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Wednesday, July 30, 2003


Who Decides Who’s Greek?

Politicians often address academic conferences in Greece, especially when government funding is involved, making welcoming statements that reflect the general views of the government or party they represent. This happens often at conferences on the topic of the Greek diaspora. Greek homeland-diaspora relations are something that the Athens government supervises closely. It has no choice, as it is a task mandated by the 1975 Greek constitution. There is a deputy foreign minister and a parliamentary committee with special responsibility for the affairs of “Greeks abroad.”

This state-oriented organizational framework governing homeland-diaspora relations is easier to identify than its underlying philosophy. “Philosophy” might be the wrong word here anyway because in most cases speeches by Greek politicians visiting Greek communities abroad amount to boilerplate invocations of brotherhood and unity between the Greeks of Greece and Greeks abroad. One looks in vain for a more thorough explanation of how the Greek state perceives the diaspora.

In the event, I listened with great interest to the speeches of politicians during a recent conference in Rethymno organized by the University of Crete. The conference was focused on the past and present of the Greek diaspora, as well as on the current state of Greek education in Greek diaspora communities. It brought together social scientists, specialists in education, and teachers working in Greek communities abroad, and it was magnificently organized by the Center for Intercultural and Migration Studies of the university’s school of education. At first, there was little of any interest in the speeches by representatives of the political parties. With elections looming on the horizon, PASOK and New Democracy deputies boasted about how much their respective parties had done and were continuing to do for Greeks abroad. A KKE representative spoke about his party’s solidarity with the working-class diaspora.

At the end of the conference, however, PASOK deputy Grigoris Niotis, speaking in his capacity as chairman of the parliamentary committee for Greeks abroad, made a substantial contribution to the proceedings. A former deputy foreign minister responsible for Greeks abroad, Mr. Niotis had been asked to make the concluding comments on the final two-hour discussion on the conference’s final day. I ended up feeling a little awkward listening to him because he spent about a third of his speech explaining why I was wrong in my assessment of Greek identity in the diaspora, and why he was right. I appreciated his willingness to share his views with the audience, but I was a little upset at not having the opportunity to respond, since his were the closing remarks.

I had taken the floor a little earlier and, among other things, merely tried to echo a point made previously in the conference about the varying degrees of Greek identity. Reflecting on the two and a half days of deliberations, I said that I’d perceived a form of intellectual schizophrenia from the opening session to the very end in the way we had dealt with the concept of different types of Greekness. Although many participants had accepted this idea — in my mind, rather obvious — many speakers had talked passionately about preserving Hellenism by retaining the type of Greekness found in the first generation of Greek-born emigrants.

Referring to a frequently used expression — the need “not to lose the game” of preserving Hellenism — I said that second- and third-generation Greeks abroad were no longer playing that game, and that all those concerned about their Greek identity should join in a different game from the one played by the original emigrants. Greekness, I continued, is expressed in a variety of forms in the diaspora, and not all of them reflect the first generation’s Greek-born characteristics, especially in terms of use of the Greek language. In a sense, I concluded, we have to understand that there are many forms of Hellenism, and those of Greek ancestry can choose the ways they experience their Greekness.

When the conference’s organizer, Professor Michalis Damanakis, had made the original point in the opening session that I subsequently built upon, there had been a great deal of dissent. He had proposed a three-tier model for understanding Greek identity. The first he described as the type of identity, broadly defined, that is expressed within Greece. The second was the identity found in the diaspora but which strongly reflected the forms of Greekness manifested within Greece. The third category consisted of forms of Greekness found among Greeks abroad who had been assimilated into their host societies and which, in extremis, entailed an elementary, imagined, or myth-based form of Greek identity described as being based on a minimal sense of culture: politismiko elahisto. Had Damanakis left it at that, there would have probably been a lively enough debate, because definitions of Greek identity can get controversial. But he went further, adding that the Greek communities around the Black Sea were a good example of a diaspora with this third type of identity.

