Kevin Ovenden on the roles of nationalism and internationalism in Greece’s struggle with European imposed austerity

Tomorrow is a double public holiday in Greece, together comprising a key to understanding Greek national sentiment. 

The date of 25 March is both Independence Day – the formation of the beginnings of the modern Greek state, carved out firstly in the southern Peloponnese, with its capital in the lovely town of Nafplion, from the already waning Ottoman Empire in 1830. 

It is also the date of the Annunciation, when the Holy Spirit (proceeding from God alone, apparently) told the Immaculate Mary that in nine months time she would give birth to the third aspect of the Trinity: Christ. 

So the flags are appearing and the local Pakistani street vendor has switched over from umbrellas (it’s a cold and wet March so far) to selling them, mass produced in China, naturally, alongside the frankincense (it’s genuinely high quality so probably from Yemen – Arabia Felix) in the run-up to Easter Sunday.

I’ve been on at least two enormous demonstrations with a preponderance of Greek flags over the years. More precisely, I’ve been part of one and observing on the edges of another. 

I was on the fringes of the awful chauvinist demonstration against the UN recognition of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia under its choice of name – Macedonia – back in 1992. 

To its great credit, the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) refused to join the orgy of nationalism. The historic party’s position over the national rights of Macedonians had gone through various twists and turns. At its best, it had been profoundly internationalist – even at the expense of popular support in Greece. For many years the back page of the KKE daily, Rizospastis (The Radical), was in the Macedonian language.

Friends from the internationalist and anti-capitalist left were very active in opposing the nationalist campaign, which united all the parliamentary parties, with the exception of the KKE, along with the radical and fascistic right. They faced intimidation, legal prosecution and a bomb attack for their pains. The newly elected general secretary of the KKE, Aleka Papariga, fended off a near-murderous attack by a right wing thug in the city of Salonika, where three decades earlier the far right para-state had claimed the life of internationalist Grigoris Lambrakis – subject of Costa Gavras’s film “Z”. 

The demonstration, while big, was nowhere near the one million the political elite proclaimed. In a neat piece of journalism, which we should recall for further use, we were able to prove this by using the aerial shot of the rally to sketch out the area covered by people on an Ordnance Survey map (much easier now with Google) and then use a standard multiplier for the density of the crowd – number of people per nine square meters – and come up with a figure which was, iirc, a fifth of the claimed size. 

The demonstration I actually joined was seven years later, at the height of the Nato war on Serbia. There were also many Greek flags. But equally, at least, were the red flags of the Communists and the rest of the left. The atmosphere was very different from the anti-Macedonian fest. Chauvinism against Kosovans and Albanians was present, but it was marginal. That did not mean that one did not have a duty to argue against it and marginalise it further. 

Dominant was an anti-war and anti-imperialist sentiment of a progressive kind. That was most apparent with those whose red flags bore internationalist legends. But among those waving the national flag that sentiment at least vied with nationalist ideology that the Serbs were “brother Orthodox” and so on. The KKE, which was the main organising force of the protests, decided to live in a “creative ambiguity”, as the current Greek finance minister put it for a brief period last month, and dished out both the red flags of working class socialism and the blue and white of the Greek nation. 

That the dominant trend was to the left and internationalist was attested to two and then four years later following 9/11 and the run-up to the Iraq war. There were enormous demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq. Overwhelmingly Muslim Arab and Kurdish Iraqis could not be held up as “brothers” in any way other than in a common struggle against the imperialist vultures in Washington and allied capitals. The Palestinian flag flew widely – and unambiguously.

I recalled all that this morning as Arif – the street vendor’s name – offered me a nylon symbol of Greek national unity in various sizes (the largest could be bodged into a two-person summer tent) imported from Guangdong – with “free stick”. 

Greece is assailed from without by the Troika. It is also divided within. Between the left and right, which is beginning to find lines of attack against the Syriza-led government. More fundamentally, the national house is split against itself between the impoverished labouring masses, the demos, and the oligarchs with their upper middle class hangers-on, who are now salting away their wealth in off shore assets and foreign bonds at a higher rate than even during the election campaign. The chances of “Grexit” or “Geccident” are now 50/50 according to George Soros and other masters of the money markets. 

The divergent sentiments of 1992 and 1999 (more so 15 February 2003) are vying again, contesting on the same piece of nylon or cloth just as its blue and white bars contrast and make the whole. The contest goes to the heart of the government’s benches in the parliament, on which sit internationalist MPs of the left through to a small number of right wing nationalists in the Independent Greeks, the junior coalition partner. 

So different social and political forces will invest different meanings – or combinations of meanings – in the flag tomorrow. I certainly feel no anxiety as the neighbours raise theirs. But as the noose tightens on the Greek popular masses, there is little time left for the ambiguity, creative or otherwise, which the national symbol embodies – at its best, that is: when Golden Dawn wave it they crush all ambiguity as they would Arif’s smiling face. 

“No thanks, Arif,” I politely decline. “But at the end of the week I’ll get some frankincense. And if you could lay your hands on a red flag, I’ll get one of those too. Nothing fancy. Just plain red will do.

“Oh – I’ll take a stick, though. That’s sure to come in handy.” Unambiguously, provided its holder is clear against whom and for what it should be wielded.


Kevin Ovenden’s reportage from Greece for radical online media is funded as an act of practical solidarity by the self­styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football.

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.