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Friday, 1 February 2019

The intergenerational memories of the democratic transition in post-junta Greece

On the 29th of January 2019, Kostis Kornetis, Santander fellow at the European Studies Centre for the academic year 2018-19, gave a talk on the topic of “The intergenerational memories of the democratic transition in post-junta Greece”. In his lecture, Kornetis asked “what is the role of memory of transition to democracy in Greece?” “How is the past remembered among the different generations?” and “Why does this matter?”
Starting from the present, Kornetis pointed out that during the course of Greece’s post-2009 economic crisis, we observed a generalised and influential discourse about Greece’s past which was often used for political purposes. The memory of the Greek transition from the military junta to democracy was the one central historical reference during the economic crisis, in that it was often used as a criticism for an imperfect transition which was to blame for the ills of the present. It is indicative that, in July 2017, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras claimed in one of his speeches that “what Greece needed, was a new metapolitefsi” implicitly pointing to the failures of this process. 
Kornetis emphasised that particular developments, such as the Polytechnic uprising of 1973, the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, and the return of Karamanlis to Greece, were amenable to passionate and controversial memory discourses for the generations to come. 
The period of the Greek transition (metapolitefsi) is considered to have lasted from the mid-1970s until the early 1980s, when the socialist party PASOK peacefully replaced the right-wing New Democracy in power. This was a crucial period in Greek history which, up until recently, before the eruption of the 2009 economic crisis, was considered by the mainstream thinking to have been a positive and smooth process of democratisation, enhanced by the accession of Greece to the European Communities.
Having said that, the memory of the Greek transition was not overwhelmingly one sided and entailed controversies and different views among the people of Greece; the fact that the junta catharsis was not total and some of the culprits went unpunished did not go down well with a certain part of Greek population. While the military instigators of the junta were all tried and given life sentences, many of the other actors involved in the coup and the subsequent junta, including torturers or collaborators, remained untouched, and left a deep scar in how tradition was perceived at the time and remembered subsequently.   
  • Inter-generational memories of the transition varied across party politics (right versus left) or age (young versus older); as for the latter, Kornetis distinguished between three categories of generations:
  • Generation 1 people who lived through the transition, and experienced it, as adults
  • Generation 1.5 people born during the late 1950s or early 1960s, who were children or young adults during the transition 
  • Generation 2 who were born after the transition.
The Intergenerational memory of the metapolitefsi is analysed in Kornetis’ study through oral histories and interviews, by looking and comparing the ways through which these three categories acted, reacted to, or remembered the transition, (based on some 40 in-depth and semi-structured interviews in Athens and Thessaloniki, from a variety of interviewees/ ‘memory producers’ such as scholars, artists, politicians, activists).
Some of the results indicate that the key memories of the first generation differed from those who remembered with enthusiasm the arrival in 1974 back in Greece of civilian politician Karamanlis and the return to democratic party politics, to the more sceptical militant memories of reaction, mobilisation and disappointment with the elite-driven transition to democracy. Many of the second micro-generation of Generation 1, adolescents in 1974, opted for more radicalised forms of action and criticised the right-wing transition as being socially unfair and unjust. Generation 1.5, children during the transition, tend to talk of news about torture as a defining factor of their youth and their politicisation later on. For generation 2, the junta and the transition years were a distant echo which were narrated by the previous generation or held by official narratives. The generation 2 became much more vocal and critical of the transition during the economic crisis and constituted a critical mass of the Greek indignados (aganaktismenoi). The generation 2 challenged the previous hegemonic narrative of the successful Greek transition to democracy, with its most radical advocates claiming that the Greek military junta had not ended in 1973 (!), the year of the Polytechnic uprising and criticised heavily the political class which emerged from this defective transition. 
Kornetis further talked about the fact that in his interviews with all cohorts, such political uses of the past trigger great tension. Quite often there is a certain rage that is expressed by exponents of the generation that lived through the dictatorship and the transition, and hence possess “autobiographical memory” or “possessive memory”. They often find that the younger generation’s analogical use of the terms Junta, repression and torture to talk about the present is frivolous, ahistorical and potentially dangerous.
During the question and answer session, Kornetis discussed with the participants at the seminar: the issue of Greece’s exceptionalism versus its comparability with other similar transition countries in Southern Europe or Latin America; the significance of intergenerational memory and oral history as legitimate sources of historiography; or how periods of crisis and traumatic experiences like the Greek economic crisis, can affect and alter individual and collective perceptions and memories of a given important historical moment or period.
Othon Anastasakis (Director, SEESOX)


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