Daring to Remember

Daring to remember

A critical reflection by Greek author Nikos Themelis, translated by Vivienne Nilan.

Is the great idea of Europe as a democratic entity that maintains diverse cultural identities in a peaceful co-existence that is viable on a day-to-day-day level a chimera or is it indeed a realizable dream, at least for future generations?

I shall attempt to address a few questions:

What can unite the peoples of Southeastern Europe in the present reality of European integration and of globalization?
More particularly, which past, which present and which future?
From which values, principles and worldviews, and through which developments and processes might arise a shared consciousness that would unite and not divide, and that would espouse the culture of democracy? A culture that would respect diversity and strengthen multiculturalism, not as a necessary evil, but as a fount of creativity, solidarity and progress.
What contribution can literature make?

Let’s look back at our past, both at what actually happened and at what we were taught by official state education.

The past that shapes historical consciousness in societies is created by academic historians to serve across time, not only the pursuit of historical truth but also national, political, religious and educational expediency. Hence our knowledge of what happened among our peoples in Southeastern Europe at the beginnings of the nation-state in the mid-19th century is mostly about enmity, wars, violence, irredentist territorial claims and border disputes, religious antagonism within the Orthodox church itself, racial discrimination, persecution of minorities and ethnic cleansing. In times of peace, there was extreme suspicion, with people on the alert for the next confrontation. Advocates of this historical line took it as read that those to blame for such phenomena were “others”, either neighbours or the various Great Powers of Europe that influenced historical developments in Southeastern Europe. As for any responsibilities of their own, events, though regrettable, are justified and legitimized, in advance or in retrospect, in the service of two paramount values: the forging of national consciousness and national supremacy.

For the great majority of our peoples, this past remains relevant, living on for their parents and grandparents as a traumatic memory. Many are unable to get over it, especially when they still live with its consequences. Carried on into the present by tradition, education and national ideology, such a past obstructs the rapprochement of peoples and inhibits efforts to underline the importance of any unifying elements.

Let’s look at our past. The demarcation of the time between past and present is a difficult process about which we may disagree. Which era is registered in the collective consciousness as the past and where does the present begin in Europe? How many different collective consciousnesses are there ­– indeed much more powerful ones than that which might be termed the collective consciousness of Europe? Where is the definitive break between yesterday and today? Does it come at the end of the Second World War, with more recent events, such as the collapse of state socialism, or with the escalation of globalization and the irruption of new technologies?

In Western European communities following WWII, the experience of two global wars, the Holocaust, and the prolonged, profound maturation of rational thought and democratic values put an end to confrontational ideas, expansionism, revanchism and the violation of human rights. In my view, it is hard not to agree however that the problems, situations, perceptions and psychological pressures of the past are still being reproduced in the relations of the peoples of Southeastern Europe and, in one way or another, have left their mark there. The causes are many. In the recent past, for instance, the creation of nation-states in the Balkans on the territory of the former Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, ongoing problems in Greek-Turkish relations, the division of Southeastern Europe into countries that joined the Western bloc (Greece, Turkey, Cyprus) and others that were part of the socialist bloc, the Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus, the recent dismemberment of former Yugoslavia, minority issues, and the deep sense of difference between Christians and Muslims.

National communities currently show differing rates of development and differing rates of success in overcoming all kinds of delays and deficiencies compared with those seen in Western Europe after the end of WWII. This was evident initially when they were forming democratic polities, and then in a broader culture of democracy but also in social organization, economic development, the spread of prosperity to the broad masses, and in their exclusion, until recently, from participation in the building the European Union. The differing tempo of developments has had a decisive influence on the agenda of national priorities. Close examination of democracy, emphasis on the values of peaceful coexistence, respect for diversity, mutually beneficial cooperation and the osmosis of ideas are not at the head of the list.

