On December 15, 1803 a group of Greek women and children fleeing the clutches of the Turksih-Albanian potentate Ali Pasha, who had only days before forced the surrender of their home city of Souli, were trapped in an area known as Zalongo by their pursuers. Pinned between the Turks and a sheer cliff, the Greeks were forced to choose between certain death and enslavement.
They chose death. First the women threw their children into the abyss killing them. Then they formed a circle and began to sing and dance, moving inexorably closer to the precipice until, one by one, they danced into the void. None survived.
That event is celebrated in Greek history and music as perhaps the purest distillation of the Greek spirit of resistance to the centuries of Ottoman rule it endured. And no analysis of the events unfolding today in Greece is possible without a comprehension of why.
Modern Greece is proud to claim descent from Ancient Athens, Sparta and the other city states of antiquity. It owes much more in temperament, however, to the experience of foreign domination and humiliation it suffered at the hands of the Turks. Constantinople fell in 1453. Greece did not regain its independence until 1832. Greece is, consequently, a nation fiercely independent and highly resistant to any suggestion that it is controlled by outside powers or interests. "Liberty or death", a phrase which evokes such emotion in our own culture, has an equally powerful connotation in Greek.
Against this backdrop, what is unfolding in Athens should come as no surprise. For years now, the world has watched the slow motion agony of Greece wrestling with its economic problems and assumed that at the end of the day, the Greeks would do the "rational" thing, that is that they would accept the terms dictated to them by foreign bankers, that they would fall in line and that they would pay their bills. They may not like it, the logic said, but they had no choice.
It may not be so.
The party with the second largest number of votes in the recent election was Syriza, the Radical Coalition of the Left. This coalition includes several separate Communist and Socialist entities, but the most significant thing about it is its position on the Greek debt crisis and on the austerity measures forced upon Greece by the European Union (EU). Its leader, Alexis Tsipras, has formally announced that he considers the bailout deal worked out with the EU null and void. He has called for an immediate end to all austerity measures currently being instituted in the country, and he has called for a moratorium on any debt repayment. In view of Tsipras and Syriza, the "memorandum", as they refer to the EU bailout agreements, was a measure forced on the Greek people against their will by foreign powers and, therefore, illegal and non-binding.
In fourth place in the elections, with 10.6 percent of the vote, was the Independent Greeks Party, a newly formed right wing organization. The party expressly rejects the loan agreement between Greece, the EU and the IMF. Its leader, Panos Kammenos, has called for a committee standing above political parties and armed with emergency powers and authorities to clear up the events that led to Greece's economic crisis. He has proclaimed a "national awakening and uprising", and has stated that Greece's economic problems are the result of an "international conspiracy".
Finishing with nearly 7 percent of the vote, in an election in which no party even took 20 percent, was the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party. Golden Dawn has an angry, anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner edge to it, one that blames all of Greece's ills on outside influences. The party leader, Nikolaos Mihaloliakos, describes his party as struggling for "A free Greece, free from foreign loan sharks and a Greece that is independent and proud, without the slavery of the bailout."
What precisely will happen in Greece in the coming weeks and months cannot be known. In the short term, it is likely that efforts to form a government will fail and that a new round of voting will take place. Beyond that, how that round goes, whether the mainstream parties will regain their footing or the extremists will grow in power is difficult to predict. What is clear, however, is that the ultimate outcome of the ongoing political struggle may have as much or more to do with national pride and national character as it does with economic theory and logic.
The stakes for Greece and for the world are, of course, enormous. If Greece repudiates the bailout deal and walks away from repayment of its debts, it means abandoning the Euro as its currency, returning to the drachma and accepting financial ruin. Whatever level of hardship the Greek people are feeling now, will be as nothing to what they will experience when their currency becomes worthless and international lenders vanish.
The impact on the rest of Europe may be severe as well. The EU has worked hard over the last few years to prepare for the possibility of Greek default. It will not be caught completely off guard. Still, creditors will circle and watch for signs that other nations, like Portugal and Spain, may be thinking about abandoning their obligations also. It will mean money will be harder to come by and more expensive, and none of that will help the other "sick men" of Europe.
However, dire those consequences, however, none of it may matter. Because this may all be decided not by men with green eye shades and calculators but by human beings more motivated by pride, history and a fierce independence than anything else. The Greek song, "Dance of Zalongo", includes this verse:
The women of Souli,
Have not only learnt how to survive,
They also know how to die,
Not to tolerate slavery.
And that may be what it comes down to in the end. That the Greeks perceive the choice before them as one between dying free or living as slaves, and, in the end, they would rather dance off the cliff.