Unstable Histories: Repertoires of Memory and the Making of Public Spheres in Contemporary Greece

Philip Hager*

Abstract

Starting from a 2019 activist intervention, whereby a group of women offered their own rendition of Monty Python’s “silly walks” during a student parade that was part of the official celebrations commemorating Greece’s entry in World War II, in this essay I seek to examine and apply pressure on embodied repertoires of national memory that are central to these celebrations. Moreover, I return to the 2019 activist performance to consider how performance might work to destabilise the grounds on which such repertoires are enacted and, therefore, stage history beyond the frames of visibility and legibility constituting the national subject.
Keywords: Greece, parade, nation, silly walk, performance of history, embodied repertoires

On 28 October 2019, the 79th anniversary of Greece’s entry in World War II, a group of women activists that called themselves  “‘10 soldiers’ of the critical art of acting,” re-enacted Monty Python’s famous “silly walks” at the annual student parade in the municipality of Nea Filadelfia-Nea Halkidona in Athens.[1] This “emergency intervention,” as they described it (Dionellis), offers a starting point for the discussion in this essay because, as I demonstrate below, it unsettled well-established repertoires of national memory.[2] As such, this intervention invited a re-consideration of the histories that are enacted on 28 October and the ways in which they are staged.

In her study of the embodied production and transfer of cultural memory, Diana Taylor starts with the proposition that performance’s doings extend well beyond narrativity and, therefore, that “[e]mbodied practice, along with and bound up with other cultural practices, offers a way of knowing” (3). Such an understanding of performance practices (and their study) that focuses both on the fictions and the means through which they are enacted is central to the analysis that follows.

This essay, then, is an attempt to respond to the invitation extended by the “‘10 soldiers’ of the critical art of acting” and think through the annual October rehearsals of national memory and their implications: I first consider the story that is commemorated every year on 28 October, and I ask what the significance of the particular national anniversary might be and what we can learn from this story about the formation of post-war Greek political identities. Then, I interrogate the performative repertoires enacted in these commemorative events and consider what they might suggest for the bodies performing the commemoration and the community they produce. In the final section, I return to the “‘10 soldiers’ of the critical art of acting” and their silly walks to ponder on how, by adapting the performative repertoires of the celebrations, they enacted a different commemorative practice that destabilised the repertoires of commemoration.

Ministry of Silly Walks—Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Accessed 19 May 2021

The first argument I pursue here is that through the staging of militarist repertoires, parades enact a stable and exclusionary ground. It is exclusionary in that its commemoration of the national past is (and is staged as) resolutely singular: it determines which past is to be remembered, who might perform this act of remembrance and how. Subsequently, I argue that, by destabilizing the official commemorative repertoire and its frames of visibility and legibility, the silly walk produced unstable grounds for the enactment of national memory. In doing so, it gestured towards an “other” constitution of the public sphere.

A Fiction of Origin: “alors, c’est la guerre”

In his 2007 article “The 1940s as Past: Memory, Testimony, Identity,” historian Polymeris Voglis observes that, as in most European nation-states, Greek post-war political identities are to a great extent founded on the memories of the 1940s (451). But, contrary to most European nations, post-war Greece’s fiction of origin commemorates the beginning of the war rather than its conclusion; it commemorates the scene that unfolded in the early hours of 28 October 1940, when Emanuele Grazzi, the Italian ambassador in Athens, presented Greek Prime Minister and dictator Ioannis Metaxas with an ultimatum from Benito Mussolini demanding that Italian forces occupy strategic locations in Greek territory (Metaxas 746).

This act of hostility came a few months after an attack on a Greek cruiser by an Italian submarine in the port of the island of Tinos in the Aegean. Constantine Tsoukalas writes that Metaxas was “exercising maximum prudence to avoid being drawn into war” (57), but in the end he was forced by Italy’s ultimatum to say: “alors, c’est la guerre” (Metaxas 516). At the face of Italy’s aggression, popular response was “unanimous” and “enabled Greece to win the first victory chalked up against the Axis” (Tsoukalas 57).[3] Thus, Greece entered the war as, by all appearances, a united nation rallying behind its leader.

Historian Christina Koulouri comments that the “28th of October was a convenient anniversary. It was the war against Italy and that was the end of discussion” (“We like to Celebrate”).[4] Indeed, the rest of the 1940s presents a difficult history. After the brief victory against Italy, Greece could not defend its borders against the German offensive in the spring of 1941 and, after the three and a half years of occupation that followed, the national community was further devastated by civil war.[5] In the period that stretches between 1949 and 1974, as Voglis points out, the nation-state silenced the history of the resistance in the 1940s by branding it “a series of violent attempts to impose a communist dictatorship and partition the country” (452). The recognition of the wartime resistance as “national” and the (re)surfacing of left-wing testimonies of the 1940s that came after the end of the dictatorship in 1974, shifted the grounds on which national memory was produced. Yet, as Voglis suggests, by becoming “national,” the resistance also became a “symbol of ‘national unity’” and was effectively de-politicised (453–54).