Borders often play contradictory roles.
During the same period, and more than in any other part of Europe, all kinds political, national, economic, religious, communications and psychological borders rise up implacably against the outside world, entrenching local communities. They erect barriers to mutual understanding, to the formation of a shared awareness that even though they do not yet belong to a broader collectivity, to an embryonic union, they can at least strive in concert for similar objectives. Advocates of understanding and a constructive approach to internal relations do exist in the societies of Southeastern Europe. They are to be found among the political and social elite, in the families of academics and intellectuals, but they are still in the minority. The majority of societies move on alone, even when they share great aims, such as their European orientation.

Might the dwindling importance of borders be a hope? Certainly, if we look into the distant future. But what have we seen so far? For large majorities within national confines where they see all kinds of borders being weakened – either within the European Union, or as a result of globalization or, in some cases, by force  – this development generates insecurity and fear for their collective or individual identity. Rapid international realignment, the transitional period in which we live, mobility within communities, waves of migration, inadequate policies, the sense that citizens are unable to influence events and the absence of a convincingly promising counterbalance to manifold uncertainties make things look worse. Hence increasing numbers of people feel they risk losing something that lies at the heart of their personality: their cultural identity. In reaction, cultural identity is emerging as the last bastion of defence against threats and the fear of developments that unify and homogenize the world. And this is a cultural identity fashioned from traditional ethnocentric materials. Diversity and problems with neighbours are treated to a great extent with the same suspicion if not hostility as they were in the past.

The conclusion is that both past and present undermine the great idea of Europe as a democratic entity that retains its plurality of cultural identities in a peaceful co-existence that is viable at a day-to-day level.

How can this situation be tackled?

I shall focus on three aspects.

What can we do about our past? The past doesn’t change, but historians select and impose their own hierarchies. They choose what to accentuate, what to highlight, how to interpret causes, motives, decisions and consequences; how to take an overall approach to events and their past. For example, since its beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century, historians of Modern Greek have focused on the clash of the Greeks with the Ottoman Empire and later with Turkey. Other important developments are either not recorded or mentioned only in passing. For example, the fact that in the multicultural Ottoman Empire, ethnic communities, in particular the Greeks in Smyrna and Constantinople, on the shores of the Black Sea, in the Aegean, urban centers along the Danube, Thessaloniki and the Asia Minor hinterland were able to develop and prosper, alongside the Jewish and Armenian communities. In those centers the preconditions were formed for the creation of the Greek bourgeoisie of the 19th century, a development in Greek society that was of crucial significance for the modern nation-state, its identity and national consciousness. That these cities absorbed the ideas of the Enlightenment and humanism from Western Europe, gave their representatives a hearing, even if in the end they did not prevail. In some cases, members of different ethnic groups, such as Greeks and Romanians, developed firm bonds among the intelligentsia and in the field of education, in contrast with the outbreaks of contention within the Christian Orthodox Church between the Patriarch of Constantinople, the Bulgarian Exarchate and the Serbian Orthodox Church.
Alongside the confrontational approach to history is that of peaceful coexistence and cooperation, progress and prosperity. I believe there are similar examples of suppressed history throughout Southeastern Europe. Some day historians must draw attention to them. At the same time they must cultivate a sober approach to the interpretation of events, a critical approach to the levelling of blame for the dark pages of history. “The others” cannot always be to blame.

Reconsidering our past would be a significant step towards fashioning a culture that could help overcome the traumatic memories of the post and pave the way to agreement, understanding, and building relations with neighbours on the basis of hitherto neglected principles and values.

What do we do about our present? Our present can change. It is being shaped by our peoples and their political leaders. For four countries in Southeastern Europe it is being shaped within the European Union, and for the others by their steady progress towards EU accession. But all of them should look on it in the same way. Accession cannot only be dictated by the objectives of strengthening the member state and its ability to influence broader developments, consolidating democratic rule, absorbing EU funds and gaining access to other benefits, security and economic progress. Accession must also be dictated by the willingness of aspiring members to belong to a community of the values and principles on which the entire project of a united Europe stands. What is at stake is not only the value of peace in relations between neighbours, but also all the attendant principles of a culture of democracy, such as freedom, justice, respect for human rights and diversity, the spirit of good neighborliness, responsibility towards other partners, especially in decisions taken by the relevant bodies in accordance with existing procedures, solidarity in action and respect for the rule of international law.

