The Greek Crisis: OXI and Bella Ciao in Syntagma Square

Jul 21, 2015 5:30:00 PM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

Dr Michael Woolf CAPA International Education

Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

This month, Dr. Woolf writes about current events in Greece and how we communicate this story when speaking with our study abroad students. 

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I have been wondering what, if anything, we should be telling our students about the complex and perplexing sets of events in Greece. To understand what is happening within the European Union (whatever the ultimate outcome) requires a sophisticated and nuanced sense of history that is beyond most of us who live here. For our students the dramas being played out in Greece and across Europe must be profoundly bewildering.

Photo: Greece by Stephanie Sadler

There is, though, a standard explanation of the crisis that dominates the media both in Europe and the USA. In this version of events, the feckless Greeks refuse to pay their debts despite the efforts of a fiscally responsible Germany, who are struggling to bring an ordered solution to chaos. In this narrative, the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, leader of the left-wing coalition Syriza, is determined to ignore the voices of reason and instead embraces disorder and, consequently, is dragging the country towards apocalyptic disintegration. That is a simple and cogent story that offers a relatively undemanding path towards judgement.

We need to help students understand that this version of events ignores many profound complexities. We have a duty to illustrate and explain other perspectives that will, at a minimum, disrupt and disturb that narrative. The prevailing view of the crisis in Greece fails to take into account the power of national myths and disregards the significance of modern European history since 1939.


Germany has emerged as the voice of fiscal responsibility in Europe and has acquired a quasi-moral authority as an example of how reconstruction can happen within countries committed to values of economic restraint and hard work. In this moral parable, Germany emerges as a paragon of economic virtue. The roots of this reputation were made in the 1950s and 1960s, when West Germany achieved what is frequently called an economic “miracle”. From the tattered disasters of the post-war world, they achieved steady growth through selfless toil: a story that, on a national level, resonates with tales of self-made men who, by the sweat of their labours, achieve prosperity.

Photo: Greece by Stephanie Sadler

While we would not want to be disrespectful of German efficiency and effort, there are two factors that are oddly missing from that story: after World War II the Germans benefited greatly through the reconstruction assistance given predominantly by America through the Marshall plan (1948- 1952). Most significantly, they were also beneficiaries of the 1953 London Agreement which reduced Germany’s national debt by an enormous 62.6%. Political stability was seen as a greater priority than the interests of global capitalism. A similar scale of debt relief would, of course, profoundly alleviate the suffering of the Greek people and avoid the potentially hideous dangers of political instability.

At a time of great political unrest in Greece in 1967, a group of colonels (known as the Junta) led a military coup: “a revolution to save the nation” was the ostensible justification. The right-wing military dictatorship suspended all democratic institutions and ruthlessly supressed individual freedoms for the next 7 years. The dictatorship received significant overt and covert support from the USA because, at the height of the Cold War, it was believed to represent a bulwark against communism in Europe. The dictatorship used torture as a means of political control and brutally repressed democratic freedoms.

While the parallels with events today are not precise, this scenario should signal a potential danger and warn the international community of the possibility of a humanitarian and political disaster beyond economic measure.

Photo: Greece by Stephanie Sadler

Meanwhile, Germany was effectively free of international debt by the early 1960s. Its future prosperity and economic power was built on a combination of aid and massive debt relief. No such assistance has been offered to Athens. The historical precedents, mostly ignored by current commentators, should, as a minimum, oblige us to question the way in which the current crisis is represented in our media.


Oxi (pronounced ochee) means no in Greek. The referendum of July 5, 2015 gave the Greek people an opportunity to reject the power of global capitalism and the demands of European financiers. Over 60% of the voters chose that option and voted oxi.

