Monday, 19 December 2011

Portrait of a philhellene

The following interview with Christopher Hitchens is being republished on the occasion of his death on December 15. It was originally published in the Athens News in May 2009, when Hitchens was in Athens to visit the grave of his mother, Yvonne Jean, who is buried in the first cemetery. 

Christopher Hitchens was in Athens earlier this month to celebrate a death. 

A long-time supporter of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, he believes that the group has now obliterated the British Museum’s arguments for holding onto them. 

 “The last argument the British Museum had was that ‘The Greeks have nowhere to put it’,” he said on the eve of a visit to the new Acropolis Museum.  “I’ve come here to celebrate the death of the last argument.” His celebration is due to appear in Vanity Fair.

The Parthenon Marbles - or Elgin Marbles - have been controversial since the 7th Earl of Elgin stretched the terms of an 1802 firman from the sultan and removed to his native Scotland dozens of panels of frieze and metope. He sold them to the British state in 1816 and they became part of the British Museum collection in 1817.

The British Museum has resisted returning the sculptures on the grounds that Greece could, on the strength of that victory, ask for the return of other things. The frieze from the temple of Apollo at Bassai also sits in Bloomsbury. So does a number of exquisitely painted vases. Why shouldn’t the Greeks ask for everything back?
“They can if they want to. No one will pay any attention,” says Hitchens. And here lies the key to why he believes the Parthenon Marbles will be returned: guilt.

The marbles’ initial removal caused them to be sawn into pieces and damaged the Parthenon itself. During the two centuries that the sculptures have spent in Britain, they have gone from Scotland’s inclement humidity to London’s Victorian grime. Fissures on the pieces were at one point cemented, then unplugged again. The reliefs were twice cast in plaster and washed several times. They were sandbagged in the Aldwych Underground station during the blitz. Their location and arrangement underwent several changes, with the risks of damage that entails. Fragments were been drilled in order to be fitted together. The coal stoves used to heat the British Museum in the 19th century coated them in dust and soot. In 1938 the marbles were cleaned with copper chisels and silicon carbide, an abrasive crystal, causing an outcry and dismissals from the British Museum. 

But on the marbles, as on everything else, Hitchens seeks out the principle from the particulars. His position is not about his unapologetic philhellenism (he has two children by his first marriage to Greek-Cypriot Eleni Meleagrou), or even about British mistakes (it can plausibly be argued that some of the marbles might never have survived if left in Athens); it is not even about repatriation, a bilateral argument lacking universality which would reduce it to “the limited interest that applies to a divorce dispute.” 

For Hitchens the universality of bringing the Parthenon marbles back to Athens is in restoring the wholeness of a monument “that belongs to humanity proper,” as if gluing the torn canvas of the Mona Lisa.

“This argument has been, at least since Byron, part of the mental and moral furniture of every liberal Englishman worthy of the name,” maintains Hitchens. “It is something that is and should be on our conscience.”

Like Byron, Hitchens is extraordinarily intelligent, curious about the world, controversial wherever he goes and a legendary drinker. Like Byron, too, he is susceptible to the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” type of publicity.

It is easy to see how Hitchens generates controversy. His insistence on arguing solely on points of principle leaves no room for the discretionary decisions of realpolitik.

To quote a minor instance, during a noisy lunch in Thiseio Hitchens took the Athens News to task for not republishing anti-Islamic cartoons that caused an international furore after they ran in a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, in 2005. The cartoons were interpreted by many in the Muslim world as insulting to Mohammed.

“’Here’s an image that’s caused a big row, but we’re not going to show it to you’,” Hitchens parodied. “It’s a negation of the journalistic obligation.”

I explained that the Athens News did not want to gratuitously offend a large multicultural constituency. “What has the size got to do with it? What if it was only one Muslim? Would it be OK to ruin their day and hurt their feelings? Is it bulk that impresses you?” And so on.

But Hitchens is also willing to put his money where his mouth is and change his mind on the basis of evidence. He originally dismissed waterboarding as not being torture, underwent the procedure for Vanity Fair and declared it to be torture of the worst kind.  

Turkey too “arrogant”

Hitchens is incensed with what he sees as the Obama administration’s sacrifice of principle to appease Turkey.

He faults America for pampering its second-closest Middle Eastern ally and thinks US President Barack Obama “invertebrate” not to remind Turkey of its denial of the Armenian genocide when he addressed the Turkish parliament on April 6. 

“I think the Turks consult only their own interests and we’ve allowed them this arrogance on a lot of matters – Armenia, Cyprus, Kurdistan.”

