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Culture

Gerolymatos’ Greek Civil War Monograph: a Book Every Greek and Every American Should Read

March 3, 2017
dscaros

Dr. Andre Gerolymatos, known to this newspaper’s readers as a longstanding columnist, and who is also a professor and Director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies at the Simon Frasier University in Vancouver, has penned a gem of a book about the war between the Greeks (1943-49).

While the book’s scholarly format – replete with extensive documentation – renders it a valued resource for historians of Modern Greece, the 20th Century, comparative politics, and military conflicts, it is – perhaps even more importantly – ideal for the newcomer to history, particularly to Greek-Americans and, more broadly, to all Americans.

Just as there are relatively few Americans who realize that the military conflict between the United States and Britain did not end with the American Revolutionary War (1775-83) – most notably, there was the British invasion and burning of Washington, DC in 1814, during the War of 1812, causing President and Mrs. Madison to flee for their lives – there are far too many Greek-Americans who think that since declaring their independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821, the Greeks had no problems with the Turks until the latter’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974.

Fortunately, this book is a valuable guide to navigate the beginner through Greece’s tumultuous history throughout the 20th century. Importantly, Gerolymatos places three tables – a chronology of events, the pertinent cast of characters, and significant abbreviations and terms – at the beginning of the book, where they belong. I can appreciate that – as I did the same in a book I wrote about the U.S. Constitution. I figured if I stuck the actual text of the Constitution in the back of the book as an Appendix, readers might overlook it altogether. That’s why I placed it right at the start. That Gerolymatos did the same prompted me to read through those tables before proceeding to the body of the text.

In a gripping, easy-to-follow style, Gerolymatos takes us back to late 1922, to the execution of six Greek officials held responsible for the loss in the Greek-Turkish War that year. Among the essential names and dates, Gerolymatos mixes in fascinating details, such as that one of the men was said to have believed that his legs were made of sugar and would break if he stood on them.

Next, we are taken even further back in time, to the well-to-do Phanariots, the Hellenes of Constantinople, contrasted with the landless peasants of Greece. Setting the stage for the Greek Civil War, he writes that a century earlier, “the Great Powers (Great Britain, France, and Russian) dictated the boundaries and the constitution of the country. The Greeks had to accept a very small state and a foreign monarchy as the price for independence. Both concessions contributed to a national restlessness that fueled irredentist ambitions and created a polarized political environment.”

The Great Powers subjected the Greeks to a monarchy, accepted by them only partially, and with concurrent feelings of ambitious self-interest, resentment, and confusion.

Moving to the occupation of Greece by Nazi Germany during World War II, Gerolymatos explains how at first the Greeks were hopeful that the Germans would treat them humanely, but that sentiment quickly dissipated, not only because they brought in the Italians – whom the Greeks despised – to be part of the occupation force, but because of the way they helped themselves to the nation and its spoils – from taking over villas and apartments, to reserving the choice entrees at restaurants for themselves while the Greeks were forbidden from ordering them, to confining the Greeks to a curfew, and compelling them to keep their shutters closed even during the oppressive midday heat.

Gerolymatos points out that symbolic acts of resistance, such as taking down the German flag from the Parthenon were largely benign, but the harsh German counter-response caused significant Greek guerrilla rebels to mobilize in the mountains – sowing the seeds for the Greek Civil War to follow.

Painting a vivid if dark portrait of what life was like, Gerolymatos writes: “People sought every means possible to survive. They sold whatever they had of value to purchase a loaf of bread, a couple of eggs, or any form of vegetable. Cats and dogs became a rare delicacy and when those were not available, rodents had to suffice.”

Many with only an inkling of Modern Greek history might be surprised to learn that the Greek Civil War did not take place entirely after the end of World War II, but rather began in 1943 – though the first phase was stamped out quickly.

Sparing no gory detail in relaying a story that must be known, Gerolymatos describes the left’s vicious execution methods, such as in the case of famed actress Eleni Papadaki. As her executors asked for all of the clothing, she “broke down, and started to scream,” he wrote, describing the subsequent testimony of her accused killer, Vases Makaronis. “They tore off the rest of her garments and for a few minutes left Papadaki shivering and whimpering, waiting for the inevitable blows from the ax.” Makaronis testified that he felt sorry for her and fired a single bullet into her right temple instead, though Gerolymatos points out this is unconfirmed. “Over a month later…Papadaki’s remains were uncovered…not too far from the place of execution…All her clothes were gone, except for a silk slip that was raised to her chest and a garter belt still fastened about her waist, suggesting sexual assault…Dozens of students from the school of Drama rushed to the gravesite and attempted to guard her modesty by covering what was left of Papadaki with branches from nearby cypress trees.” As Robert Fisk aptly noted in reviewing the book for the Independent (Feb. 2), this is hardly the image of “relaxed, laid-back, ouzo drinkers” that one typically conjures about Greeks. He also drew parallels of the Greek left’s barbarism to that taking place in other parts of the world today.

Those atrocities, Gerolymatos points out, served to erode the moral high ground the left had seized, at least in its own mind. But the right was brutal and unjust in its own right, often relying only on circumstantial evidence to sentence to death individuals accused of insurgency, deeming the mere fact that they were members of the Greek communist party KKE as justification enough.

Gerolymatos explains how the Truman Doctrine and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s reluctance to test American mettle in Greece ultimately led to the communists’ defeat. He concludes by pointing out how the Greek Civil War “served as a model for America’s intervention in Central and South America, in the Middle East, and perhaps more dramatically, in Vietnam and later in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

This is not a light read, nor would one not benefit from a reread – perhaps to reflect on some nuance missed during the first go-round. It is a story worth retelling, and Gerolymatos tells it well. Anyone interested in the history of Greece, or in the history of ideology run amok leading to terror and full-blown war, would be well-served to read it.

 

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