Until recently, I associated the 1940s in Greece with the terror of the Nazis. It was the Nazis who had brought destruction and pain over Greek society and to this day Greeks invoke the brutalities of the Nazis. Yes, there had also been a Civil War but that was a domestic event.
Earlier this month I read the book Eleni and was captivated by it. The worst of armed conflict is when people kill their own compatriots. From that standpoint, Eleni joins the ranks of books like Gone with the Wind, For Whom the Bell Tolls or Doktor Shivago. Eleni is, of course, a one-sided presentation of that period. I am still looking for a book which presents the other side.
Since then, I have become fascinated by the subject of the Greek Civil War. Interestingly, in English or German there isn’t so much written about it. However, there are a couple of very good videos on Youtube. The more I learned about it and how it divided Greek society, the more I had to think about a dark chapter in Austria’s history.
Austrians had been brave enough to sever all ties with the Nazi regime even before Hitler killed himself – the Second Repulic was declared before the official end of WWII. The first government was a government of all parties, including the Communists. Their mission was clear: Austria had been “the first victim of National Socialism”; the country had been raped by the Nazis. It was now high time that all political forces would return the “Austrian Nation” to prosperity. And it worked!
On the surface, this seemed quite convincing. At the Moscow Conference in 1943, the Allies had declared Austria to have been “the first victim of National Socialism”. The Second Republic claimed that it could not be held responsible for a period (1938-45) where no Austrian government existed.
The sad fact, however, is that many, many Austrians had been – as some observers described it – “better Nazis than the Germans”. Austria had had its own Civil War in 1934, albeit it a minor one. From then on, it had become a political battle between the Left and the Right. When the Nazis arrived, they first drove the Left into the concentration camps but not too long after that patriotic members of the Right were driven into concentration camps as well. And from the concentration camps they could observe how people who had lost their bearing followed a pied piper enthusiastically. When even the greatest political opponents find themselves together in concentration camps, that helps to come to senses and to understand the benefits of working together instead of working against each other.
The Second Republic threw all those political divisions under the carpet and, on balance, it worked very well for Austria. But Austrian society never realized that the entire concept of an “Austrian Nation” was based on the cover-up of having been “the first victim of National Socialism”. What was/is the result of that? To this very day, old divisions immediately come up when a sensitive issue is touched upon. As an Austrian commentator once wrote: “The thought-provoking thing is that Kurt Waldheim was not elected President despite the fact that he had been a Nazi. Instead, he was elected because he had been a Nazi”. When the political debate gets very heated, one can even today hear accusations like “you are the ones who shot at us in 1934!”
What does all this have to do with Greece? Well, in the last few weeks I have become aware of the extremely deep divisions in Greek society caused in the 1940s, beginning with the Nazi occupation and brought to explosion during the Civil War. And, following the Civil War, there were winners and losers, albeit not always the same. However, the winners always treated the losers of the time rather harshly. Perhaps there is even to this day a sentiment that not all accounts have yet been settled fairly.
The real amazing thing to me is that Geeks don’t talk about that period. Even in small villages where some villagers had killed others, people in later years wanted to forget this for the sake of peace. There is only one problem with this: deep divisions in a society, deep human conflicts can never be forgotten entirely. Instead, one has to come to terms with one’s past, bridge the emotional and political divides and work on a new and common national identity.