Taking stock of a troubled era

Between 1936 and 1949, Greece went through a fascist dictatorship, a war, foreign occupation and a civil war. It was a turbulent era for many countries, but Greece was the only European country that had to endure a civil war to secure its place in one of the two main postwar alliances. The trauma the country endured was as deep as that of eastern European countries occupied by Soviet forces and unwittingly incorporated into the Soviet Union’s orbit. There are survivors from that era and the hatreds and grievances that the events of those years engendered are still present, even if only as fading memories. The cynical exploitation of victory over communist forces by the conservative ruling class, professional anti-communists and people who saw in the events a chance to wipe clean their record of any collaborationist stains meant that anyone who did not fully subscribe to a simplistic, rabidly reactionary ideology was not a «patriot» by their definition. As a result, although it was the communists who suffered the worst persecution, facing imprisonment and (until 1955) death, many more non-communists were oppressed, unable to find jobs or forced to undergo all kinds of humiliations to obtain a «certificate of ideological purity» that would enable them to find a decent job. Many people, now in their late 40s or 50s, grew up with parents absent because they were either hiding from authorities, in jail or in some place of exile. Many more, even younger, have heard horror stories from their elders of right-wing thugs bullying and terrorizing the people during election campaigns. The civil war created a poisonous atmosphere that only began to disperse with the fall of the colonels’ regime, in 1974. In the smaller cities and villages outside Athens, it took the Socialists’ victory in 1981 to stop the harassment of people over the newspapers they read, for example. All this suffering makes it all too easy to forget that, at periods when they felt strong enough, before their defeat in 1949, communists perpetrated serious crimes and terrorized innocent people. So the grievances are not just on one side. However, it was the victors’ barbaric treatment of the vanquished that provided the latter with a halo of martyrdom that persists to this day. Given the depth of the feelings, one can imagine the difficulty of a measured historical approach to the period. Twenty years ago, when the Socialists recognized left-wing resistance groups and began distributing awards and pensions to those who had fought the German, Italian and Bulgarian occupiers, a kind of artificial division was created, as if by consensus, by both left and right. The resistance itself was all good, an event in which everyone, save a few collaborators, participated. The civil war, beginning with the bloody battle of Athens in December 1944, two months after the city’s liberation, and ending with full-scale war across the country between 1946 and 1949, was an unfortunate event, described as such even by the Communists who instigated the war, but attributed on both sides of the ideological divide to «foreigners’ intervention.» It is thus conveniently forgotten that the civil war actually began during the resistance and that casualties suffered by resistance groups fighting each other were far greater than casualties inflicted on the occupying forces. In the past 30 years, the vanquished Communists, at last free of political repression, have sought to create their own official version of the history of those troubled times by reversing the roles of hero and villain. The first historical conferences on the period between 1940 and 1950 were both organized abroad, in 1978. A conference on the resistance alone – but not the civil war – was first organized in Greece in 1984 and was dominated by the false dichotomy mentioned above. It was only in the 1990s that more balanced accounts begun to appear regularly, by historians of both a leftist and a conservative bent. It is perhaps no coincidence that it took a foreigner to promote the dispassionate study of both the resistance and the civil war. Hagen Fleischer, born in Vienna 60 years ago but a permanent resident in Greece since 1977, has been publishing articles, mainly on the German occupation, since the 1970s. Now a professor of modern Greek history at Athens University, he has assembled a volume of articles, under the title (translated from Greek) «Greece 1936-1949: From the Dictatorship to the Civil War – Divisions and Continuities» (Kastaniotis, 2003). This is probably the first attempt at a comprehensive look at the period. A total of 21 articles, plus two introductory and a concluding one, examine foreign policy, ideology, the Communist party’s political strategy, the ultra-right, the post-civil war repression, the economy, literature and civilization. The perspectives may not be novel, but the careful, non-partisan analysis certainly is and is welcome. A hitherto taboo subject is taken up in «The Image of the Jew in Greek literature,» which shows that in the 1930s, racial antagonism against Jews, already present in earlier works, was exacerbated. Postwar literature focuses, in a more sympathetic way, on the Holocaust, but it is scanty. One of the more interesting facts dug up from the book is one mentioned by the editor himself, in his introductory article «Memories – and the Forgetful.» In 1945, a few weeks before the collapse of the Hitler government, a lengthy report detailed the «loan» taken out by the Germans from Greece’s central bank, some 476 million marks. The report was meant to be used by the Bundesbank and the Foreign Ministry for future negotiations on its reimbursement. The postwar German bureaucracy chose to forget, or conveniently confuse the issue with the entirely separate matter of reparations. Not a book for the casual reader, it’s certainly worth buying.

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