NEW YORK – Amb. Loucas Tsilas was the keynote speaker of the 10th Annual Demetrios Contos Memorial Program in Celebration of the “OXI DAY” – October 28th 1940” that was held in the ballroom of the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity on October 27.
President of HACC Nancy Papaioannou welcomed the guest to the celebration “of one of the bravest and brightest pages in modern Greek history” and the memory of its beloved Board member Contos. She then invited Cathedral Dean Fr. John Vlahos to the podium and he offered prayers “for the repose of the souls of all who offered their lives for faith and country and for Demetrios Contos.”
Amb. George Iliopoulos, who introduced Tsilas, took a moment to praise the co-sponsoring organizations and said “We all hope to see more of this kind of cooperation in the future.”
The event was held under the auspices of the Greek Consulate, co-sponsored by the Hellenic American Chamber of Commerce (HACC), HMS, AGAPW, AHEPA’s Delphi Chapter 25, HLA, Holy Trinity Cathedral, and the Contos family.
Amb, Iliopoulos proceeded to place Tsilas’ speech about the noble moment called Oxi Day in the context of Greece’s long history.
“Our people, with its thousands of years of history has lived moments of brilliant glory as well as periods of decline,” their contributions to mankind will always be sources of pride, he said, but noted that abandonment of national values lead to decline and destruction.
Calling Greece’s current situation a crisis of values, he said that among Oxi day’s lessons for its youth is the value of unity and love of country.”
Citing the community’s long relationship with Amb. Tsilas, Iliopoulos said “you don’t need me to make an introduction, allow me, however, to tell you, that in the Greek diplomatic service, Amb. Tsilas is a legend…he is one of the very few that years after leaving the service, people still talk about them in admiration.”
Tsilas responded saying of Iliopoulos introduction “whatever exaggerated comments he made with regard to my person, I assure you they will be surpassed amply by him.”
He also preceded his speech by noting – citing recent commentary in The National Herald by Demetrios Tsakas – that a Greek minority remains in the land of southern Albania that is the final resting place of so many of the heroes of 1940-41, and urged the EU and the international community to support its rights.
Tsilas, who now teaches contemporary European history at Queens College, began by elaborating on the title of his talk: “Historical Events in Hindsight: The Paradigm of the OXI DAY.”
“What is hindsight,” he asked, and then he queried “what is history?”
He said the Greek word, ”istoria” is derived from the idea of a credible witness, but that is the easy part he said, and moved on to hindsight. “It is the examination of past events,” he said their analysis and assessment, “but this is a dynamic process. Every generation, society, group, and individual when they go back to examine what happened in 1940 will do it through the lenses of his or her time.”
He continued enigmatically, “because if we know what history is, he may be able – tonight – to make history.”
Tsilas then asked the inevitable question: Is there such a thing as objective history?
“For me, the answer is ‘no. Absolutely not.’” he said.
A prime example is the assessments of one of the two protagonists, Ioannis Metaxas, the then Prime Minister.
“Among you are people who were told that Metaxas was a hero, a great leader… but there are others – like me – that were told that Metaxas was a dictator, and led Greece into political apathy, and that he was dragged into the Oxi by the valiant, brave attitude of the Greek people.”
He then challenged the audience: “Now, what is the truth? The truth is what we will decide tonight: who really made this epos – this epic page of Greek history,” Metaxas or the Greek people?”
At three o’clock in the morning the bell of Metaxas’ private residence in Kifissia rang and he was awakened by his chief of security who said the French Ambassador wanted to see him.
It was in fact the Italian Ambassador who came to hurl an ultimatum at the pajama-clad Prime Minister.
Metaxas’ actual response to the choice between either surrendering Greece or to have it taken by Mussolini’s armed forces was “alors, c’est la guerre” but it amounted to the same thing: Oxi – No!
