finest hours was not fine at all, and our hackles rise, and we take no interest in the evidence but spring to the conclusion, not just that the thesis is not true, but that it could not possibly be true—then at that moment we too are Greek, seething with indignation at the trampling of one of our own ‘ethnic truths’.