Soldiers in ELAS, the main Greek communist armed forces during the Greek Civil War. Wikimedia. PD.Greece is, inevitably, a country obsessed with its own history. Yet the recent furore does not have to do with the burdensome heritage of classical antiquity but with a much more recent and internationally obscure history.
The left-wing government’s refusal to attend a European conference on crimes committed by communist regimes, held in Estonia in August 23, has reignited an interminable debate on communism which – incredibly – still divides Greek politics and society, nearly three decades after the Berlin Wall fell. The clamour continued well into September and October, and it will no doubt restart at the slightest incitement.
Greece is probably the only country left in the world where communism is still such a hot topic of debate. The irony is that it never had a communist government and, until World War II, communist parties had very little support, as the country lacked an industrial proletariat of significant size.
The situation changed during World War II. As Greece fell to the Germans and resistance to the occupation started to become organized, the communist guerillas gradually became the most powerful force in the rural parts of Greece remaining outside the direct control of German and Italian garrisons.
Having built what was essentially their own state by the time the Wehrmacht withdrew, the Greek People’s Liberation Army was unwilling to relinquish control to government politicians that returned from exile. As things escalated, a savage civil war ensued, ending in 1949 with government forces victorious and communist fighters and their families fleeing to Eastern Europe and the USSR.
The trauma of the civil war, along with the start of the cold war gave rise to a frantic persecution of communists and sympathizers in Greece. Reconciliation beckoned under the centrist government of the 1960s, but the 1967 coup that brought a military junta to power for seven years ushered in a new round of arrests, beatings, imprisonment and social exclusion which only effectively ended in 1981.
By the 1980s, Greek communists had already acquired the aura of the heroic vanquished, having endured persecution, exile and discrimination. This aura, along with the contribution of communists in the resistance against the Nazis, and, later, against the military dictatorship, has resulted in communist crimes becoming an extremely controversial – even taboo – subject in contemporary Greek political and social discourse.
Their sheer mention is enough to rekindle the historical animosity between the left and right at any time, resulting in furious debates in Greek media, as is the case right now. These debates are not confined to the considerable atrocities committed by both sides in the Greek civil war, but are always extended to the crimes of communist regimes and leaders worldwide, and their relationship with Nazism.
On one side, populist conservative politicians, backed up by the neoliberal centre-right and a few intellectuals of dubious credentials, tend to emphasize communist atrocities and equate them to those of the Nazis, who – they reason – have actually killed fewer people than Stalin or Mao. Their arguments are based on the similarly totalitarian nature of Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes, as well as on the idea that the act of murder is the same no matter the values of the political ideology which perpetrated it.
Such an equation, however, is simplistic, unfair, wrong and downright dangerous. British historian Sir Ian Kershaw, a leading expert on Nazi Germany, has stated that the differences between Nazism and Stalinism are much more striking than any structural similarities, and trying to equate the left in general with Nazism is blatantly absurd. Equating Nazism with communism might be a first step towards denying the uniqueness of the Holocaust, by viewing it as simply one of the many atrocities of the twentieth century.
Such arguments usually have an ulterior motive. By equating Hitler and Stalin, the conservatives and neoliberals are attempting to connect SYRIZA, as a spiritual offspring of an old communist party, to totalitarianism. This is essentially a rebranded form of McCarthyism which resurrects the fearmongering of the 1960s, reflected by the old propaganda warning that “the communists will come to take away our houses”. This type of discourse does nothing more than to radicalize the Greek right and centre-right, and to revert it to its cold war era role of Latin-American-style anti-communist nationalists.
Yet, on the other side, the problem is that an overwhelming portion of the centre-left and left does not confine itself to dispelling this erroneous association, but it goes on to staunchly defend communism and its accomplishments. The tendency to exonerate even the most extreme communist regimes is sustained by the polarized political climate, and the reluctance of left wing politicians to risk alienating a considerable portion of their voters, who have been brought up on communist discourse.
Shockingly, the Greek communist party still attributes the Katyn massacre to the Germans, and even moderate left-wing personalities view iconic communist figures with reverence. National composer Mikis Theodorakis recently extolled Stalin, mentioning his pride in fighting under the red banner himself. Even Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has praised the “timeless thought” of Mao Zedong and seriously questioned the figures of the number of people murdered by the Chinese regime.
Unfortunately, the prevalent absolution of communism in Greece leads to a regression of even the progressive, Europeanist left and its identification with totalitarian regimes, even though it no longer bears any resemblance to its communist roots in terms of point of view or policies. Such an association plays into the hands of the conservative right and spoils the image of SYRIZA as a modern, European left wing party, equivalent to Germany’s “Die Linke” or to the British Labour Party.
Yet the most serious consequence of Greece’s persistent fixation with the past is that it distracts from the present and may further jeopardize the future, as the country slides deeper into economic crisis. The debate on communism diverts attention from real and pressing issues, which should be the real focus of discussion. This distraction might be intentional.
With SYRIZA currently following roughly the same policies that the conservative opposition party New Democracy was following when it was in the government, Greece’s two largest parties seem to have very few major practical issues to argue about, and so their dispute has focused on historical or ideological differences or secondary issues, in this case, on communism and war crimes.
For a couple of months before that, the dispute was on the place of religion in Greek schools, and right now on a recently passed gender identity bill. Of course, the last two issues are quite significant in the framework of creating a modern, progressive state, but they pale by comparison to the main issue of addressing the economic crisis.
Like New Democracy, which immediately reneged on its promise to renegotiate the Greek debt and the terms of the bailout program after winning the 2012 elections, SYRIZA (after a token effort) also reneged on the same promise in 2015.
Both governments spent their terms essentially operating on autopilot, carrying out the directions of the European Troika, raising taxes, cutting pensions, selling off valuable assets at ridiculous prices to shady investors, and sinking the Greek economy deeper into recession, while failing to tackle corruption or to instigate any meaningful beneficial reforms.
As long as public debate remains focused on relatively inconsequential issues that emphasize the cosmetic differences between the parties instead of the striking similarities between their policies, political polarization continues and no realistic, progressive alternative can emerge.