Tsilas then shined the spotlight on the fact that Metaxas was alone. “He does not ask for a Minister to come, he does not ask his government or members of Parliament ,” for advice. “He didn’t ask anybody. He just said “No!”
He called that “a typical example of leadership, a leader who leads from the front.”
Metaxas had prepared his country for that eventuality, preparing Greece’s defenses as much as he could. Tsilas said criticisms that he did not do enough are irrelevant: the Greek army repelled the Italian forces and stormed into Albania.
“He was expecting the Italians to attack and played it cool.”
And after “alos, c’est la guerre” he went to work with his staff and the representatives of the allies.
“When word spread that there was war with Italy, Greeks by the thousands stormed Syntagma Square, and when they saw Metaxas, they lifted him up in triumph,” said Tsilas. He noted the man was not popular among Greeks, that he had never connected with the people, but at that moment, the people forgot everything an embraced him and he uncharacteristically responded in kind “and the rest is history.”
From one perspective. The other one focuses on the behavior of the Greek people.
Tsilas then turned Socratic: “How does one influence people,” and then, “how do people respond to events, with their stomachs, their material needs…or with their hearts, their emotions?”
A third choice was presented, which Tsilas said is now backed up by psychological and social research. After the initial excitement and emotions that are evoked – “how long can they last,” he asked, “a few months” – people undertake rational analysis and chose their actions intelligently, contrary to analysts who say people are not really persuaded intellectually.
Tsillas believes that the people of Greece did not respond to the need to defend their honor either with their stomach or their heart. “They responded with their brain.”
Brave people are not those who are not afraid of hurling themselves into the fire, he said. “The brave people are the ones who are afraid, but he or she makes an assessment of what is important, valuable, priceless, and then goes out to meet what is to come.”
That is what the Greek people did, Tsilas said, knowing full well there would be hardship, famine, suffering, and that they were fighting against a far superior enemy… ruthless people.”
“The people made a very conscious, cerebral, intellectual decision: ‘we are going to defend the honor of our country. If we will cede territory, it is not going to be given by us – it will be taken by force.”
There is another twist to the story. When the tragic moment came to surrender to the superior force of the Germans, the latter demanded the Greeks surrender to the Italians. But even though it would put at risk thousands soldiers and hundreds of officers who would imminently become prisoners of the nazis, the Greeks response was: “No, we will not surrender to those whom we defeated.”
“So, what happened,” the Ambassador asked, then noted, “There were two protagonists.” One was the leader, Ioannis Metaxas, who made the decision alone, but the second [element] was the reaction of the Greek people.
“The Greek people, in the truest possible, Periclean sense of bravery – deciding with their mind, not their heart or their stomachs – said they would not surrender any territory,” Tsilas said, and noted he and the audience had just “made” history. Their assessment is now part of the historical record.
He added, about the history made during WWII, that it was not only the people inside Greece who responded. Many Greek-Americans made the decision to leave their families and businesses to fight for Greece.
What was coming, for all concerned, were losses and suffering “but also a great victory. They won!”
The discourse finally came round to the present. He declared that “there are today national issues that people should think about neither with their stomachs or their hearts. The have to think in a brave way. And we also need leaders who will lead, who will go up front, who will say something and do something” about the challenges their country faces.
With a wry smile the ambassador concluded by alluding to his earlier disclaimer that his comments should not be construed as criticism of any particular politician or party, and he concluded with “all I want to say is that certainly Greece needs this.”
Dr. George Liakeas, President of HMS and son-in-law of Demetrios Contos, placed an exclamation point on the event as an vital exercise in remembrance. “The most effective way to destroy a people,” said author George Orwell, “is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history,” he said.
Liakeas thanked Tsilas and all in attendance and the organizers on behalf of the Contos family. “Mimis used to have an open house on his name day every year. This has become his open house.”
Carol Contos told TNH after the event, “My husband loved America, his adopted country, and he was a very devoted Greek and Orthodox Christian…an Archon…This is his party. This is how we celebrate him.”