The memory of the 1940s, thus, appears to be a mere inconvenience, as Koulouri implies, while commemorating the events of 28 October 1940 is a fiction of origin that serves to iron out the complexities of historical circumstance and produce a clear and intelligible message of a de-politicised tale of national unity. It is, to follow Eric Hobsbawm’s terms, an “invented tradition” to the degree that, through the repetition of embodied and discursive practices, the commemoration of a “suitable past” has operated as a formative paradigm in the post-war period (1). Moreover, as I demonstrate in the following section, it also establishes “suitable” connections with other historic milestones and enacts a scenario of re-birth that starts with a single word that is attributed to Metaxas (and, by extension, the Greek people); a word that was never actually uttered by him: “ΟΧΙ!” (“NO!”).[6]

The front page of the newspaper Vradini with the word “OXI” dominating. Accessed 18 May 2021
A Scenario of Re-birth: “ΟΧΙ!”

Taylor argues that the study of embodied cultural practices might allow us to expand what we understand as knowledge beyond the logic of the archive and, therefore, to consider anew the ways in which cultural memory is produced and transmitted. In other words, she invites scholars to “pay attention to milieux and corporeal behaviors such as gestures, attitudes, and tones not reducible to language” by exploring cultural scenarios (Taylor 28). The scenario as an analytical lens is borrowed from pedagogical practices in language departments, whereby students are encouraged to learn foreign languages by “imitating, repeating, and rehearsing not just the words but cultural attitudes” (26). What Taylor proposes here is to explore how cultural knowledge is produced and, in turn, produces social settings by drawing on the “durable” content of archives as well as embodied repertoires that, through repetition, form “choreographies” (or structures) of meaning that are constantly imitated, adapted and reconstituted (20–21).

Taylor suggests that the analysis of scenarios as “meaning-making paradigms” (28) might offer a different way to understand the institution and constitution of communities. In a scenario, the archive and the repertoire enact the community in tandem, sometimes complementing and other times destabilising one another—for example, different bodies holding a flag or wearing a specific costume might operate differently within the specific choreographies of meaning that constitute a national scenario. In addition, because it is always enacted in the present and always repeats its previous iterations, a scenario is at once part of a long-standing tradition and an originary act.

The main event of the celebratory scenario staged on 28 October in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, is the military parade that is customarily followed by speeches from the president of the republic and the leaders of the parliamentary parties. Alongside the military parade, the anniversary is also celebrated in schools that customarily organise festivities (including songs, sketches, poems, paintings and panegyrics). These events are coordinated with wider celebrations on the municipal level, whose climax are parades with the participation of pupils and students from local schools. During the school fetes and at the end of parades, school directors and local authorities speak about the meaning of the anniversary, the meaning of Metaxas’s “OXI.” The rest of the staging consists of streets decorated in the national colours, marching bands, cheers from the crowd. The three letters of the word “OXI” (with or without exclamation mark, but almost always in block capitals) are plastered everywhere—it is, after all, what the nation celebrates on 28 October.

Military parade. Thessaloniki. 28 October 2019

What is common in all these practices is that the performing bodies (students and military personnel) are followed by the words of the talking heads (political leaders, municipal and school authorities). The speeches usually start by explicitly stating that they are explanatory (for example, “the ‘NO’ of 28 October, the Greek ‘NO,’ was a major act of resistance”); then, they place the scenario within a wider milieux (for example, “the Greek ‘NO’ was a major act of resistance against fascism and a crucial act in defence of Peace, Democracy and Humanity”); finally, the 28 October is defined as the moment that still guides the post-war state (for example, “today in Thessaloniki, in our Macedonia, we Greeks respond with the same ‘NO’ to all those who undermine the same universal Human Values”).[7] The repetition of this scenario rediscovers, year after year, the national archive (flags, images, costumes, words and music scores) and rehearses repertoires of national pride, endurance and prowess.[8] Thus, the nation celebrates its genealogies of heroism: while remembering past generations that made Greece, the armed forces and the students enact the present and the future of the national community.

