Look Back in Prudence! Civil War Legacies and Crisis in Greece Today

15. 3. 2017

Whether as an irritant or as a balm, the Greek Civil War of 1943–1949 is back.

The Civil War, fought between the left and sections of the centre and the right, followed on from the Great Depression and the dictatorship of Ioannes Metaxas (1936–1941). Over one-hundred- thousand deaths in combat or by firing squad have been calculated for a population of slightly over seven million. Some one thousand seven hundred villages were destroyed. Proportionally, the population losses during the Greek Civil War may have been three times those of the Spanish Civil War.

Silent Voices

Both during the war and after its conclusion, the left presented themselves as the democratic party, whereas they were presented by their opponents as “bandits” or, worse, as an alien body serving the interests of the “Slavo-communists.” After 1944, the very term “emphylios” translated as “civil war” was shunned, respective opponents being viewed as alien to the national body. Following the left’s defeat, at least eighty thousand faced exile in Eastern Europe, Greek citizenship and right of return to their homeland denied. Others were imprisoned. In these camps, many prisoners were tortured or subjected to intense psychological pressure to confess, repent of their crimes and renounce their past. Only then could the prisoner be reintegrated into the national body.

After the return to democracy, the 1981 victory of Papandreou’s socialists was presented by PASOK as a victory of the “Great Democratic Block.” Most refugees were invited back from behind the iron curtain (the exception being “Slav-Macedonians”), and the period of wars from 1941 on, was celebrated as a period of “national resistance” embracing all of the left and most of the right. Streets and squares renamed in the 1980s to commemorate the resistance constitute an ongoing reminder of this integration of the left into the national story line. Nonetheless, political identity continued to be determined to a considerable extent by the Civil War.

It was the anti-Papandreou New Democracy- communist coalition of 1989 that finally passed a law stating that the conflict should not be referred to as a “bandit war” but as a “civil war.” As if to preserve the silences, however, the coalition proceeded with the burning of relevant archives of the Greek intelligence services. This right-left reconciliation of the 1980s and the early 1990s was therefore based on a policy of don’t ask…

Rethinking Civil War

Connected, perhaps, to the gradual passing away of the generation that lived through the war and its aftermath, the last decade and a half have seen important historical work on the topic of Civil War. Both Athens and Thessaloniki Universities have research teams that focus on the Civil War. A plethora of novels and films have also engaged with the war from new perspectives.

From 2008 on, a whole set of slogans linked to the Civil War has come into common usage, in what has been described as “a civil-war syndrome” correlated to the crisis. Politicians have added their voice to this crescendo of noise. Only a few characteristic examples, all of them from the last few months, need be cited: A close advisor to the Prime Minister remonstrating against left wing histories of the Civil War, an (opposition) SYRIZA MP ending a speech in parliament with the trade-mark words of farewell of the communist resistance fighter Aris Velouchiotis (1905–1945) “we’ll meet again at the furriers”; the Mayor of Athens using words that recall the persecution of the left following the Civil War; the Prime Minister expostulating “in the name of God, we are not on the verge of a civil war”; and, repeatedly, Golden Dawn MPs accusing their SYRIZA counterparts of being civil-war era communists.

For the government, civil-war talk is expedient. The Civil War is used as an argument against division, thus formulating a rationale for agreement and cooperation. Further, the threat of the left constitutes an effective tool in New Democracy’s struggle to stem the drift of its voters to parties of the populist and far right. Such talk allows the Prime Minister to present himself as a bastion of national stability against the dual threats of the radical-left and fascism. Referring to Alexis Tsipras, leader of the opposition, Antonis Samaras said: “he is in favor of a Greece of protests on an everyday basis; […] he is in favor of a Greece in which the words nation and fatherland are outlawed.” Civil-war talk reached such a pitch pro-government Kathimerini newspaper condemning the political use of such rhetoric.

Equally, however, widespread usage of the Civil War might be interpreted as a turning point: the closure of a period of divided memory. With the certainties of the post-Junta era questioned and with the threat of violence omnipresent, it is natural that Greeks should look back to previous periods of trauma to interpret their current predicament.

Threats and Deadlines

If the Civil War is back in the public sphere, this does not mean that today’s crisis is a result of the Civil War. At most the trauma of the Civil War and its aftermath help explain certain features of the Greek polity. Contrary to a number of versions purporting to provide explanations of Greece’s current condition, Andreas Papandreou was not the beginning of all things evil, nor does modern- Greek history commence with the fall of the Junta. There are, as it should always be remembered, systems of government that are worse than those based on patronage and corruption.

Nor is Greece on the verge of another civil war. For the left, the Civil War has often worked in the past as a metaphor for resistance understood as an existential stance. Nonetheless, SYRIZA is doing all it can to capture the centre ground. Alexis Tsipras is attempting to reach out to religious voters and to liberal democrats, and also to all those who want Greece to remain integrated in a reformed European system. Far from corroborating the rhetoric of two extremes with a delegitimized left on one side and Golden Dawn on the other, this has resulted in accusations that SYRIZA is transforming into a repeat-version of PASOK, striving, in other words, to present itself as adept at combining radical rhetoric with a realistic approach to exercising power. Civil-war talk has little appeal for SYRIZA’s coveted centre ground.

The post-Junta consensus embodied by both PASOK and New Democracy may be characterized as a mutually reinforcing amalgam of democracy, party-patronage and Europe. In the context of a depression which is now deeper than that of the US in the 1930s, with patronage in abeyance and Europe turning toxic, it is not only the strength of extreme parties that should surprise, but also the robustness of the parliamentary and democratic ideals which both SYRIZA and New Democracy espouse. This democratic consensus is a direct result of the role of both the left and the liberal right in combating the Greek Junta of 1967–1974 and the legalization of the Greek communist party KKE that followed. There is no left ready to take to the mountains today, no faction waiting to falsify election results, and no military prepared to intervene in the democratic system.

At the same time, however, there should be no room for complacency. Alongside economic calamity, the threats to democracy are multiplying. One threat is the pressure applied by the EU for governments of national unity, such unity, enforced by an institution that is only in the process of attaining democratic legitimacy by itself, being seen as the opposite of pluralism. Apart from being unconstitutional, attempts to ban Golden Dawn from participating in the electoral process would also undermine the democratic process that is serving as a major bulwark against extremism in Greece. This is exactly what happened in the 1950s when KKE was banned. It is the racist practices and violent methods of Golden Dawn members and the party leadership that should be prosecuted, not the party as a political entity in and of itself.

Another source of instability is the perceived injustice of the privatization process, particularly the privatization of the municipal water authorities of Athens and Thessaloniki that charge reasonable prices and yet make a profit. Equally, there is widespread resentment to new tourist land use regulations, which encourage the speculative construction of tourist homes, protected areas included. Enforced privatization on the scale envisaged engenders questions of social relations, and, in the last resort, sovereignty. These are questions that Greeks last confronted in the context of German occupation and, later, of US hegemony during and following the Civil War.

It is in the context of such questions, that the politics of identity is trumping the politics of justice. Camps have once again been set up throughout the Aegean, this time to remove migrant-aliens from the EU. Hunger (last experienced, on an incomparably wider scale, in the famine of the Second World War) is being colored, Golden Dawn having arranged for the distribution of food for those of Greek nationality. That the mood is turning distinctly nationalist is evident in calls for patriotism of the left.

Golden Dawn, for its part, is openly using the symbolism of the Civil War and fascist past, including the Greek version of the Nazi Horst- Wessel-Lied. The connections between Golden Dawn support and anti-communist collaborationist traditions in certain parts of rural Greece have been much commented on. Faced with a collapse in standards of living and a feeling of being enslaved many Golden Dawn supporters seem to relish the party’s aggression directed towards others. In a grave indictment of the educational system, Golden Dawn support comes preponderantly from the young, pointing, at least in urban areas, to the breakdown of the family as a bearer of memory.

In light of the government’s recent crackdown on Golden Dawn it is impossible to estimate the party’s support come the May 2014 European elections; the clamp-down may even contribute to a degree of heorization, with certain circles viewing the party as the only anti-systemic force in Greek politics. With a strong result for SYRIZA likely, these elections have the potential to lead to a collapse in the legitimacy of the current New Democracy-PASOK coalition. This leaves the EU with a limited window of opportunity up until April 2014 to restructure debt, create a framework for the supply of affordable finance to companies in southern Europe and, by extension, start the process of reducing levels of unemployment in Greece from the current 28%.

The Greek Civil War does not then constitute a sufficient explanatory framework for the current crisis. But it should serve as a warning. Greece’s democratic consensus may be remarkable given the magnitude of the downturn, but it is also increasingly vulnerable.

History and Healing

It is precisely because the economic crisis and the crisis of institutions connected to it have destabilized identities throughout Europe that critical re-examinations of the continent’s recent past become so important. Debt, the euro, the European project, even the phenomenon of globalization as a whole, have undermined state sovereignty; voting citizens feel increasingly distant from the centers of power where the decisions that affect their lives are made.

As long as the standard of living of the majority of European citizens was improving, this was deemed acceptable. Throughout Europe, however, the rhetoric of social inclusion has now been replaced with the rhetoric of competitiveness. And competitiveness has two characteristics: firstly, it requires unequal sacrifices from different sections of the citizen body, and, secondly, it is directed against others, and therefore provides the framework for a politics focused on questions of identity, of “us against them.”

The Civil War has many uses in today’s Greece: Some are banal and some moralistic. Many serve narrow party-political ends. Not a few are dangerous. But “cultural traumas” such as that of the Civil War can also be put to work as lighthouses in a stormy sea. In a time when democracy in Europe is showing signs of decomposition and the contours of sovereign authority are being reset, the examination of past wounds is essential.

Germany in particular has much to offer Greece and the rest of Europe in this respect; indeed it is in a unique position to deal with the crisis, for the whole European project represents a response to the trauma of the Second World War of which the Greek Civil War constitutes an extension. Any examination of the past should not then be considered an alternative to debt restructuring, on-going structural reforms and a return to growth. Offered in a spirit of humility and forgiveness, however, critical understandings of the past constitute a direct challenge to stereotyping and the specter of identity-politics that are once again haunting Europe. For if Europe is facing its most serious challenge since the era of wars, it is to the contested memories of that era that it needs must return. Not in anger, but as an exercise in prudence and the pursuit of justice.

Iannis Carras

Iannis Carras is an economic and social historian of the 18th century Balkan and Russian worlds. He is active in Greek NGOs and has been a parliamentary candidate in the Athens region for the Greek Green Party.

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