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Look back in prudence! Civil War legacies and crisis in Greece today

The Greek Civil War does not constitute a sufficient explanatory framework for the current crisis, but it serves as a reminder both of the fragile nature of Greek society and the context of the country's continued resistance against the troika.

The following article was originally published in December 2013 on academia.edu. We are republishing it here, with the author's permission, as we feel that it is still provides a relevant context to many of the things which are happening in Greece today.

Forbidden 1 by Dimosthenis Kokkinidis. Enthemata. Some rights reserved.

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). Its initial stages took place during the occupation of the country by Nazi Germany (April 1941-October 1944) and it can only be adequately explained within the context of that occupation. Estimates for the number of deaths vary depending on the period covered by the definition of “Civil War”. Including 1943-1944, 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. An estimated fifty thousand persons were in prison or camps in 1949, though numbers fell subsequently. 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, “becoming a subject” once again, to cite the title of Polymeris Voglis’ work.[i] Most prisoners repented.

To the extent that the vanquished found a voice, it was through poetry and dramatic performances. Here, they reflected on the silences that cast a shadow over defeat. In one poem of 1952, Aris Alexandrou, who spent decades in camps without even having fought in the period between 1946 and 1949, casts an eye: “on that policeman who yawns as he passes by. / My God! Let him at least talk / if only to ask for my identity card”.[ii]

The silences have not been absolute. As in Spain, the victorious “won the war but lost the history of literature”.[iii] After the fall of the Junta of 1974 it was cultural production that served as the memory of the Civil War, with films such as Pantelis Voulgaris’ austere Stone Years depicting the persecutions as they encroached upon the emotional life of the persecuted. Personal memoirs by rank and file members of the communist Democratic Army of Greece also started appearing.

Even before the Junta’s coup of 1967 there were members of the centre who desired reconciliation with the left, a view associated with Andreas Papandreou. 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 be referred to not 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... . Such silences have also extended to education. In the words of Christina Koulouri, the leading expert on the teaching of history in Greece, “there is a section in the relevant text-book, but in practice contemporary Greek history, including the Civil War, is hardly ever taught in school”.[iv]

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 Civil War.[v] Both Athens and Thessaloniki Universities have research teams that focus on the Civil War, the occupation, the security battalions formed by the collaborationist government before being integrated into the national army, and other related subjects.

Much of the recent controversy in the public sphere has concentrated on the arguments of Nikos Marantzidis, author of a work on the Democratic Army of Greece,[vi] and Stathis Kalyvas, both of them scholars who contested the predominantly left-leaning historiographies of the 1980s and 1990s. In his The Logic of Violence in Civil War, Kalyvas uses the Greek experience to argue that ideological or ethnic causes of civil war often fail to explain the dynamics of violence. Much can be explained by the geographical position of villages and the degree of control by any one side.[vii] Clearly, the question of atrocities committed by the communist led resistance is once again no longer taboo, though elements in these analyses such as the degree to which the conflict was a product of ideological difference and the significance of the “White Terror” of 1945 have been queried by other historians.[viii] As Christina Koulouri argues: “the history of the conflict cannot be reduced to a discussion of the anthropology of violence”.[ix]  

A plethora of novels and films have also engaged with the war from new perspectives. Thus Dimitris Nollas has taken his protagonist, a student in Germany, on a journey of discovery round civil-war era Greece.[x]  As Nollas explains: “I thought that human passions such as greed, hatred, jealousy and envy would be given life if woven into an extreme scenario such as the fateful decade of the 1940s. For while we thought that we had healed its wounds, it seems that we had only covered them up with a piece of gauze. And even that was dirty”.[xi] Others have concerned themselves with what has been termed the “meta-memory” of the Civil War, probing its silences to find their own answers for Greece’s condition.[xii]

Voulgaris’ much discussed commercial hit Deep Soul (this having been the battle cry of the left) of 2009 and Kostas Haralampous’ Tied Red Thread of 2011 constitute examples from the cinema. Whereas Voulgaris’ recent film reflects a need to view the war as melodrama through the tested narrative of two brothers who find themselves on different sides of the divide, the villains being predominantly American and Russian, Haralampous takes a leaf out of Kalyvas’ book. He is concerned with interaction between the personal and the political on the micro-level of the village, with cycles of denunciation and ever-increasing violence leading to the crucifixion of a villager in the intimacy of his own home. His then is a dramatisation of “the privatisation of politics”. In their respective ways, however, both these films attempt to create a unity out of the fractured memories of Civil War, even if in the second case it is only brutality that is left as a point of remembrance.