What we have not properly recognised is the profound national symbolism attached to that word. To understand its significance, students have to be taken back to the perilous days of 1940. The Greek Prime Minister at that time, Ioannis Metaxas, was no democrat but he was a patriotic Greek. The Italian dictator and Hitler’s ally, Mussolini, sent an ultimatum to Metaxas to surrender on 28th October 1940 and, therefore, to give the Axis powers (Italy and Germany) access to key strategic resources. Metaxas (probably apocryphally) replied oxi in a response that created a national myth of Greek character built on defiance of oppression. Metaxas response was, whatever he actually said, a forcible rejection of Italy’s ultimatum. In the Greek press and the popular imagination in 1940 it was translated into the single word that defined national pride and resistance against overwhelming power. Mussolini’s invasion, backed by hugely superior force (estimated at a potential 2 million soldiers, 400 warplanes, and hundreds of tanks.), was successfully defied by a force of 80,000 soldiers, no tanks, and three World War 1 bi-planes.

Photo: Greece by Stephanie Sadler

The Italian debacle prompted the Nazi invasion of Greece that was bravely and painfully resisted. The brutal occupation of Greece in no way diminished the historical importance of Greece’s refusal to submit to the fascist and Nazi alliance. For the Russian leader, Joseph Stalin, this was a key factor in the ultimate defeat of Hitler: “The Russian people will always be grateful to the Greeks for delaying the German army long enough for winter to set in, thereby giving us the precious time we needed to prepare. We will never forget.”

Hitler in 1944 also recognised the critical impact of Greek resistance: “If the Italians hadn’t attacked Greece and needed our help, the war would have taken a different course.” Winston Churchill’s tribute signals the epic heroism of the Greeks in those desperate times: “Until now we would say that the Greeks fight like heroes. From now on we will say that heroes fight like Greeks.”

The emotional, historical and mythic significance of oxi was not understood in the western media but, it can be argued, that no other concept more clearly defines, or is more deeply embedded in, the Greek psyche than that defiant no.


During the BBC coverage of the celebration of the oxi vote in Syntagma Square in the centre of Athens on July 5, it was possible to hear a group of Italian sympathisers singing Bella Ciao. The significance of that song was elusive to many listeners and would certainly not be immediately obvious to our students. It dates back to World War II and was made popular by Italian partisans who, between 1943 and 1945, resisted and finally defeated the fascist government of Mussolini. The simple song became an important and emotionally profound expression of courage and sacrifice in the face of tyranny: “One morning I woke up / And found the invader / Oh partisan, carry me away, / And if I die as a partisan / Bury me up in the mountain / Under the shadow of a beautiful flower / This is the flower of the partisan / Who died for freedom.”

Photo: Greece by Stephanie Sadler

The conjunction of oxi and Bella Ciao reminds us that national identity is not ultimately made in the corridors of the European banks or board rooms of financiers. It is embedded in the emotional, dramatic, mythic structures by which nations create themselves. These are not superficial slogans or ephemera of history. Like “The Land of the Free/ And the Home of the Brave” they define what it means to be a citizen. They define what it means to defy tyranny.


The word “Europe” derives from Greek and there are many meanings accumulated around the idea of Europe. In one version, the key players are the agencies of global capitalism, the bankers and financiers (who also bear significant responsibility for the traumatic events of the last few months).  

An extreme view of the role of the International Monetary Fund, for example, is expressed by George Monbiot (The Guardian, July 5, 2015): “The IMF is controlled by the rich, and govern the poor on their behalf.” The power of European financial agencies is, in this context, palpable; they represent a faceless, even menacing, version of trans-national power. The Greek people freely voted oxi; the trans-national financial establishment has over-ridden that democratic choice and subverted national will. Paul Mason precisely identifies this critical issue: “The problem is with democracy. If democracy cannot express illusion and crazy hopes; if it cannot contain narratives of emotions and ideals, it dies (The Guardian, July 14, 2015)

Photo: Greece by Stephanie Sadler

The idea of Europe is not the private property of bankers and financiers. There is another and alternative narrative available. This was defined historically by the partisans who were inspired by the power of a word and inspiration of song. They were Greeks, Italians, English, Irish, Germans, Turks, Christians, Muslims, Jews and others who represent a Europe of solidarity, idealism, a profound defiance of, oppression, and belief in the courage and nobility of humanity.

We have some duty to our students to demonstrate that the language of fiscal restraint is not the only form of European discourse. Profoundly important is the cry of oxi, and the sound of Bella Ciao. Those too are the voices of Europe.

Thanks Mike! 

Read More From Dr. Michael Woolf

Topics: International Education