Kostis Kornetis is a CONEX-Marie Curie Fellow at the Humanities Faculty of the Carlos III University, Madrid, working on the “Revisiting the Past and Present of the Spanish and Greek Transitions to Democracy” (RESPAGRET) project. He received his PhD in History and Civilization from the European University Institute, Florence. From 2007 to 2015 he has taught at the History Department at Brown University and the Center for European and Mediterranean Studies at New York University. His research focuses on the history and memory of the 1960s, the study of authoritarianism, the methodology of oral and sensory history and the use of film as a source for social and cultural history.

His book Children of the Dictatorship. Student Resistance, Cultural Politics and the “Long 1960s” in Greece (New York/Oxford, 2013) received the 2015 Edmund Keeley Book Award of the Modern Greek Studies Association. A Greek translation (“Τα παιδιά της δικτατορίας, Φοιτητική αντίσταση, πολιτισμικές πολιτικές και η μακρά δεκαετία του εξήντα στην Ελλάδα”, Polis Editions) of the book has been recently published and is being widely discussed in Greece. He recently co-edited, with Eirini Kotsovili and Nikolaos Papadogiannis a volume titled Consumption and Gender in Southern Europe since the Long 1960s.

Kornetis spoke to Rethinking Greece* about the legacy of the student resistance during the Dictatorship and the democratic transition in Greece and in other southern European countries like Spain and Portugal, as well as about youth movements around the world now and in the 60s.

In your book “The Children of the Dictatorship”, you focus on student resistance during the Dictatorship in Greece (1967-1974). Are there aspects of this era that have been left in the dark? Why do you think the historical research of “the long 60´s” in Greece has been relatively limited so far? 

My book focuses precisely on the generation and its subunits that was in the vanguard of student action in the “long 1960s”, thus following not only the transition from the pre-dictatorship years to the actual Junta but also from the fall of the dictatorship to the immediate Metapolitefsi years. I thus tried to follow this dynamic part of society and look at the ways in which it managed not only to resist successfully an authoritarian regime, but also to create meaning out of its everyday life in those adverse conditions – including its proper mentality, culture, ideology, utopias. There are many aspects of that era that are still left in the dark, however, the most serious of which is the extent to which a substantial part of Greek society benefited from the Colonels, a taboo issue until today. We tend to look at urban areas – but what about a history of rural Greece during the seven years of the dictatorship? In terms of university life, the story of the aggressive student followers and supporters of the regime is yet to be written – I myself only focused on the dissident ones. 

I believe that the study of the 1940s in Greece has monopolized discussions on the recent past so far, and to some extent rightly so as it is impossible to understand the second half of the 20th century without a deep understanding of the civil conflict. However – the 1960s is a pivotal decade that conditioned to some extent the entire era that we live in and therefore the attention now needs to be shifted. Fifty years after the establishment of the dictatorship and with no archival or other limitations, it is high time to start exploring this era in a more systematic manner. There are already new and exciting studies by young scholars coming out on a number of topics – ranging from the technocrats of the time and their relation to the regime, the business and industrial world, the aesthetics of the regime and its monuments, are but few of them – which shows that there is an up and coming new generation of researchers ready to provide fresh insights into the period.

kornetis7Greek exceptionalism discourse has been very prominent during the current crisis. Do you think this is connected to the narrative of the “failed” Metapolitefsi (Greek Transition)? 

I believe so, yes. In a recent volume co-edited by historians Effi Gazi, Manos Avgeridis and myself, called Metapolitefsi, we came to a similar conclusion regarding these discourses. There is a tendency to blame the transition and the period that succeeded it for all ills in Greek society – arguing that Greece is somehow a unique case in this respect, if compared to other “success stories”. Of course we are quite prone to exceptionalist discourses of this sort – so in a way this comes as no surprise; but if one looks at the other countries of Southern Europe who had an authoritarian experience, similar narratives emerged there during the crisis too, albeit not as intense as over here.

How do the democratic transitions compare between Greece, Spain and Portugal? 

These are three different cases of post-authoritarian transitions in the European South, which however share important similarities. Spain experienced a so-called “pacted” transition that was agreed between all political parties, including the Communist and the King, providing for a smooth passage to democracy. A precondition for the democratic turn was amnesty of all political crimes and the supposed termination of the abysmal political cleavage that had started with the civil war. A serious side effect of this decision, still tormenting Spanish society at present, is the feeling that there was no justice done to the victims of Franco’s regime, hence there was no closure with the past by means of catharsis. These are issues that the current crisis is powerfully re-opening with a new generation demanding to break the silence. Furthermore, the 1978 Constitution that acquired totemic status is now criticized for many failures of the political system ever since.

Portugal, on the other hand, has different issues to deal with. Since it experienced a revolutionary break from the dictatorship, one of the big debates at present is the difficulty to deal with this revolutionary legacy and even recognize its positive sides, which were until recently ignored by history books. There are open issues there too, moreover, mainly regarding the hitherto unproblematized colonial violence exercised during the last years of Caetano’s dictatorship, as well as the unprecedented wave of refugees fleeing the former colonies to seek refuge in Portugal. The trauma of this people was once more discussed during the crisis – in an interesting twist of events former colony Angola offered financial help to its historical colonizer.

