Letter from Thessaloniki

«The world once more is holding its breath. The German Army is rolling toward Thessaloniki in exactly the same tempo as autos are capable of….» noted Bertolt Brecht («Aus dem Arbeitsbuch: Der aufthalsame Auftieg…») after he had fled from Berlin to Finland on April 1941. It was the time when he completed in his most virulent, polemical «The Resistible Rise of Aturo Ui» a play where – among other things – the economic manipulations of a powerful «cauliflower trust» made Nazism possible. Defining immorality and entangled interests is, of course, not an easy task. Nonetheless, there are scenes in this play which remind one so much of current Greek affairs. Corruption is steadily bedeviling our country. So it was before Hitler’s time. As matters now stand, the play brings to mind the current «milk trust» affair and the body politic which day after day is engulfed in the same atmosphere of decay as in the Brecht play. It is, therefore, not only in «Arturo Ui» that the nature of corruption and greed are the main actors. The action of the play takes place in Chicago. Hitler is recast as a small-time Chicago gangster, Arturo Ui. It’s a menacing parable. The Cauliflower Trust (representing German capitalism and the Junker class) at first refuses to even meet with Ui. Honest Old Dogsborough – Brecht had Hindenburg in mind. We could identify this straightforward politician with persons closer to us – looks down his nose. In pre-Nazi Germany, Hindenburg was re-elected German president in 1932, ironically with the support of those who reacted to the corruption and debauchery of the previous administration. However, as times get harder, stocks fall and comfortable lifestyles become threatened, Ui slowly becomes more acceptable in their eyes. Finally Hindenburg’s own circle thought the calliflower cartel mafia useful, albeit unpleasant, and worth accommodating. In November 1932, Hindenburg finally appointed Hitler as chancellor. Brecht had specific instructions for staging «Arturo Ui.» «The show’s pace,» he advised, must be «at top speed.» At top speed as well are the opinionated developments set off by recent accusations that a member of Greece’s Competition Committee accepted bribes. The convincing analogies are many. To start with, gangsterism was in the 1930s an accepted phenomenon in life. Today, too, it is a part of the structure of modern society if one is to believe what the general inspector of public administration, Leandros Rakintzis, declared yesterday in an interview in Kathimerini: «It is impossible to make a full stand against entangled interests.» Local guardians of old-time virtue speak of «common decency» and «accepted opinions.» But do such things really exist? In the play, Brecht is, interestingly, harder on the politician Hindenburg than on Hitler. As the program for the play points out, «The play is not so much an attack on Hitler, but upon the complacency of the people who were able to resist him, but didn’t.» Needless to say, Thessaloniki is these days far ahead of Athens as far as the use of a lingo is concerned that, experts say, was used in the crime fiction and the movies of the 1940s and 50s. This is a language used by the late playwright Nikos Tsiforos and deciphered by the sociologist Ilias Petropoulos, who composed the first glossary of slang and mobster terms in Greece. It is a language full of «padrini» («nonoi»), of «The Brussels-and-Salonica gang,» of «Capo di tutti capi,» and of «Young Turks,» a term I was assured is also used by the less traditional generation of mafiosi in New York as well. At any given moment, public opinion is a mixture of misinformation and prejudice. And Thessaloniki is no exception. Our record so far has not been distinguished. Yet it is always possible to make things better – as well as worse. Most people expect some follow-up. The play ends with an actor reciting to the audience: «The world was almost won by such an ape! Let none of us exult too soon. The womb he crawled from is still going strong…»