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.[xiii] 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 elaborated: “he is in favour of a Greece of protests on an everyday basis; […] he is in favour of a Greece in which the words nation and fatherland are outlawed”. Civil-war talk reached such a pitch that Kalyvas and Marantzidis intervened with an article in the (pro-government, pro-memorandum) Kathimerini newspaper condemning the political use of such rhetoric.[xiv]

Equally, however, widespread usage of the Civil War might be interpreted as a turning point: the closure of a period of divided memory. This would explain the disparaging reaction of both KKE and elements from the right to Voulgaris’ Deep Soul. It would also explain the popularity of publications such as Nikos Dermetzis’, Eleni Paschaloudi’s and Georgos Antoniou’s collective work of 2013 focusing on the memory of the Civil War.[xv] This work interprets the war as an on-going “cultural trauma” permeating the whole of Greek society, even those who were victorious. Despite the disconnect between the discourses of politicians, cinematographers, novelists and, in particular, historians, such discourses also feed off one another. 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, including the on-going political and even wider ideological influence of Greece’s left. 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, 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 in the past worked as a metaphor for resistance understood as an existential stance. Nonetheless, SYRIZA, whose talisman, the resistance and Democratic Army fighter and currently MP Manolis Glezos, serves as a living emblem from the civil-war era, is doing all it can to capture the centre ground. Alexis Tsipras is attempting to reach out to religious voters and to liberal democrats (presenting himself as a champion of democracy following the recent closure of Greece’s public broadcaster), and also to all those who want Greece to remain integrated in a reformed European system (praising the former Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlis who led Greece into Europe). Far from corroborating the rhetoric of two extremes with a delegitimised left on one side and Golden Dawn on the other, this has resulted in more firmly grounded 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 characterised 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 legalisation 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 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 (according to the letter of the law), not the party as a political entity in and of itself.

Another source of instability is the perceived injustice of the privatisation process, particularly the privatisation 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, including in protected areas. Twenty-eight mayors of affected islands signed a petition condemning “the irreversible degradation of the touristic product of our islands and therefore of the local economy”.[xvi] The most-read commentator in the Kathimerini newspaper reflects a more general mood of protest against the dangers of post-Sovietisation in his tirade against privatisation: “the beauty of our land, our mineral resources, our roads, our ports, our airports, even the water we drink and the air we breathe are to be sold”.[xvii] Enforced privatisation 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 coloured, 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 a patriotism of the left. Voulgaris’ Deep Soul is guilty of the same transgression, for the two brothers at the centre of his film would have spoken a Slavic dialect to each other given their origins in the mountain regions of Grammos. This, however, would have appeared too close to the old nationalist propaganda that the Democratic Army were always “Slavo-communist”, and so the language of these protagonists has been written out of Voulgaris’ version of the war.

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.[xviii] 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 against 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 break-down of the family as a bearer of memory.

In light of the government’s recent crack-down 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 heroisation, 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; it would be folly for the EU to continue reading the crisis as if it were an economic morality play when so much more is at stake.

History and healing

It is precisely because the economic crisis and the crisis of institutions connected to it have destabilised 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 globalisation as a whole, have undermined state sovereignty; voting citizens feel increasingly distant from the centres 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. What, I ask myself, is wrong with the terms “creativity” or “entrepreneurship” or “production” rather than “competitiveness”? And all this is taking place at a time when the extent of the citizen body (national? European?) and its relationship (democratic? neo-colonial?) to sovereign authority are being “negotiated”, the outcome of these “negotiations” remaining very much in question. Policies of individual European states against migrants and the recent clampdown on Golden Dawn in Greece may be interpreted as attempts by nation states to demonstrate power and therefore reaffirm sovereignty.

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. As an expert on the politics of memory, Georgios Antoniou, puts it: “it is not silence, oblivion or even consensus about the past that is required. Silence can easily exist alongside hatred. Rather what we need is an open and vigorous debate around our pasts and how these are shaping our present”.[xix]

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 spectre 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.


[i] Polymeris Voglis, Becoming a Subject: Political Prisoners during the Greek Civil War, Berghahn Books, 2002.

[ii] My translation from the poem “Epistrophe” or “Return” in the selection “Agonos gramme”, 1952.

[iii] The quote is from Andrés Trapiello.

[iv] Interview for this article.

[v] See the Network for the Study of Civil Wars http://www.elia.org.gr/civil_war_greek/voglis.htm Also the authors and works listed in http://emfilios.blogspot.de/

[vi] Νίκος Μαραντζίδης, Δημοκρατικός Στρατός Ελλάδας (ΔΣΕ) 1946-1949, Αλεξάνδρεια, 2010.

[vii] Stathis N. Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War, CUP, 2006.

[viii] See, in particular, the review of Marantzidis’ book by Dimitris Kousouris, http://ellinikosemfilios.blogspot.de/2012/01/1946-1949.html

[ix] Interview for this article.

[x] Δημήτρης Νόλλας, Το ταξίδι στην Ελλάδα, Ικαρος, 2013.

[xi] Interview for this article.

[xii] Νίκος Δαββέτας, Ο ζωγράφος του Μπελογιάννη, Μεταίχμιο, 2013. Έλενα Χουζούρη, Δύο φορές αθώα, Κέδρος, 2013.

[xiii] A phrase used by the historian Nikos Savastakis in a recent discussion on the Civil War in Thessaloniki (5 November 2013).

[xiv] http://news.kathimerini.gr/4dcgi/_w_articles_columns_2_21/07/2013_527505

[xv] Νίκος Δεμερτζής, Ελένη Πασχαλούδη, Γιώργος Αντωνίου (eds.), Εμφύλιος: πολιτισμικό τραύμα, Αλεξάνδρεια, 2013.

[xvi] http://www.egaio.gr/news.php?mid=4&smid=491

[xvii] Opinion piece by Christos Giannaras in Kathimerinihttp://www.kathimerini.gr/4dcgi/_w_articles_kathpolitics_1_04/08/2013_512692

[xviii] http://www.opendemocracy.net/iannis-carras/is-greece-racist-state

[xix] Interview for this article. 

About the author

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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