What connects the three cases is the role of resurging memories, political slogans, historical metaphors and past conceptual frames expressing the conflict between collective experience and official historical narratives. Part of the current symbols of anti-austerity protest, for instance, stem from the period of the dictatorships, the transitions and their poetical-popular archive: Protesters interrupted the speech of Portuguese Prime Minister Passos Coelho in the national assembly in 2013, singing Grândola, Vila Morena – Zeca Afonso’s emblematic song that gave the signal for the Portuguese Revolution in 1974. Two years earlier, in the summer of 2011, the “Aganaktismenoi” in Greece rhythmically chanted “Bread–Education–Freedom” (the main slogan of the student protesters in the November 1973 uprising against the Colonels’ dictatorship), adding “The Junta did not end in 1973”, thus indicating a certain continuity in state coercion from the 1970s to the present. In Spain, a graffito that proliferated during anti-austerity protests read “Franco is back” – rather than “Franco is dead”, which was the famous television communiqué by prime minister Carlos Arrias Navarro in November 1975. Thus, present-day social movements asking for an inclusive and fully participatory democracy, tend to act as “mnemonic agents”, pointing not only to a structural and organic connection between the political transitions and the current crisis and the persistence of authoritarian legacies but also to an affinity in terms of historical poetics.

Speaking of Southern Europe, the various “Indignados” movements that appeared in 2011, clamored for democratic renewal, a demand that is yet to be fulfilled. Could such demands have been formulated as a part of a wider south-European movement? What do you think is the legacy of the Greek Indignados / “Aganaktimsenoi”, if any? 

I am not sure – because of the different timing and intensity of the cases in question. Greece was the first country to be hit by the crisis where very dynamic movements developed from below, leading however to a certain protest fatigue much earlier than in the other cases. I believe that the legacy of the Indignados is a mixed one, especially in the Greek case of the “Aganaktismenoi”. And there I see a basic difference vis-à-vis the other cases, which were in general more uniformly progressive-minded. The division of the Syntagma Square into “upper” and “lower” parts, the first one corresponding to the nationalistic and the other one to the leftist tendency is a peculiarity of the Greek anti-austerity movement, that in some ways later on materialized through the strange bed-fellows that formed the governments Syriza-ANEL.

So, to some extent – just like Podemos in Spain – these political formations harvested the “movement of the squares”. In a way, we witness a southern European momentum, starting with Syriza, passing over to the leftist government in Portugal, and ending up with the rise of Podemos in Spain, it seems that something is gradually changing in the South. However, the problem with these platforms is their connection to actual governance. They all promise alternative anti-crisis politics that would break the vicious cycle of austerity. For the podemitas, just like for Syriza, all it takes for one to break ordoliberalism and austerity politics in Europe is political will, losing one’s fear vis-à-vis the supranational institutions and acquiring popular legitimization. And this, in a way, is a legacy of the movements from below. On the other hand, however, Alexis Tsipras’s political defeat after the July 2015 referendum in Greece bulldozed, I believe, these dreams. Now we know that there is no way that a government could utilize the popular support or popular pressure from below in order to break the neoliberal outlook of international creditors. Due to this realist turn, some people argue that these formations now know what is possible and what is not, having acquired a better and more realistic grasp of the veritable horizon of possibilities. 

Do you believe the Indignados movements in Southern Europe, and by extension the Occupy movements in America can be compared to the youth movements of the 60’s in Europe and America?  

It is difficult to say. In general I find inter-generational and transgenerational comparisons challenging, which is why I tend to focus on them in my current research. My observation is that the Indignados did refer to the 1960s – after all it is one of these rare moments of synchronic social action all around the globe (starting with the Arab Spring, over to Spain, Portugal and Greece, and of course climaxing with Occupy). One could say that the connectivity that the 2011 movements denote – facilitated by social media -, had as its starting point the very idea of the “global village”, coined by Marshall McLuhan back in the 1960s. Also – just like in the 60s, now too inspiration is stemming from the periphery and gets diffused into the center, from Tunis to Washington and not vice versa. In terms of structural comparisons, however, things are more complex. The 68 movements did question the structure of the entire post-war condition in both East and West, challenging the status quo of an aged society. By bringing about not only a political but also a cultural revolution of sorts, it changed people’s way of thinking and of being socially, not least through the entire palette of “new social movements” that sprang out of it, ranging from feminism to ecology. I am not sure if such a radical potential exists right now but it remains to be seen.

kornetis5Can we rethink Greece in the wider framework of “Democratic Transitions in Times of Crisis” and its discourses? 

This is precisely the topic of an analysis that we attempted in a special issue of the academic journal Historein – which also features an article by Antonis Liakos and Hara Kouki on this type of discourses. I believe that the crisis has opened up the gates for revising the entire transitional and post-transitional periods since it put into question some of their basic conquests (welfare state, etc), but it also revealed the limits and flaws of the entire political spectrum ever since. It further prompted us to question the standard narratives regarding this entire period, to seek alternative explanations and try to provide a more profound analysis, highlighting the longue durée itineraries of our societies. Furthermore, social movements from below often acted as carriers of revisionism regarding transitional processes as smooth, unproblematic and efficient. 

Moreover, people who experienced the dictatorships in a young age and were among the protagonists of social movements during the transitions, experience an afterlife of activism. These “children of the dictatorship” who had been largely discredited as the equivalent of the “compromised” ’68 generation in the case of Greece, or ignored by the general public in the case of Spain, are now rediscovered by a new generation of activists; the generation of those born during this democratic consolidation, or ‘children of the transitions’, who have been a great force behind today’s indignados. It is, thus, notewrothy that at a time when historians in Greece, Spain and Portugal are trying to write the history of the transitions, turning the past into history, these “children of the transitions” turn the not so distant past to a very immediate present. And this is something we cannot ignore.

*Interview by Ioulia Livaditi and Nikolas Nenedakis

RESPAGRET engages in a comparative perspective on the long-run effects of post-authoritarian politics in Southern Europe and the generational memory thereof, bringing together comparative history, social movement studies, and oral history. Watch Kostis Kornetis explaining the aims of the project: