Memories put in mothballs

In his second despatch for the PEN Atlas, Athens’s based Gazmend Kapllani looks back to the Greek Civil War and considers what effect Civil War has had on the nation’s literature

“In Greece, you can discuss anything – except the civil war,” a fellow student once told me during my early years in Greece. At the time, I was not yet aware of the Greek reality and history; I did not understand what my fellow student meant.

Since its creation,the modern Greek nation-state suffered from bloody clashes between various groups and powerful clans wanting to gain control of power. A noteworthy point is the fact that the first Greek Civil War (1823-1825) took place during the Greek Revolution, when the Greek state was still a work in progress….

However, when modern Greeks talk about the “Civil War” they are referring solely to the war which broke out after the liberation of Greece from the Nazis. The Cold War in Europe was “inaugurated” by a civil war in Greece, in other words, it started in 1946 in the Balkans; and was “concluded” with another civil war in the Balkans: in Yugoslavia. The Balkans often acted as a mirror which reflected and magnified the nightmares of Europe.

The Greek Civil War (1946-1949) was a relentless and bloody clash between communists (mainly) and the official Greek state – which was supported by the West, especially the British and the Americans. The communists and the left were defeated. I don’t know what Greece would be like if they had been victorious. But, having lived in a country where communists won, in Albania, I can imagine, I guess. Years later, when some of the defeated communists saw how things had developed in the “popular democracies” of Eastern Europe, they uttered the tragic words “fortunately, we were defeated!”.

The so called “poetry of defeat” was the most sincere and human reflection of the consequences and traumas of the Civil War. Before reading about the history of that time, I used to read poets like Manolis Angnostakis and Tasos Livadeitis – both had experienced the Civil War and were among the defeated. I was literally won over by their poetry and used to learn by heart bitter verses like these: “The misery makes you delay always – the life was gone. My friends were lost. And the enemies were so ungenerous that you can’t even feed on their hatred” (Libadeitis).

 It is rather interesting that the Greek Civil War was not mirrored in epic narratives. Novels on this subject, in their majority, reproduced the propaganda of either the winner or the defeated. The novels which didn’t follow this rule were very rare. In these conditions of political asphyxia poetry worked like a metaphorical catharsis, painful therapy or like a mirror, especially for those who were defeated during the Civil War. Poetry was a way of telling a traumaticstory that few in the country were willing or permitted to hear. 

We know what Greece after the Civil War was like. It was a country divided, crushed, ruined; a country of paranoid nationalists and anti-communists; with prisons, informers, paramilitary groups and with merciless persecutions of communists and others, all labeled as “traitors of the nation”. Only after 1974 – after the fall of the military junta in Greece – did a process of “national reconciliation” commence. However, the Civil War remained a ghost which continued to haunt modern-day Greeks. It also remained a taboo. In school, children practically passed over it, as if it never existed. Only during the past ten years has a public, documented and real dialogue begun.

A new generation of historians, gradually more interested in the dark past, began to search archives and use scientific facts and records to support their claims.  Eventually, growing prosperity and time allowed Greeks to gain enough self-confidence to examine that period.  Many of the books which dealt with the subject of the Civil War began to be published and to appear on best seller lists. Recently, I had the opportunity to read two such books.

The Avenging Hand of the People – a historical book written by the twenty-eightyear-old Jason Handrinos  – allowed me to visit the Athens of 1942-1944, from the time of the German Occupation to the Liberation – which by a tragic irony of History marked the beginning of the Greek Civil War. I “witnessed” the Nazis’ destruction of Greece and their monstrous crimes on civilians. I “saw” the tragic images of Athenians dying of hunger by the thousands; Greek collaborators who worked with the Nazis to create “Security Units” in order to fight against the communists. I “saw”  the communists who organized the resistance in the poor neighborhoods of Athens; secret communist organizations (based on the model of terrorist organizations) which executed Greek collaborators, those who disagreed with the Communist Party’s ideology, Trotskyists, and many others who just disagreed with them. Sometimes, in the name of “collective responsibility” they  murdered the relatives of their enemies too. Athens under Nazi occupation was a city plunged into violence and hunger. It was also the scene of a peculiar civil war – of Greeks who resisted the Nazis, against other Greeks who collaborated with the Nazis.

Reading the second book – German Uniform Put in Mothballs, written by Stratos Dordanas – one begins to understand one of the main reasons the Greek Civil War continues to be taboo: most Greeks who collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War were never convicted. Greece, of course, is not the “European exception.” In many western European countries, in the name of “communist threat,” a velvet curtain was “created” – behind this curtain the followers of Nazi ideology and Nazi collaborators were either forgotten or declared innocent. However in Greece, because of the Civil War, not only were the supporters of national-socialism not convicted, but in many cases they were rewarded. They became members of parliament, university deans, senior managers and were put in key governmental positions.  At the same time, they also created a powerful para-state network which was the main support of the Military Junta (1967-1974).  After 1974, with the fall of the Junta, these people were “put in mothballs”.

Every time Greece experiences a serious crisis, the ghost of the Civil War returns. Today, the words “civil war” can be heard in people’s whisperings and are synonymous with the Ultimate Evil which hangs like a threat above the Greek nation. Currently, because of the severe economic crisis and the social unrest, writers and journalists, politicians and ordinary people are beginning to publicly mention the “threat of civil war” again. The reinforcement of extremist political rhetoric in Greece, and particularly the entry of the neo-Nazi party (Golden Dawn), to the Greek Parliament with an impressive 7% of the vote, once again brings the ghost of the Civil War to the forefront.

The spiritual descendants of the Greek national-socialists, for the time being, have focused on other “internal enemies”:  immigrants – who are beaten up, stabbed, killed and made to disappear. 

The neo-Nazi’s recent resurgence has been, sometimes,tolerated by the police and “wrapped” into the silence of the Media – until the day one of their MP’s assaulted two female Greek politicians live onTV. At that moment the Greek Media detected the “Monster”. As for the police, it’s not so much of a political coincidence, I guess…. In the recent elections one in two policemen voted for Golden Dawn (according to the Greek newspapers To Vima – 11/05/2012).

In the new elections held in Greece on the 17th June, the neo-Nazi  party, Golden Dawn, won again 7% of the votes. According to the reports from Greek newspapers, 50% of the Greek policemen voted for them again. (To Vima – 19/06/2012).

European leaders, though, considered the results as a positive step for the future of the Eurozone. In the meantime, young Greeks are immigrating in large numbers, unemployment continue its impressive rise, violence and crime are thriving and foreign immigrants are being attacked by neo-Nazis almost every day in the streets of Athens.  

However the Greece of today is not the Greece of 1946. Just as today’s Europe is not the Europe of 1944. Perhaps Greece and Europe have learned some lessons from their dark past. The question is, have they learned enough so as not to repeat it – either as a tragedy or a farce….

About the Author

GazmendKapllani was born in 1967 in Lushnjë, Albania. In January 1991 he crossed the border into Greece on foot to escape persecution by the communist secret services. In Greece he worked as a builder, a cook and a kiosk attendant, while also studying at Athens University and completing a doctorate on the image of Albanians in the Greek press and of Greeks in the Albanian press. He is now a successful writer, playwright, broadcaster and journalist. His best-selling first novel, A Short Border Handbook has been translated into four languages (English, Polish, Danish and French). A Short Border Handbook was published and by Portobello Books in 2009, and was translated by Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife.

Additional Information

Dordanas, Stratos. German Uniform Put in Mothballs. Estia, 2011. (in Greek)

Handrinos, Jason. The Avenging Hand of the People.Themelio Publishing, 2012. (in Greek)