He points to the way Turkey single-handedly opposed a unanimous candidate for secretary-general of Nato earlier this month. Former Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen was elected in the end, but Hitchens thought Turkish behaviour in a consensual body “outrageous”.

“I think I would now say without much hesitation what I had not ever thought of ever saying - which is that after the Rasmussen business I don’t think Turkey should be in Nato.”

The ongoing Turkish occupation of Cyprus is another example of entitlement, he believes. 

Turkey’s 1974 invasion, codenamed Attila, was launched in reaction to a Greek coup attempt in the capital, Nicosia. The EU admitted the island in 2004, but freedoms of commerce, movement and settlement are now massively curtailed between the northern Turkish-Cypriot enclave and the Republic of Cyprus to the south.

“We can’t import the Attila line into Europe. It’s a direct negation of all the underlying principles of the founding documents,” Hitchens says.

Once again, he argues for principle, not Hellenism. “The invasion and occupation of Cyprus is a violation of international law... If it’s only supposed to move you if you’re Greek, it’s to that extent a lost cause.”

In the early years of the century, Cyprus’ admission on this flawed basis was a coup. At the 2002 European Union summit in Copenhagen, Greece persuaded its partners to admit Cyprus occupied. It thus ensured that Turkish foot-dragging in reunification talks wouldn’t hold Greek-Cypriots outside the EU until Turkey itself was admitted.

But the accession of Cyprus was only partly based on the principle that Greek-Cypriots should enter first because they were ready to; it was also a massive European gamble to precipitate a settlement. That gamble has now failed. Greek-Cypriots vetoed the United Nations’ Annan Plan in 2004, which would have created a federation governed by consensus. Meanwhile Turkey has shown no sign of diminishing the 30,000-odd troops it keeps on the island.

Hitchens believes the entire basis of UN talks as an instance of suspending principle for expediency. He sympathises with Cypriots’ reluctance to abolish their state in return for a Turkish promise of cooperation. “One cannot trust Turkish undertakings on matters of principle... you can’t assume their signature is worth the paper it’s printed on.”

His recommendation? Apart from reconsidering Turkey’s position in Nato, he thinks Cyprus should insist on Turkey’s prior recognition before any further negotiation. Few can complain that Hitchens isn’t prepared to argue principles all the way home.


  1. Not QUITE Byron, but a bone fide fighter non the less. Just can`t quite stay with him about his support of Iraq war and the Chimp. Trouble with that is that it makes you wonder about his judgement on other matters...

  2. Yes but no but...Byron's Philhellenism was all the more for his actual experiences of the Greeks...his letter to a fried a few months before his death at Mesol√≥ngi ...Whoever goes into Greece at present should do it as Mrs Fry went into Newgate - not in the expectation of meeting with any especial indication of existing probity, but in the hope that time and better treatment will reclaim the present burglarious and larcenous tendencies which have followed this General Gaol delivery. When the limbs of the Greeks are a little less stiff from the shackles of four centuries, they will not march so much ‘as if they had gyves on their legs’. At present the Chains are broken indeed; but the links are still clanking, and the Saturnalia is still too recent to have converted the Slave into a sober Citizen. The worst of them is that (to use a coarse but the only expression that will not fall short of the truth) they are such damned liars; there never was such an incapacity for veracity shown since Eve lived in Paradise. One of them found fault the other day with the English language, because it had so few shades of a Negative, whereas a Greek can so modify a ‘No’ to a ‘Yes’, and vice versa, by the slippery qualities of his language, that prevarication may be carried to any extent and still leave a loop-hole through which perjury may slip without being perceived...Hitchens at his best was perhaps not so rude about the things he loved.

    1. Simon, thank you for a very though-provoking reply, and my apologies it took me so long to figure out how to reply. It's not that the Greeks lie more or more often than, say, the Germans or the Brits. To be sure, there has been a lot of dishonesty. But the problem now is that Greece is now under a level of scrutiny that is unprecedented for an entire nation or political system in a long time. The country is seen as having destroyed itself and nearly dragging its best friends along with it. In this media climate, the Greeks are going to be seen as capable of very little that is good, while journalists are now scouring Greek sources for all that can be framed as bad. For example, a founder of Greece's public debt management agency recently told me he was grilled for four hours by a German reporter. Only his most negative and self-condemnatory statements were ever produced in the final copy. It is hardly new that many reporters come here with a preconceived story to prove, and set sound bites to collect. You can find what you go out in search of, unless you're fair minded.


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