A member of the presidential guard performs the walk of the Evzonos outside the National Gardens in Athens, 2008. Photo: Philip Hager

The military parade consists almost entirely of white male bodies, moving in stiff synchronicity, while its protocol is precise and rigidly hierarchical: first, the commanding officers of the parade arrive by car and settle across the platform in which stand the President of the Republic and the rest of the political, military and religious authorities. They are followed by the mechanised units and, finally, begins the main section of the parade with the march of the Presidential Guard: carefully selected and trained soldiers, dressed in the ceremonial foustanela, perform the walk of the Evzonos,[9] a carefully executed choreography and sign of the nation’s enduring bravery.[10]

The student parade follows a slightly different protocol as there is no hierarchy in the order in which the schools will parade in front of the local (political and religious) authorities.[11] What is useful to observe here, however, is that there is a clear sense of hierarchisation of the bodies within each unit of the student parade. As the flag is customarily given to the students with the best academic performance, the flag-bearer is set apart from the rest of their cohort. This hierarchization has further revealed strong nationalist reflexes when the student with the best academic performance has been first- or second-generation immigrant. What is questioned in such cases is whether the flag should be carried by students that were not born in Greece and/or they were not born by Greek parents.

The scenario’s enactment of the nation is further emphasised by the geography of it all. The setting of the festivities in Thessaloniki connects the secular with the religious and places the national effort during World War II in a long tradition of struggles: the celebrations start on 26 October with the religious festival for the city’s guardian saint, St. Dimitrios. In addition, apart from the anniversary of the “OXI,” they also commemorate the city’s liberation and annexation to Greece in October 1912. In this way, the celebratory scenario mirrors the commemoration of the Greek war of independence on 25 March, which also combines the national and Christian Orthodox calendars and is staged in a similar fashion in Athens.[12] This mirroring of the celebratory scenarios suggests that, if the war of independence represents the “birth” of the nation, the celebrations of 28 October enact its “re-birth.”

High School student parade. Thessaloniki 2019. Accessed 19 May 2021

As there are specific bodies (Greek, mostly white, able and, in the case of the military parade, mostly well-built and masculine), costumes and rhythms that can perform this scenario, the repertoires of the nation’s re-birth appear to enact a national embodiment as unambiguously docile, singular and exclusive; they seem to erase difference.[13] In other words, by means of the exclusion of “other” lives and histories, this scenario of re-birth enacts not only a unanimous, but also a uniform nation. What is more, all the panegyrics delivered during the celebrations make this scenario’s singularity intelligible as such—there can be only one meaning to this anniversary as there can be only one way of performing its memory.[14] It seeks, in other words, to build a stable (and somewhat narrow) ground for the national commemoration—a ground that the “10 soldiers of the critical art of acting” that staged the intervention in the 2019 student parade sought to destabilise by undermining its performative repertoires.

“It’s not particularly silly, is it?”

The “‘10 soldiers’ of the critical art of acting” posted on the YouTube video of their intervention a manifesto—a, perhaps unintentionally ironic, mirroring of the talking heads’ explicit explanation of the embodied repertoires of the national scenario.[15] As per their own admission, they “became soldiers that were out of tune, that malfunctioned when faced with orders, commands, marching tunes,” they “come from other homelands” (Dionellis); their bodies cannot and will not conform to the order of the parade, the order of the nation: they are neither male, nor disciplined. They claimed a place next to the bodies of the refugees that came from Asia Minor in 1922 and built the neighbourhood of Nea Filadelfia; next to the migrants and refugees that are currently trapped in Greece’s camps; next to the “odd ones, the unnecessary, the unpredictable, the living” (Dionellis).

This intervention, then, invited the national audience to look away from the parade, to ignore its spectacle of uniformity and singularity and encounter the bodies that fall out of its frame of visibility and legibility. Their manifesto made the direct action intelligible as an activist tactic: they destabilised national memory by revealing its exclusionary singularity and by diversifying the scope of commemoration to include forgotten histories and invisible subjects. In addition, the manifesto made “silliness” legible as an act of resistance to the (militarist) repertoires of the parade—at once parodying commemorative practices and reframing resistance and the grounds on which it is enacted.

In Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks,” John Cleese walks in the city while in the background we see images of everyday life—people walking about their business, people queueing, people loitering. Against the banality of this backdrop, his silly walk stands out as “extraordinary.” As soon as he enters the Ministry of Silly Walks, however, he becomes “ordinary”—everyone walks like him. The only cacophony in there is a man whose walk is “not particularly silly” and who “with government backing” promises to make it “really silly” (Monty Python). At the centre of this sketch, then, lies the contrast between the “silly” and the “normal” world. But, as the sketch and the episode containing it unfold, it becomes unclear who is “silly” and who is “normal.” The silly walk recurs in the background at random intervals during the episode and, after a certain point, the spectator might anticipate the silly walk to appear in the background—it destabilises the cityscape even when absent or invisible. In this sense, the interaction between the members of the Ministry of Silly Walks with members of the public renders the familiar cityscape strange: the silly walk seems to summarise and point at the absurdity of urban life by questioning repertoires and discourses around “normality.”

