For somebody like me, who came of age politically as part of the New—that is, anti-Soviet—Left, the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent (incomplete) opening of the Soviet archives, have forced me into my own (voluntary) reeducation. Any number of histories of the Cold War, and of its most prominent (mostly unwilling) agents (from Nikita Khrushchev and Ho Chi Minh to Patrice Lumumba and Imre Nagy), written in the last couple of decades, have made increasingly clear, to me at least, the degree to which, outside its own borders, the United States, and not the Soviet Union, created an imperium of global havoc, social reaction, political vassalage, and, in nation after nation, surrender of both popular and national sovereignty. Americans, of course—even (especially?) the most liberal Americans—will never accept this. (Just as liberal “Wilsonians” tied themselves up in ideological knots to justify George Bush’s decision to bring “God’s freedom”—or was it divine retribution?—to the Iraqis.) Barack Obama, in his inaugural address, regurgitated the Cold War bromide of America “fac[ing] down…communism,” the latter always paired with fascism in a particularly peculiar conjunction (and political kinship network) that conveniently overlooks the elephantine fact that it was the United States that propped up most (all?) of the fascist regimes in the postwar era. But imperialism without intellectual dishonesty would just be rape. A little manifest destiny here, a little white man’s burden there, and suddenly you’ve got Hawaii and Puerto Rico (not to mention millions of dead Indians). Add in a ton of “facing down communism,” and now you’ve got Iran, Guatemala, and Greece.
Which leads me back, this week, to Nikolaos Plastêras and Spyros Chalvatzês. For me, for most people, I think, it’s still difficult to hear the phrase, “representative of the communist party,” and not wince. The assumption is that what is about to follow is studied prevarication laced with paranoia (a perfect description, on the other hand, of the moral universe in the White House until just last month). In the event, having heard Dêmêtrês Sioufas (the speaker of parliament), Panos Panagiôtopoulos (New Democracy’s official representative), and Evangelos Venizelos (PASOK’s representative) not only deifying Plastêras in Greece’s national legislature last week, but, more to the point, eliding, avoiding, obfuscating, cherry-picking, and generally refusing to contend with the salient facts of what was a supremely—indeed, exemplarily—public life, lived within the lifetime of men and women still alive today, and certainly contemporaneous to the lives of everyone’s parents or grandparents, I was more than mildly surprised when Chalvatzês, the “representative of the communist party,” was the only one who, if not exactly speaking the unvarnished truth, at least gave the most complete picture of what was a deeply complex and contradictory human being (who isn’t?) living during a profoundly tragic—literally fratricidal—era.
His remarks, as I said in my last post, did not go down well. In fact, he stopped in the middle of them to confront Adônis Geôrgiadês, a LAOS deputy who, apparently (the cameras did not pick it up), had been openly disparaging Chalvatzês’s remarks. The past, once again, proved neither dead nor past, crystallizing how history has a half-life way beyond our self-interested ability to contain it. It was as if Plastêras was still alive and in that chamber, still capable of provoking extreme reactions—and still, characteristically, dividing Greeks as he himself insisted that he was only trying to unite them.
When Geôrgiadês took the podium, as LAOS’s official speaker, he embarked upon what I can only describe by the Greek word, παραλήρημα, that is, a rant. This was more than delirium, though; what struck me most was the sheer schizophrenia of the historical “reconstruction.” His voice pitched somewhere between a scream and a last gasp, Geôrgiadês “defended” Plastêras on every count (with defenders like these…), but especially in regard to his “errors”—most tellingly, the infamous “Δίκη των Εξ” (Trial of the Six), whose verdicts confirmed in blood the εθνικό διχασμό (national division) that would effectively last, in one form or another, until the fall of the colonels’ dictatorship more than fifty years, and two generations, later.
The “Trial of the Six” (there were actually eight defendants) was a military tribunal, in fact. The details are irrelevant here; the critical point is that the accused were all members of the royalist governments and military leadership that had succeeded Venizelos following the latter’s loss in the 1920 elections. The six men who were ultimately executed, for high treason, were three former prime ministers, a foreign minister, a minister of war, and, most emblematically, Geôrgios Chatzanestês, the former commander-in-chief of the Greek forces in Asia Minor.
This is not the place to debate the judicial transgressions or political consequences of this show trial. I will say only two things. While the “Trial of the Six” was not a kangaroo court, it cannot objectively be described as anything other than a drumhead proceeding: it began on November 13 (by the Julian calendar) and the six men faced the firing squad on November 28. On the other hand, turning the other cheek is easy when it’s not your cheek. In 1922, Greece’s military losses in Asia Minor amounted to over 24,000 dead, almost 49,000 wounded, and, incredibly, more than 18,000 missing in action, in a population that, after the First Balkan War, had reached about 4.36 million (compare that to American losses in the Vietnam war of roughly 58,000 dead, 300,000 wounded, and 2,000 MIAs, from a population in 1975 of just over 212 million). In addition, of course, hundreds of thousands of Asia Minor Greeks had been murdered in the prior decade, and 1.5 million would ultimately be uprooted from their ancestral homes, most of them ending up as refugees in Greece.
Under the circumstances, only a fool or a fanatic would fail to understand the existential and societal demand for revenge—actually, justice—that animated, indeed possessed, the vast majority of Greeks throughout the world at the time. It’s impossible to reconstitute such an extreme historical moment with any kind of moral certitude, not because we don’t know what happened—we do, completely—but because we will never be able to imagine how it felt. Americans talk about September 11, 2001, as if it were some tectonic historical shift. But imagine living through the months and years before and after September 24, 1922 (September 11 on the Gregorian calendar, as it turns out), when Plastêras and his comrades proclaimed the “revolution” (in fact, a coup) that led directly to the Trial of the Six.
(To be continued)