The last of the greats

The last of the greats

Constantinos Mitsotakis’s death truly signals the end of an era. This was a man made of different stuff, a unique individual shaped by his experiences. From the hours he spent waiting in a cell to be executed by the Germans and on, he experienced things that can only be learned in history books. He was the most complex, and possibly the most misunderstood politician in postwar Greece.

Mitsotakis was a European statesman who stood with confidence beside other European leaders of his generation. A par excellence proponent of the school of realism in economics and foreign policy, he often adopted advanced policies that took a political toll. He didn’t mind being dragged over the coals, however, thanks to his overoptimistic confidence. He was a tough political rival, but knew the damage serious division could wreak. His address in Parliament shortly after the assassination of Pavlos Bakoyannis is a lesson to us all, especially now. That was, perhaps, his finest moment.

Beyond a European statesman, Mitsotakis was also a typical political operative, representing another part of Greece – and Crete, of course. He looked after his supporters and, and he often said, the few thousand who kept him alive in politics and brought him back from the desert for a comeback as prime minister.

When he died, he took with him many of the answers to the questions we ask ourselves about the 1960s. I had the opportunity to spend many hours with him thanks to our shared passion for history, his for vindication beyond ephemeral stereotypes and mine for research. I did not know him well when he was prime minister and saddened him several times afterward because of the research I conducted. But I have always been impressed by his reactions in one particular case, when I knew he was very angry indeed. I avoided running into him until the whole thing had blown over, but he spied me at an event and came straight to me. “You’ve been a stranger,” he said, adding: “Never mix up your work with your personal affairs. You did your job, now come and talk to me.”

The last time I saw him – a precious opportunity it seems now – was just before Easter. My anxiety about where the country is headed was more than apparent. He asked me my opinion of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and what I thought the results of the April 16 referendum would be.

As he started to get tired, I made the following rather expected comment: “You must hope to live long enough to see Kyriakos as prime minister.” Now because this was Constantine Mitsotakis, he gave me an equally expected answer, which told me how much he hoped he was still active, even at 99, with poor eyesight and unable to get up from his chair without help: “What I hope is that my mind stays sharp long enough so I can help prevent any big mistakes being made in the early days.”

I knew I would never see him again – and that we would miss that blunt, honest voice of a man who saw and did so much, a man who you had to listen to whether you agreed with him or not. Perhaps this is why he bade me farewell in a way I will never forget: “Remember one thing, son. This country is as easy to ruin as it is to fix. All it takes is a few determined lunatics.”

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