These values and principals must be the common ground on which national worldviews, national identities and values, cultural identity and the particularity of each local community are built and consolidated.

The above rationale must not be seen only as a European Union accession prerequistite for aspiring members. Irrespective of their European vocation, it is essential because in this way they can gain the support of European and global society for their national goals, bearing in mind their key geopolitical position. Moreover, after 60 years of trial in Western Europe, and despite the some shortcomings in its application, it has proved its effectiveness for the progress of communities.

It is no easy undertaking to combine the promotion of European integration as a community of values and principles with respect for diversity, especially the cultural diversity that is a distinctive mark of our identities. Besides, the evolution of the union is not prescribed. Some political and social forces will continue to concentrate on unification procedures and prospects, while others will focus on safeguarding diversity in the communities and cultures they represent. There is a need for a different approach from that which sees one trend in opposition to the other, an approach that will seek creative coexistence and the synthesis of both. The results of this quest must be the product of social fermentation and not of a concept imposed from above by some power mechanism. Democratic legitimization is a condition of their viability.

In what way can literature contribute?

Fortunately, the literature being produced in Southeastern Europe is headed in the right direction. Its historical fiction highlights the peaceful coexistence, even the solidarity of heroes who belong to different ethnicities and creeds, and who live in the old multicultural communities of the Ottoman Empire. When this literature refers to past or present inabilities to reach understanding, rivalry and violence, it condemns them, directly or indirectly.

In my own work, the issue of personal and collective identity arises in all my novels, as does the attempt I elaborated on above to embed it in the plot, the characters of the heroes and a new outlook on history, for example in my recent novel “The Truths of Others.”

The novel starts out from the simple acknowledgement that people believe in themselves and build their own truth on the basis of their worldviews. The differences between these truths continue to create tensions even today. The question that arises is what stance we take when faced with the truth of others, and what stance others, those who are different from us, take when faced with our truth. I try to take my narrative from one level of confrontation to the other and to show how difference may generate conflict. The plot of the novel traverses territory from national identities to religious belief, historical consciousness, political convictions and cultural identity all the way to the heroes’ sexual identity.
It deals with causal dependencies and motivational associations. It engages with principles and values. In the end it shows how the heroes and their microcosms deal with conflict. It covers a spectrum of human behaviour that includes brotherhood, understanding, tolerance, distancing, underlying hatred and violence. Even the possibility of simple communication and understanding is often brought into question.

I foreground historical material that has been neglected or deliberately suppressed and set it alongside the official version of the past as composed by academic historians. From the mass of extant historical material I aim to choose what is essential to the plot and to link it with the fictional elements so as to shape them into a whole. I try to look at the past in a different light, to bring it to the present and to give the present a new historical weight that is probably different from what it has in the collective consciousness. Together with the primary aim of creating a novel by the usual means, I try to create a bygone world that continues to resonate today. And, as well as striving to give the pleasure offered by any story, be it an historical novel, a Bildungsroman, a middle-class family saga, I try to prompt the reader to rethink certain things.

Three crucial points:

Contemporary literature is not usually attracted to ideologies and value judgments; it considers them outmoded and may treat them with restrained irony. It is not known whether the same applies to readers. At any rate, at public literary events and discussions they do not seem to show interest.

The great majority of readers are attracted chiefly by the literature of the American continent and their own national literature, and secondarily by the literature of their European neighbours. The readers of Southeastern Europe are even less interested in the literature of their own neighbours.

Statistics show a steady decline in the interest of so-called casual readers in literature. Interest is also declining among younger people, who devote their leisure time to other pursuits from which they derive entertainment and cultural input.

A broader question concerns the role, problems and prospects of European literature in contemporary Europe, and to what extent it can become a unifying element of its culture.

As for the specific question that concerns us here and forms part of the previous one, the problem with the national literatures of the countries in Southeastern Europe does not, in my opinion, concern their content, but the issue of what exerts an influence on society. How broad their audience is in relation to the majority who do not read them. How easily they can cross language borders and be diffused in neighboring communities. How they can communicate with others, with foreigners, with those alike or different. How they can create channels of communication, agreement and understanding of the problems that beset us. How they can foster a common feeling, a shared consciousness among peoples that will bring us closer and unite us on the common basis of a culture of democracy.

