Greece. Cradle of Western Civilisation. My home. Currently, the country is going through its most dire phase since the end of a devastating Civil War that followed the end of the 4-year Nazi Occupation at the end of the 1940s. The land, economy, society and institutions have been in steady decline for a number of years now, but the downfall has been accelerated since the start of the financial crisis in early 2008. The name and reputation of the country and its inhabitants have been seriously damaged by the developments of the last two years. 'Greece' and 'Greek' have become words almost synonymous to laziness, corruption, nepotism, cheating and much more. To the consciousness of the majority of the world, the country has managed to transform in a short number of years from a modern, European state which builds state-of-the-art infrastructure and organises and executes world class events (the 2004 Summer Olympics is the best example) to a backwater of Europe and a problem child of the Balkans; some claim almost a 'failed state'. The story of the country's management of its finances over the last 30 years has now become a case study of 'the best way to bring a country to bankruptcy'.
However, despite all the bad press and the scathing articles that analyse the sorry state that modern Greece has managed to bring itself into, what is most worrying is the complete lack of confidence and optimism that the Greek people are experiencing in the last two years. Even inside the country, the political and economic elites and the largely controlled major media outlets (daily newspapers, TV channels, radio stations, etc.) have added to the attacks and libels from abroad. An endless parade of scandals, corruption and lawlessness pass before the eyes and ears of the average Greek citizen, 24 hours a day until even the last one of them is convinced that there is no hope and that everyone is rotten and unworthy of salvation. No good news, no reason for optimism. The result is a dispirited population, resigned and immersed in a state of collective depression.
But a people with damaged confidence and no hope for the future will never manage to stand up back on its feet and create a better future. On the other hand, even countries and populations with the most devastated economies and finances have achieved rebirths and renaissances when they managed to keep their optimism and confidence high.
Greece still has many reasons to feel confident about. Hundreds, if not thousands of examples that prove Greece and the Greek people have huge reserves of ingenuity, industriousness and talent which they have used in the past and managed to excel in periods much more difficult than today. In order to avoid leading myself into the trap of archaeolatry, as it usually happens with Modern Greek commentators and intellectuals, I chose to study the near past and more specifically the decade of the 1950s, in order to try and find examples of my claims about the importance of hope, optimism and confidence for the fortunes of a country and its people.
Greece in the 1950s was in a state far worse than it is today. The country entered its first post-war decade completely devastated after 4 years of Nazi Occupation followed by an even more destructive 5-year Civil War. Families destroyed and a state that was unable to provide its citizens with even the most essential means for survival. Despite all that and amidst a climate of disintegration and deprivation, the country experienced an unprecedented flourishing in literature, the arts, science, and entrepreneurship, significantly aided by the Greek Diaspora, many of them immigrants from the war years or a little earlier.
The global shipping industry after the war was dominated by three names: Stavros Livanos from the island of Chios, Aristotle Onassis from Smyrna and the Athenian Stavros Niarchos are three of the richest men of the time and together control the majority of the world's merchant fleet.
Dimitri Mitropoulos is the most renowned orchestra conductor of his time. Born in Athens at the beginning of the century, the '50s find him as the Musical Director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, then the most famous orchestra in the world, and the main conductor of the Metropolitan Opera of New York.
The most famous soprano in the history of opera is at the peak of her career during the '50s. Born to Greek parents in New York, Anna Maria Cecilia Kalogeropoulos has performed all the major roles of the Opera repertoire in the most famous theaters in the world. People know her as Maria Callas, and the press and critics of the time give her the nickname 'La Divina', the 'Divine'.
At around the same period, a young man from Crete with the name of Mikis Theodorakis is studying musical theory and composition at the famous National Conservatory in Paris. He writes symphonies, suites and chamber music. In 1957 he is awarded the Gold Medal at the Moscow Music Festival, where President of the Jury is the famous Russian Dmitri Shostakovich who becomes a good friend of his. In 1959 his first ballet, 'Antigone', is performed with great success at the Royal Opera House of Covent Garden in London, and receives enthusiastic reviews. Many world famous musicians perform his songs including the likes of Edith Piaf and the Beatles.
In 1952, a 28-year old Greek who at that time is studying for his PhD in Chemistry at the renowned University of Princeton, is honoured as the fifth best pianist in the United States and begins to compose music while performing with some of the most famous jazz orchestras in America. His name is Mimis Plessas.
In 1957, the Cretan Nikos Kazantzakis, a world famous author at the time, loses the Nobel Prize for Literature by a single vote to the Frenchman, Albert Camus. It is the third time he is nominated for the prize. Following the announcement, Camus himself said: 'Kazantzakis deserved the prize 100 times more than me.'
