Once again, a funny thing happened to me on the way to the keyboard this morning. I’d initially planned to continue yesterday’s post, and, in fact, to lead into what will be my last posts on this blog. But, before getting down to work, I turned on the TV, as I do most mornings, to see if CNN was back on (we’d lost it a few days before the inauguration of Barack Obama, which my wife and I then watched on Al Jazeera). It wasn’t, so I went to Vouli TV (my favorite channel in Greece, it’s the barebones Greek version of C-Span), just to check for any unusual programming later in the day. As it turned out, I caught the beginning of a special session of the Greek parliament called by its speaker, Dêmêtrês Sioufas, to commemorate Nikolaos Plastêras. What made this coincidence truly eerie was that I had sent an e-mail last night to my partner in New York, Stelios, in which I had written that Obama was (unfortunately) beginning to remind me more and more of…Nikolaos Plastêras.
Some explanation is needed here. There is, obviously, little similarity—biographically, none whatsoever—between Barack Obama and the legendary “Μαύρο Καβαλάρη” (Black Horseman), the name Plastêras was first given by the troops under his command during the First Balkan War. (He was to be known by other names as well. One of the few Greek commanders who consistently distinguished himself during the Asia Minor Disaster, Kemal’s soldiers called him “Kara Biber,” Black Pepper, and his 5/42 Regiment of euzones, “Şeytan Asker,” Satan’s Army. The 5/42 went into battle singing, “Είμαστε λιοντάρια, του Πλαστήρα παλληκάρια,” We’re lions, Plastêras’s braves). In other words, above all else, Plastêras was a soldier, an extraordinarily—and universally recognized, by devotees and enemies alike, including Mustafa Kemal—courageous and generous warrior. He was especially beloved by the troops he commanded; he was, to echo the cliché, a soldier’s soldier.
So what does Barack Obama have to do with a man like this? I’ll get to that in my next post. At the moment, I want to return to that special parliamentary session. I tuned in as Sioufas was addressing the gathering. As Sioufas is one of the more liberal deputies of New Democracy (and, like Plastêras, a Karditsiôtês), it is unsurprising that he took the initiative to honor Plastêras in the name of the same parliamentary body that, when the latter was alive, often conspired against him (as Plastêras himself several times conspired against the self-same body). Nevertheless, what was most striking about the event was hearing speaker after speaker from New Democracy and, even more incredibly, LAOS (Λαϊκός Ορθόδοξος Συναγερμός, Popular Orthodox Rally, the extreme-right-wing party) praising—indeed, more often than not, especially in the case of the LAOS deputies, glorifying and exalting—a man who, when he died, was considered by most rightists (and, very much to the point at the time, their Anglo-American allies) as the very embodiment of Kerenskyite appeasement of the left and its most useful idiot.
It was breathtaking to watch, in ways liberating (Evangelos Venizelos, PASOK’s official speaker during the session, pointed out how fundamentally Greece had changed in the half-century since Plastêras’s death), in ways mind-boggling. After all, I’m old enough to remember, as a child of Greek immigrants growing up in the States, conversations at our dinner table in which my parents’ friends—not to mention my mother—blamed Plastêras for every ill (invariably of the left) that had befallen Greece since 1923. (My father was an inveterate, indeed incurable, Venizelist; and, having fought both in the Albanian campaign and the Civil War, he was, so to speak, a “natural” Plastirist, out of sentiment if nothing else.)
And then, in the midst of this commemorative, rhetorical, and trans-partisan concord (and historical revisionism), the other shoe dropped. Spyros Chalvatzês, deputy of the KKE, strode to the podium to address the parliament on behalf of the communist party. He was blunt, to say the least. Despite his unquestionable personal courage and equally indisputable integrity—after he died, his “estate” famously came to a couple of hundred drachmas and a few dollars found in his pockets; he had no bank accounts, no real property of any kind, having died as profoundly penniless as, the son of landless peasants, he’d been born—Plastêras had always served the “class” interests of the powers that were, Chalvatzês said. Yes, he took personal responsibility for the trial and execution of “the Six” (the royalist politicians found “guilty” of the Asia Minor Disaster), but he couldn’t bring himself to consider an equally harsh—or at least balanced—judgment of the other party of the ruling class, the Venizelists (not to mention Venizelos himself) who had initiated the Asia Minor fiasco. Moreover, Chalvatzês continued, in 1945, it was Plastêras who signed the Varkiza agreements that effectively led to the (second round of the) Greek Civil War; finally, Chalvatzês concluded, more in sorrow, it seemed, than in anger, it was under Plastêras’s last premiership, in 1952, that Nikos Belogiannês and his three comrades were executed despite the global campaign to save the “Man with the Carnation” immortalized in Pablo Picasso’s drawing.
Chalvatzês’s conspicuous lack of tact (let alone inhibition) seemed to constitute more than just the (strategic) return of the politically (and historically) repressed. To many of the deputies present, who openly lost their composure, he had provocatively resurrected what is arguably the most notorious, and certainly the most contentious, political slogan in postwar Greek history: Τι Παπάγος, τι Πλαστήρας.
(To be continued)