If by making the familiar strange, the silly walk questions the “normality” of the “normal,” what happens when it is performed in a context that is neither ordinary (in that it is a special occasion) nor extraordinary (in that it seeks to delineate and measure national “normality”)? If, in other words, the repertoire employed by the “‘10 soldiers’ of the critical art of acting” makes the “normal” seem “strange,” what did their intervention do to the scenario of re-birth? Or, to put it differently, what did their unruly bodies do to the disciplined “national” bodies involved in the parade (the bodies of those who fell in the war and the bodies of the resistance fighters, but also the bodies of the students parading around them and the military bodies that march in Thessaloniki year after year)? Was it a disrespectful act of aggression, as part of the press suggested? And if so, aggression against whom? The local mayor’s banal sexist vocabulary when calling them “pathetic young girls” (“Parade”), after having already branded them as “silly,” is telling of the kind of sensibilities unsettled by this direct action:[16] by disrupting the protocol, the performative repertoire of the parade and making their bodies and their identities intelligible as outsiders, they exposed the “universal values” of the commemorative scenario as narrowly national, male and singular. In this sense, their silly walk was directed against the commemorative scenario, not the event and historical subjects remembered.

The mayor’s angry statement further revealed the ways in which the silly walk unsettled the scenario of re-birth. He wrote that they “mocked and insulted the memory of those who fell in action . . . and, to make things worse, [they did so] under the Greek flag” (“Parade”). Mocking the flag, it seems, is worse than mocking the people that fought and died for it; precision to the repertoires of commemoration appears to be more important than the past they seek to enact. And to draw injury to insult, the silly walk shifts the spectator’s gaze towards the tradition of the parade and questions the “normality” of the acts of remembrance, thus unsettling the intelligibility of its message: might one not recognise silliness in the homogenous and synchronous choreographies of the parade, in the exaggerated walk of the Evzonos, in the militarised repertoires that frame the scenario of re-birth? By unsettling the intelligibility of the message thus, the silly walk produced unstable grounds and, in doing so, enabled what was hitherto excluded from history to emerge and trouble its retelling—and the angry responses of the authorities do nothing but confirm this.

“‘10 soldiers’ of the critical art of acting” perform their rendition of Monty Python’s “silly walk,” 2019. Photo: courtesy of the “‘10 soldiers’ of the critical art of acting”

As the bodies of the activists appear unable to fit in the rigidly singular repertoires of the Greek commemoration of World War II, there is something particularly striking in the image they present: their limbs stretch in all directions and they constantly seem to be on the verge of falling. But they don’t. They continue their grotesque procession before the surprised, ironic, angry and, perhaps, admiring gaze of the representatives of the national community. Are they “silly” or is the scenario of re-birth “silly”? Are they off balance or is the ground they walk unstable? By virtue of appearing out of balance, the ground they walk becomes unstable. And by destabilising the ground on which history is enacted, the “silliness” of these bodies invents a public sphere whose focus shifts from the national body to “other” vulnerable and excluded bodies; from the history of the nation to “other” forgotten, overlooked or censored histories. These “silly” bodies, ultimately, invent a public sphere that enables radical adaptations of national fictions of origin and scenarios of re-birth. They invent history off balance.


Endnotes

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zw9Zhc5-u1k.

[2] All translations from Greek are the author’s unless otherwise stated.

[3] This sense of unanimity was further emphasised by an open letter by Nikos Zakhariadis, leader of the Greek Communist Party who was imprisoned by Metaxas’s regime, in which he urged all Greeks: “[to] commit unconditionally to this war fought by the Metaxas government” (Zakhariadis). Nevertheless, it is important to point out that this was (and was intended as) a temporary truce. After the war, he wrote, Greece would become a country “that stands for labour and freedom . . . with a truly people’s culture” (Zakhariadis).

[4] The 28th of October was celebrated for the first time in 1941 as an act of resistance to the occupying forces with events organised by nationalist/bourgeois organisations as well as the, then, newly formed EAM (the communist-led resistance). Celebrations were also held in 1942, but in 1943 they were violently repressed by the German occupying forces. Although the two opposing political camps seldomly recognise each other’s contribution to these celebrations (Petropoulos), the fact is that the anniversary of Metaxas’s rejection of the Italian ultimatum was immediately recognised by all parties as the (symbolic) beginning of the resistance. The first official state celebration of the 28th of October took place in 1944, just days after the exiled government led by George Papandreou returned to Athens and weeks before the opening act of the civil war, the December 1944 battle of Athens.

