It’s hard to see a new movement emerging out of this awful death, but it serves to bring home the human cost of austerity
Early in February I tried to take the Athens metro and found it closed because of a suicide on the line. The cabbie who picked me up thought the deceased was an idiot: “What was the point of killing himself like that? He should have blown himself up in parliament and taken four or five of those crooks down with him.”
The 77-year-old retired pharmacist who shot himself in Athens on Wednesday didn’t do it in parliament but in Syntagma Square; still, his death has sparked a small political explosion. He’s neither the first nor (almost certainly) the last in Greece to take his life because the crisis has destroyed his livelihood and his dignity. Greece used to have the lowest suicide rate in Europe; the official number has doubled since the crisis began. This death, though, was public: it has made headlines, called protesters out on to the streets and forced politicians to shame themselves by saying something in response.
Dimitris Christoulas has already vanished under a swarm of platitudes and slogans, another martyr in a country that already has too many. But he must have intended that. The suicide note reportedly found on him ends with a call to arms. It refers to the government as “the occupation government of Tsolakoglou” (Georgios Tsolakoglou was the Quisling prime minister under the axis in 1941) and predicts that the futureless young will one day hang the traitors upside down in Syntagma, as the Italians hanged the dictator Mussolini. Suicides are always violent, it’s difficult to imagine an angrier one than this. It’s left an unanswerable accusation in the air, taking away any possibility of redress. Whatever happens next, Christoulas will still be dead, a symbol of all those who have lost their lives to the crisis.
The politicians, eyes on forthcoming elections, have struggled to find usable capital in the moment. Those in power have tried to drain it of political meaning, mumbling about solidarity in these difficult times, criticising the bad taste of those who would exploit a tragic death. Those seeking power have, of course, tried to exploit it while affecting not to. George Karatzaferis of the far-right Laos party (in the coalition government until its popularity plummeted) said that the bullet in Syntagma should strike the conscience of the whole political class. The Communist party blamed the capitalist system and its lackeys. The parties of the non-communist left, whose stars have risen as the crisis deepens, spoke of the misery to which the Greeks have been reduced by the politics of austerity. Christoulas will be, above all, their martyr, and the martyr of all those opposed to the savage cuts that have fallen on the most vulnerable.