A first response might be to have more initiatives, more translations, more cross-cultural forums, greater inter-ethnic mobility of writers, use of the Internet and new technologies and significant support of cultural policy by national public authorities and the European Union. 

But the problem will not be solves, no matter how constructive and effective such a –­ by all means necessary – development proves to be. The problem principally concerns the mass, majority cultures of our societies, those that are maintained or shaped by political and social leaders, by various shapers of public opinion, media personalities and active civil society. Their role is important, I would say decisive, in a substantive shift away from the present situation in a more promising direction. This demands something I hinted at above, the creation and continual broadening of a public space for exploration, discussion and communication that is not limited to declarations of the principle of tolerance, respect for neighbours, for “others”, or the need to live in a peaceful neighborhood. It must be juxtaposed with the broader issue, that of how to shape a democratic inter-European entity, how diversity will be respected within it, and how, by coupling two issues, new concepts of collective and individual identity may arise.

One final observation: Implementation of the great idea that we are discussing became a reality in Western Europe, and not merely as a precept following the tragic consequences of European history in the first half of the twentieth century, but because it could be cultivated in the postwar period of normality, in the normal operation of democratic institutions and ongoing economic development and social prosperity. 

German-French relations are a shining example. Perhaps this is also a prerequisite for strengthening a culture of democracy, for creating Europe as a democratic entity that preserves the diversity of cultural identities within a framework of peaceful co-existence that is viable at a day-to-day level.

To conclude, the essence of the problem may be summed up in the question: How do we change mentalities, attitudes to life, behaviours; how do worldviews change? The answer is by all-embracing, multiform, daily education in an open society. With the will to resist situations and mentalities that bind us to the past, in a contemporary reality which is moving rapidly in other directions, with other things at stake and new challenges. By acting with consistency and persistence in a collective effort that still needs time to bear fruit.


© Nikos Themelis
Nikos Themelis from Greece
Nikos Themelis, was born in 1947 in Athens, Greece, and died in 2011.
He studied law at the University of Thessaloniki in Greece, earning his PhD in the area of European law in Cologne, Germany (1975). He worked as a lawyer for the Greek Ministry of the Economy and as an advisor to the European Union in Brussels as well as to the former Prime Minister Kostas Simitis (1996-2004), and as a free-lance author (of novels). He has published numerous books, the most recent being Οι αλήθειες των άλλων, novel (Athens, 2008), Μια ζωή δυο ζωές, novel (Athens, 2007), Για μια συντροφιά ανάμεσά μας, novel (Athens, 2005), Η αναλαμπή, novel (Athens, 2003), Η ανατροπή, novel (Athens, 2000), Η αναζήτηση, novel (Athens, 1998). His novels have been translated into German, English, Italian, Romanian, Turkish and Serbian. A German translation of his novel Jenseits von Epirus has been published (Munich, 2001). In the year 2000, Nikos Themelis received the National Literature Prize as well as the prize awarded by the Greek literature magazine Diavazo for his novel Η ανατροπή.


Translation by Birgit Hildebrand
Birgit Hildebrand was born in 1944 in Regensburg, Bavaria and studied Slavic and German Philology in Munich and Tübingen. From 1975 to 1983 she taught at the German Department at the Aristoteles University in Thessaloniki. Since 1989, she has been a free-lance translator of Modern Greek literature into German (by Alki Zei, Mimika Cranaki, Pavlos Matessis, Amanda Michalopoulou, Soti Triantafillou, Nikos Panayotopoulos, Dimitris Dimitriadis and Angela Dimitrakaki, among others) and contributed to the didactics of literary translation at workshops and seminars (for instance for the EKEMEL in Athens and Paros). In 2001, she was awarded the German-Greek Translators’ Prize for her translation of Pavlos Matessis’ Tochter der Hündin (The Daughter) - Η μητέρα του σκύλου.