[5] The Greek civil war between the communist DSE (Democratic Army of Greece) and the National Army took place between 1946 and 1949 and is one of the first theatres of the Cold War (Clogg 147). Writing in 1969, Constantine Tsoukalas suggested that the legacy of the civil war can be traced in the “unprecedented political, ideological and cultural cleavage between what was labelled ‘the national attitude’ . . . and the remnants of the progressive forces”; “a cleavage that was the basis of a deep-rooted anti-communism that “permeated every aspect of social and cultural life” (114–15).

[6] “Όχι” [pronounced “ohi”] in Greek means no, and although Metaxas’s actual response (“alors, c’est la guerre”) was to the same effect, he appears to have never used the word “no.” Although the central message of the celebration (the commemoration of resistance to the Italian acts of aggression) is true to the events that transpired in the morning of 28 October 1940, the transition from the phrase “this means war” (uttered in French) to the more simplified Greek word “no” reframes the legibility of the message: first, his response in French which implicitly (re)cites all the previous times this phrase has been uttered in chambers of power is a sign of privilege; and second, a single everyday word adds clarity to the message and more readily invites a singular frame of legibility.

[7] These extracts come from the October 2019 post-parade statement by the then President of Greece Prokopis Pavlopoulos (Pavlopoulos).

[8] The tradition of military parades in Greece begins in the 1870s. Nevertheless, Koulouri maintains, it was in 1930 that “the parade [was] established as an integral part of the national celebration.” This development follows the paradigm of the rest of Europe where “the ‘national ritual’ that includes the military parade is fully established after World War I” (Koulouri, Fustanellas 467–69). The student parades also begin sporadically in the latter quarter of the nineteenth century and they are formally established as part of the celebratory rituals by Metaxas (Daskalopoulou).

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sqwIAGYvZm4.

[10] According to its own account, the Presidential Guard is a “guardian of [national] history and culture” and its uniform “is part of our national identity and is inextricably linked to Greece’s modern history” (“Presidential Guard”).

[11] The student parade takes place on the morning of 28 October in all municipalities, apart from Thessaloniki where it is staged a day earlier because of the preparations for the military parade. Although these parades participate in the militarist scenario rehearsed in the celebrations, they differ in that the participants are not military personnel and, therefore, the rigidity of the execution is of lesser importance—even if there are always eponymous and anonymous members of the public that complain about the lack of precision and synchronicity.

[12] The 25th of March is the main Greek national holiday and celebrates the beginning of the war of independence in 1821 (the nation’s “birth” after a long period of gestation) and the Annunciation (a major date in the Christian Orthodox calendar). The mirroring of the two national celebrations was first established in the first official commemoration of the 28 October anniversary in 1944 by George Papandreou, Prime Minister at the time: “The government has proclaimed [the 28th of October] a National Holiday, comparable to the 25th of March 1821. Because the struggle and glory of our Nation were equivalent” (Bellou).

[13] Nevertheless, a key difference between the military and the student parade is that while in the former the focus is on white and male bodies, the latter allows “other” bodies that are neither white nor male to perform. In this sense, the student parade offers the opportunity to apply pressure on the scenario that is enacted in the 28 October celebrations in ways that the military parade does not.

[14] My focus here is on the parade as part of a scenario that rehearses the official memory of the nation-state. Even though, as Koulouri points out (“60 Years”), the parade has occasionally been contested in the country’s post-war history, it still occupies a central position in the nation’s commemorative repertoires.

[15] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zw9Zhc5-u1k.

[16] The mayor was not alone in responding with anger to this direct action. Right-wing MP Konstantinos Bogdanos pressed charges against the activists for offending the memory of “our ancestors who sacrificed their lives for freedom” (Papadimas).


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*Philip Hager is associate lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University, and his research examines contemporary performance theory and practice with a particular focus on questions around citizenship, urban space and cultural memory in European contexts. He has co-edited Performances of Capitalism Crises and Resistance: Inside/Outside Europe (Palgrave, 2015) and the special issue Dramaturgies of Change: Greek Theatre Now (Journal of Greek Media and Culture, vol. 3, no. 2, 2017). He is co-founder and co-convener of the Inside/Outside Europe research network and has co-convened the Performance, Identity, Community working group at the Theatre and Performance Research Association.

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