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What history tells us when Greeks burn with rage

It is sad and strange to watch Greece go up in flames. Particularly from Baghdad, where Iraqis, daring to believe that the worst is finally over after five nightmarish years, struggle to understand why Greeks are setting their country alight.

“We don’t know why they are doing this,” my friend Hussam said while we were watching the news last night. “They have everything. They have democracy, human rights and a good economy, but still they are destroying their country.” Put aside for a moment the irony of an Iraqi commenting on civil strife and bloodshed in a Western democracy. Part of that analysis is spot on. For many onlookers from the developing world, Greece has it all. An admirable standard of living, a decent economy, a shipping industry that is the envy of the world, a sybaritic climate and celebrated cuisine, membership of the EU and precious few enemies.

One thing missing from the Iraqi analysis, however, is a sense of history. As is so often the case with events in Greece, we’ve been here before.

Athens first went up in smoke in 480BC, when the Persian army of Great King Xerxes, King of Kings, Lord of Light, fresh from what would prove a pyrrhic victory over King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, thundered south across the plains of Attica and put the city to the sword, then to the fire. The Acropolis was burnt, the 5th-centuryBC Greek historian Herodotus recording the damage to the defining symbol of Athens, “which the Persian fire had scorched”. As Tom Holland writes in his history of the Persian Wars: “The great storehouse of Athenian memories, accumulated over centuries – the city’s very past – was wiped out in a couple of hours.” Greek protesters are doing their best to wipe out a lot more this time. The thing about the Greeks – proud democrats that they are – is that they strike and take to the streets at the drop of a hat. Take the annual November 17 march, ostensibly in memory of the 1973 Athens Polytechnic uprising against the military junta of George Papadopoulos. Few outsiders recall that the confrontation, which led to more than 20 deaths, started with a strike. Only in Greece could students strike. With the self-dramatising flamboyance of youth, they called themselves the “Free Besieged”, in honour of the poem of the same name written by the 19th-century

Greek national poet Dionysios Solomos, a tribute to the Siege of Missolonghi, cornerstone of the Greek fight for independence.

The student strike rapidly grew into a tense stand-off until the tanks rolled in and bloodshed ensued. The confrontation set in motion a series of events that led, via the calamitous Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, to the collapse of the junta, the return of a former Prime Minister,

Constantine Karamanlis, and parliamentary elections later that year. Democracy was restored.

Karamanlis, incidentally, was the uncle of the current Greek Prime Minister, Kostas Karamanlis. The political class likes to keep it in the family.

At times, Greek democracy appears to consist of little more than the Karamanlis and Mitsotakis dynasties taking it in turns to hold power.

This, together with the corruption that tends to follow in its wake, is one of the country’s enduring problems.

The November 17 march offers some powerful insights into the violence of the past week. Join the demonstration, as I did a couple of years ago, and it doesn’t take long to realise that it is just as much an anti-American, anti-capitalism protest as a commemoration of the student uprising. Surrounded by thugs with motorbike helmets under their arms and cudgels disguised as flags, we snaked through Athens until reaching the American Embassy when the rioters donned their helmets, hurled petrol bombs and charged the lines of riot police. Within moments the streets were full of teargas and broken glass. Anarchy is an essential component of Greek democracy.

Kostas Karamanlis might regard the protesters as “enemies of democracy”, but those on the streets consider it their fundamental democratic right to run amok.

Ask students why they march – and strike – today and they tell you that it’s for “bread, freedom and democracy”.

I remember one young woman telling me that Greek students were starving. The Government was forcing them to pay for their studies, and they now had to find work to support their studies. To say that they lacked a bit of get-upand-go was an understatement. Haven’t they heard of holiday jobs? The students had been on strike for months, occupying universities and refusing to let anyone in. High-school students caught the strike bug and joined in, too. It was a free-for-all for Greek lazies, not unlike the current student-led spectacle.

One aspect of my Iraqi friend’s analysis of the Greek riots is off the mark. It is no coincidence that the violence ripping across the world’s oldest democracy is happening at a time when the economy is in the doldrums and youth unemployment is extremely high. Instinctively anti- American as a nation, Greece has had little appetite for globalisation. A large number of Greeks are fundamentally anti-business, among them the hardcore of several hundred anarchists in Athens. The current confrontation can be viewed at one level as a contest between a deeply unpopular, reforming government and defenders of the status quo. In the flames and carnage convulsing the nation there are shades of the unrest that occurred in Britain when Margaret Thatcher took on the miners. Greek unions, for now at least, are strong.

One wonders what the astute Herodotus would have made of the mayhem. Perhaps he would have considered it as nemesis arising from the hubris of the political class. In which case, we must hope, just like the Ancient Greeks, that catharsis is just around the corner. 6 Justin Marozzi is author of The Man Who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus, published by John Murray