During question time, the 30 or so conferees from Australia, Canada, the United States, and other parts of the world had an opportunity to come to grips with the sensitivity that currently surrounds the subject of the identity of Greeks from the Black Sea. First on his feet was Professor Constantinos Photiadês of the University of Thessaloniki’s Balkan studies department, located in Florina. A specialist on the history of Pontian Greeks, he took exception to the speaker’s view that the Greeks of the Black Sea (many of whom are originally from the Pontus) possessed a minimal sense of Greek culture. Photiadês considered that to be the academic equivalent of the way Greeks have denied the Greekness of refugees from the Black Sea by calling them Rossopontioi (Russo-Pontians) or Tatarophonoi (Tartar-speakers). Stelios Elliniadis, a documentary filmmaker who has also worked on preserving Greek folk dances from around the world, was equally passionate. He deplored what he considered to be a denial of the Black Sea Greeks’ Greekness, which he had found to be alive and vibrant during his travels in the region.

His tone merely added to the rising tension in the 350-seat amphitheater that was almost full during the conference’s first day. Ultimately, Professor Damanakis stood his ground, explaining that by minimal sense of identity he did not mean a measurable quantity but a quality, a form of identity that could very well be augmented under the right circumstances. In other words, it did not exclude persons from being considered Greek. After the opening session that ended that Friday morning, the conference continued through Sunday morning with panels addressing the past, present, and educational affairs of a broad range of Greek diaspora communities throughout the world. Some sessions were livelier than others, but no one succeeded in animating the audience as much as Professor Damanakis with his politismiko elahisto.

When I returned to this contentious topic late on Sunday morning and contrasted it with the proliferation of pleas to save, preserve, or shore up Hellenism before the game was lost, there was no immediate reaction from the audience. Most contributions at that point had focused on more practical matters, and a new, more abstract debate seemed unlikely. It appeared that if one did not juxtapose the sensitive issue of the Greeks from the Black Sea with the notion of variations in Greek diaspora identity, one could avoid dissent — or at least that seemed to be the case until right before the official closing of the conference, when Mr. Niotis stood to offer a few remarks.

There were two categories of Hellenism discussed in the conference, Mr. Niotis said at the outset. One held that Greek identity is created and reproduced in Greece and spreads outward to the diaspora. The other, he continued, was the category outlined by…Mr. Kitroeff, which sees Hellenism as an entity without a center, a type of galaxy in which various stars shine with different intensity. At that moment, I was caught between trying to remember if I had ever uttered the word “galaxy” during the conference, what the metaphor meant, and trying to follow the former minister’s reasoning as to why the first model (Greece as the center) was the right one. As far as I could understand, it had to do with Greece being the natural environment in which Greek identity is created and reproduced.

Mr. Niotis went on to say that he agreed with me that Greece should adapt its policies to the different diasporic environments, and then devoted the last part of his presentation to a very reasonable explanation of why Greece insists on a say in the diaspora’s educational affairs: first of all, because it invests so much money in them and, second, so as not to let the Church monopolize that sphere — a comment that drew enthusiastic applause from educators and teachers. Dressing up an adversary’s argument as a straw man and then knocking it down effortlessly, however, is one of the oldest tricks in the book. The contention that there are many forms of Greek identity in the world is not quite the same as representing Hellenism as a “galaxy,” and it does not deny the existence of a historic Greek space — which, by the way, is wider than the territory under the jurisdiction of the modern Greek state. Rather, acknowledging variety in the forms of Greekness allows for different ways for this cultural space to be imagined: as a political or economic homeland, as an ancestral land, as a space in which language or the classical Greek traditions or the Orthodox religion took root and flourished, or, even more nebulously, as a source of identity adapted to a new homeland.

If I had been given the opportunity to respond to Mr. Niotis, I would have first expressed my gratitude for the blunt but clear way he conveyed his vision of the relationship between Greece and the diaspora. I would have disagreed, however, that our differences amounted to a vision of Hellenism as being naturally nested within the confines of the Greek state, on the one hand, and a galaxy of twinkling little stars, on the other. It seems to me that the choice is between a heliocentric system, in which Greece monopolizes and defines Hellenism, and a system that accommodates variable definitions of Greekness, in which even a minimal cultural sense of Greekness is acceptable and one can, in fact, choose whether — and how — to be Greek.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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