EUROPA-LISTE: En busca de una cultura europea

Petros Markarisen

Petros Markaris © Diogenes Verlag

Petros Markaris © Diogenes Verlag

Commenting on surveys is exciting, in particular due to their contradictions.

Take, for instance, the answer to the first question, “What does Europe personally mean to you?” First place is held by civilisation and second by culture. It is lovely that we Greeks assess European civilisation and European culture so highly.

Yet democracy and peace are at the very bottom, at ninth and tenth place. Greece is a nation with a history marked by dictatorships and a bloody civil war. Do the Greeks appreciate so very little that democratic institutions are so firmly anchored in the constitutions of the EU states and in the consciousness of Europe’s citizens and that for the first time in its history, has not experienced a war for almost seventy years? I ask myself how the founding fathers of Europe would react to that.

It may be, however, that democracy and peace are taken for granted in Europe because they have become routine for Europeans. This can be seen as a positive thing. This assessment is also confirmed by the response to the question “How strongly do you feel European?” Only 3% of Greeks do not feel at all European.

The elation is only brief, though, as it is followed by the next contradiction. The answer that takes first place to the question “What is Europe's most significant contribution to world culture?” is democracy.

How can the two responses be reduced to a common denominator? First democracy is at the very bottom in people’s personal relationship with Europe and then it shoots to the very top as a cultural achievement.

Although this backs up my argument that democracy is taken for granted by Europeans today, grasping democracy and peace as the European routine is dangerous because democracy is a dynamic system that always demands new achievements. Or, to borrow words from Brecht, “True progress consists not in being progressive but in progressing.” We can see the impacts of this in the rise of right-wing extremist powers in Europe, particularly in Greece.

For a country with 27% unemployment and over 50% youth unemployment it is easy to explain that its citizens, like other southern Europeans, see Germany as an open door to jobs. Hence it is obvious that Greeks would place Germany at the top of the list of countries they would like to live in other than their own.

Yet here comes another contradiction. Germany is also leads as the answer to the question “Which country most embodies the future of Europe?” This is astonishing to say the least. The Greeks complain almost daily about the austerity policy that was forced upon them and are firmly convinced that this austerity policy was prescribed by Germany. If they were asked whether this austerity policy will safeguard Europe’s future they would most certainly have unanimously responded with “no.” Nonetheless they believe that Germany most embodies the future of Europe.

Finally, a curiosity: “Who is the greatest figure in European literature” is answered by the majority of respondents with “Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.” William Shakespeare comes in second.

Many Germans and Greeks are aware of my special relationship with Goethe and that I sacrificed five years of my life to translate Faust into Greek. Well, I could be a little self-important and claim that my Faust translation left such a deep mark on the Greeks that they put Goethe at the very top.

It is nonetheless hard for me to grasp that no ancient Greek poets are on the list. Not Aeschylus, not Sophocles, not even Euripides. Although whenever they need an argument against the rest of Europe, the Greeks almost always turn to their ancient ancestors, whether it’s about democracy or art. In addition to that, many Greeks travel yearly and with any means to Epidaurus for the annual summer festival of ancient theatre. Still, to the Greeks, their ancient poets are not even worth a place on the list of the greatest figures of European literature.

Contradictions are exciting and productive. You can learn from them.