Neo-Colonialism & Intergenerational Trauma

I spent a great deal of time in Greece in my 20’s and 30’s. A few of the summers I spent there I was exploring the hills of Crete, looking for large stone tombs called EM (Early Minoan) tholoi or climbing up mountains to take archaeostronomical observations of peak sanctuaries (over the years, I spent probably 10 or more summers working in total.) My Greek, at one time, was serviceable… just good enough to understand most of what was said to me, but not good enough to pick up nuance. (In other words, just good enough to get myself into trouble.) Sometimes when I was out ranging and looking for tombs that I knew were going to be very difficult to locate, I would take a more fluent friend, just in case. Sometimes I was out there alone, scratching my way up brambly hillsides, or ranging the landscape playing “If I were a Minoan, where would I build my tomb” — a surprisingly fun and successful way to find the αρχαία.

One of these trips took me far to the east of the Messara to the town of Viannos. There are tombs there, and not easy to find (or so I’d heard), so I brought a more fluent friend, also an archaeologist. My traveling companion and I struck out from the town toward an area that felt right for tomb placement. We came upon an ancient woman, dressed in black. My guess was she was in her 80’s (but it is so hard to tell). She was tending to her fruit trees and had a basket of greens on her back. We struck up a conversation. She wondered what two young, foreign ladies were doing there, wandering the countryside, and asked us back to her very small house…really not more than a hut… for tea. We sat and talked; she was very curious about our children (at that point, none) and our husbands (we were both married). She paused, and then admonished us to return home promptly to our men. Our feminist, academic selves assured her that we were fine. As we explained the reason for our wandering, she cocked her head and asked, “Are you German?”  No, American and Belgian, we explained. “Are your ancestors German?” No was the answer to that too. “Why do you ask?” “I don’t help Germans. Ever. But I will help you.”

Viannos in 1943

Viannos in 1943

At this point, tears sprang into her eyes, and she started her story. She was, you see, a survivor of the Massacre of Viannos. Up until that time, I had not known about this particular trauma, although you can hardly spend time on Crete and not hear stories about the German occupation and the resistance that was mounted by its inhabitants. She recounted the entire episode from her memory, and we sat horrified as she explained that not only was her father killed in the massacre, but also her husband, her three uncles, her four brothers, and her two teenaged sons. Murdered. Her mother committed suicide afterward. She has, alone, tended her fruit trees and fields by herself since that time, barely surviving. She never remarried. Never had more children. She urged us to go home to our husbands again. “Who knows what might befall them,” she warned. Our earlier feminist assurances of being “fine without our husbands” felt sickeningly patronizing at this point. Both of us reached out and held her hand, our eyes welling up as she regained her composure.

We found the tombs; she told us exactly where they were located. She knew the hillside like the back of her hand because she picked a considerable amount of her food from the bounty of the Cretan landscape, as she had since she was a child. I was haunted the rest of the day by her story, and on the way out of town we stopped at the memorial to the dead of that day, and picked wildflowers to leave in honor of her loved-ones.

Later that same summer, I was out ranging by myself, looking for tombs that had essentially been lost to archaeology — excavated and recorded, but their location completely forgotten. I had some old, grainy photographs to guide me and was looking at the background landscape, trying to match mountain and hill perspectives to get myself into the right valley. I stopped to consult with a local shepherd. He was probably in his late 40’s…not of the generation that took the brunt of the German invasion, but a child of the surviving generation, born soon after the end of the war.  In my halting, stilted Greek, I asked him if he knew the place in the pictures. He looked at me with watery eyes, leaned on his walking stick, and asked, “Are you German?”

An Early Minoan tholos tomb

An Early Minoan tholos tomb

I have been privy to other stories, other awkward encounters in remote villages, the air only clearing when I assured them I was not German. There are too many to count, actually.

I asked younger people about this recurring theme, and most of them said, “Oh, that’s just the old people. We don’t feel that way…” and I took comfort in that, that the trauma was healing…maybe not for individuals who had suffered at the hands of the German occupying force, mind you. So maybe not healing, really. But forgetting.

These last months I am reminded of these stories. I have been wondering what the young people will feel now, now that their country is arguably into a depression deeper than the Great Depression in the US. Will there be a whole new generation of trauma-induced xenophobia, especially in light of the last few weeks of Syriza’s negotiations with the EU? How can the EU hold itself together when the German government partakes of punishment, blackmailing, and “fiscal waterboarding” of the elected Greek officials? The Germans and their EU partners are openly pushing Greece toward Grexit by mounting insurmountable austerity on Greece’s population, a population that they will surely financially collapse under these new, stringent “reforms.” People are starving and committing suicide. They traumatize the population anew. And it makes me afraid.

I am afraid that this financial brand of colonialism is inculcating into a whole new generation a distrust and simmering resentment of German people (some of whom, I must add, disagree profoundly with what their government is doing in their name.)  Afraid that the ideas of unity and cooperation that the early founders of the European Union thought would be its guiding principles are nothing more than a fictitious mythology. Afraid that a more gentle story, one of caregiving and cooperation, has no utility within a soulless, purely financial fiction, which is what the EU is at its heart. The EU, we now know quite clearly, is essentially a form of neo-liberal colonialism promoting a fiction of “unity” and “prosperity” to placate, but really exists simply to amass wealth for the banking elite, dismantling the commons of poorer and more rural regions without pausing to reflect on the ramifications of their actions. I’m afraid that Greece is just the beginning, afraid of what happens when whole generations hate and distrust. What happens when your motives are exposed to the whole world, and other cultures taste bitter bile in their mouths at the thought of your actions as well?  Have you “won”?  Is that how you define “success”? Because people have long memories, and this new trauma will not be forgotten.

For as long as I’ve been politically aware and knowledgeable about Ancient Greek history, I’ve watched as people dredge up the Melian Dialogue as a historical parallel to situations of lopsided, overwhelming political structures, empire, and the use of force as example-setting against recalcitrant and strong-willed populations. Whole populations are savaged. But, and no one seems to remember this, the balance of power changes (and it always does), and then there is revenge. And if you don’t think Athens paid for her Melian sins, you must really read more ancient history. She was brutally defeated at the end of the war, her population starved and brutalized by her enemies, in part because of what the Athenians had done to Melos. The powers-that-be in the Troika could certainly learn from this scenerio, but they won’t.  They think, in their hubris, that it doesn’t apply to them. Neither did the Athenians.

But, the truth is, we don’t have to look back 2500 years to the prescient historians to divine the outcome here. Greece’s history is filled with stories of domination of their populations, of brutalities enacted against their people. WWII is but just one example. And trauma, as we are learning, is carried across generations. And yet, last week, knowing the odds and the history (it is their own history!), they voted OXI. And in doing so, they awakened those outside of Greece also being traumatized by neo-liberal capitalism. And now, Greece’s trauma — and all that portends — belongs to the world.


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