At the same time, the most acclaimed tragedian internationally and one of the best actresses of her era, Katina Paxinou, is enjoying a successful Hollywood career along with her husband Alexis Minotis. Paxinou had already been awarded the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress back in 1943, the first ever non-American actress in the history of the awards. Paxinou and Minotis become one of the most famous couples in Hollywood and take part in the films by legendary directors such as Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks.
In the early 1950s, a young Greek-Cypriot named Michael Cacoyannis returns to Greece after a long stay in London where he studied theatre acting and directing. The young Cacoyannis will start making films in the mid-'50s, beginning with the legendary 'Stella' which causes a steer at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival, earns many international awards and puts the Greek Cinema on the world map. In the following years, Cacoyannis shoots three films with his muse Ellie Lambeti which are all major international successes and go all the way to the Oscars and the Golden Globes. The British press praises Lambeti's performances in Cacoyannis' films. At a private screening of his films in Los Angeles, legendary Hollywood actress and friend of Cacoyannis', Katharine Hepburn, confesses to him: 'I wish one day I could be as good in a movie as this young girl …' During the same period in the late 50s, Cacoyannis' second great muse, Irene Pappas, returns from the US after an already 10-year career. In 1962, she stars in the movie 'Electra'. The film earns an Oscar nomination in the 'Best Foreign Language Film' category, a Golden Globe, rave reviews by most film critics and a place in the list of the 10 best films of that year. Even today, the film is still considered the best film adaptation of an Ancient Greek tragedy.
Meanwhile, another young composer, Manos Hadjidakis, is already well known in Greece and writes music and songs for film and theatre. In 1959, he will meet a young girl from Crete who is studying at the Athens Conservatory and sings at the jazz clubs of 50's Athens. Hadjidakis is impressed by her amazing voice and will make her his first muse. The young singer of Hadjidakis will go on to have a great international career beginning in the early '60s and today is recognised as the most successful female solo artist in the history of the international music industry with over 300 million record sales. Her name; Nana Mouskouri. Hadjidakis himself will gain international prominence during the same period and in 1961 he wins the Oscar for Best Song for the film 'Never on Sunday'.
Finally, the 1950s finds George Papanikolaou, a great medical doctor and researcher, at the zenith of his fame. Papanikolaou, who was born in Kymi on the Greek island of Euboia and studied in Athens and Germany, lived and worked in the United States for the last 40 years of his life and became a naturalized US citizen. He is famous as the creator of the Pap Smear and the father of 'Exfoliative Cytology'. He produced most of his work at the labs of the world-acclaimed 'Cornell University'. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and his portrait will even end up on a US postage stamp. He was one of the most famous scientific figures in America during the '50s with appearances and interviews on American television, and is now considered one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century.
These are perhaps the most famous examples of a country and a people that came out almost destroyed after 10 years of war. I am sure that few of my compatriots now know these facts and the details. Unfortunately, no government and no medium have yet chosen to highlight some of the events of the not too distant past, even in an attempt to provide people with a new sense of optimism, hope and renewed confidence and self esteem. The same obviously applies to the formal education system which rather than fostering free thinking, the critical evaluation of history and sound patriotism that will push the future generations to reach or exceed the achievements of the past, instead it recycles and perpetuates a sense of self-pity, inferiority and servility.
I think it is time for the people of Greece to rediscover their history, their abilities, the invaluable natural and human resources of their country, get over the old feuds and create a new common vision for the future. But first they need to stop deifying money, consumerism, empty 'lifestyle' and all sorts of mediocrities. They must rediscover some of the morals and values of the past that are now found only in old Greek movies, but which helped the '50s generation to accomplish all those things described here. Morals and values that were put in the drawer for all these years and which we now must take out, dust off and make them part of our lives once more. Honesty, cooperation, thrift, and a reappraisal of the value of work, the family and society in general. A whole new culture: social, professional, political. And a new confidence in their abilities and their value both as a nation and as individuals. Only then will they begin to regain the respect of the international community and improve their reputation. Only then will people eager and willing to offer their services begin to return to the country. It is tragic for any nation to lose the most productive, innovative and talented portion of its population. People who could offer the most, financially, politically, scientifically, artistically, are now offering their talents and services to foreign governments and nations. No country has ever managed to come out of such crises without the contribution of these people. If something changes in the coming years it will be from the current generation of 20 and 30 somethings. This must be fully understood by all. The rest now have to support and facilitate as much as possible their work. Unfortunately, their time has passed. Their work and legacy, good or bad will be judged by the historian of the future.