An Inappropriate Life

Memoir by Stan Gotlieb

The Parthenon is one of the oldest symbols of Democracy in the world. It sits on a promentory in the middle of Athens, a constant reminder of a more glorious day to the millions of Greek citizens who view it every day on their way to and from work, or out their kitchen window. In 1967, a coup run by a junta of junior officers in the Greek military turned this symbol of glory into a symbol of reproach.(Photo by Diana Ricci)

Greece In the Time of the Colonels

Some of the fiercest and most costly guerrilla resistance to the German occupation of Europe during the Second Great War to End All Wars took place in Greece, particularly in the mountains of Crete, an island in the Mediterranean sea with a long history of resistance to foreign domination. (When the Greeks ended over 400 years of Ottoman Turk colonization, their army was led by a Cretan general.)

Much of the Greek underground was Communist, and when the war ended, and the Germans were gone, a civil war began. The Communists lost that war, and most of them fled to neighboring countries sympathetic to their cause. The vast majority of the refugees went to Yugoslavia, and settled in the area around Skopje, which is now the capital of breakaway Macedonia.

In April of 1967, Andres Papandreou, a socialist and a nationalist, was the most popular politician in Greece. There was little doubt that his party would sweep the upcoming national elections, an outcome which was intolerable to the United States, as well as the King, both of whom he had portrayed as leeches sucking the blood of the Greek workers. Using an alleged plot by some of the more radical elements of Papendreou’s supporters to overthrow the government, and with a nod from the King, the army junior staff staged a coup, dismissed parliament, declared martial law, and installed a junta of colonels to run the country.

When we arrived in August of 1967, things appeared quite calm. There were no tanks in the streets, or soldiers on patrol. Most newspapers continued to publish (although we later learned that some had been shut down permanently in the early days of the coup, and that all were censored). Papandreou was teaching in the U.S. The King was safely ensconced on his throne in Athens. Esso Papas, the private monopoly petroleum producer, was still being run by – and some wags said for – the foreign oil companies whose engineers were often to be seen attempting to negotiate the narrow streets of the old city in their fat, big-finned American cars, with license plates from New Jersey, Texas and Louisiana. There was little outward sign that the Greeks were being oppressed by their government.

One night, we went to an American movie in a theater down the street from our apartment. There was a “news of the world” film before the main feature. Even without much proficiency in Greek, we recognized it as an obvious propaganda piece, showing the junta proclaiming this or that; the President’s wife exhorting the populace to support one thing or another; a warning by the Interior minister that failure to report aberrant behavior by one’s neighbor was itself a crime; and all done up in a fashion that was all too reminiscent of the work of Josef Goerbels. In the dark, the crowd cursed the figures on the screen. They laughed at them. They booed and hissed. It was our first clue.

In October, Miltos (see "You Must Not Go Everywhere", and "Welcome to Sunny Greece"), a high school student who had befriended us, came by to invite us to dinner at his parents’ home. While we were there, we were informed that Miltos had just been rejected by the Military medical school. His father’s oldest brother had been a Greek partisan in the great war, and a Communist partisan in the civil war. Since 1948, he had been living in Yugoslavia. It was forbidden for Greeks to go to Yugoslavia. Along with Bulgaria and Albania, Greece had never signed a peace pact with the Yugoslavs, and a “technical state of war” existed.

No-one had paid much attention to this stricture before the colonels had taken over. The Italians, recognizing the compassionate nature of the situation, would issue “vacationing” Greeks a special exit and entry visa on a separate slip of paper, and they would slip away to Yugoslavia for a visit with their exiled family members. Everyone knew it was being done, and it had always been overlooked.

The secret police came to Miltos’ home two days after his parents had taken their annual “vacation” in Italy, and arrested his father for subversion, based on his visits to Yugoslavia. For two days, he languished in a dungeon while his boss, a well-connected multi-millionaire entrepreneur, arranged for his freedom. His passport was taken away. He had to report periodically to the Interior ministry to be interrogated about his activities. And, oh, yes, his son, who knew about what his parents were doing but did not report it, was no longer good enough for the country’s best medical school.

In November, we were invited to dinner by the woman who owned the two suburban English academies at which Ellen taught. We found ourselves, along with about a dozen of their friends, at a long table on the sand, outside a restaurant on the Med about 20 miles out of town. There, for the first time, we met Kostas, our host. Kostas worked for a man named Zannas. Zannas was one of the richest men in Greece, with interests in canning factories, shipping lines, and real estate. Kostas, a lawyer, was his general manager, and ran everything.

Zannas was a lifelong film buff, and had established the Salonika Film Festival as one of the major international film events of the world. That week, we learned, Zannas had received a list from the ministry of Culture, detailing exactly what films would be shown at the Festival – and which were not acceptable. Unwilling to have his Festival proscribed for the propaganda purposes of what he perceived as a bunch of puffed up popinjays who he wouldn’t allow to run even a minor one of his enterprises, he resigned his position as chair and told them to produce their own damn Festival. Of course nobody came, and the Festival was an embarrassment to the Junta. Zannas, however, was untouchable due to his wealth and connections.

In December, regretting his support of the junta, who had been forcibly retiring the senior military staff still loyal to the throne, the young King Constantine decided to stage a counter- revolution. Removing himself and his family to the Air Force stronghold near the central city of Larissa, and having been promised the support of the powerful Northern Army, headquartered just outside Salonika, he took to the radio and broadcast a call for calm to the Greek people. Stay home, he told them. Everything is well in hand. By this time tomorrow, you will be free.

Suddenly, people who had been telling us that the Colonels were not so bad; that they did, after all, make the trains run on time; that this was just a phase on the path to a better Greece, were weeping openly and apologizing to us for our having to witness this once great nation in such shameful times; trying to explain to us – and themselves – how it had come to pass that the cradle of Democracy should have had to endure the folly of these vicious Fascist buffoons.

The next day, it was over. The generals in the Northern Army had been arrested and executed by junior officers loyal to the junta. The King had fled to exile in Rome. The people who had bared their hearts to us the day before could no longer look us in the eye.

We left for warmer climes soon after, and did not return until May. When we did, we were told that Kostas had been arrested, and never seen or heard from again. While the Colonels could not touch Zannas, they could and did take away his right hand man. A little inconvenience for the great man to ponder, the next time he thought to be defiant.

Shortly after returning to Salonika, we were once again dinner guests in Miltos' home. His mother asked us if we had any plans, and Ellen said, with lots of appropriate scorn in her voice, "if nothing else, we can always go to work for the CIA". Miltos' father stood up, clearly agitated, and asked us to leave at once. No amount of explanation would satisfy him.

We never saw Miltos or his family again. The CIA, believed with good reason to be behind the colonels and their coup, was no laughing matter. Other Greek friends later explained to us that the family's reaction was a matter of fear, not disapproval of a joke in bad taste: what might we report about them? and to whom?

Eventually, the Colonels stepped down in favor of a very conservative parliamentary govenment, which after a while was in turn replaced by a coalition led by Andres Papandreou, who in turn lost favor because of a major corruption scandal. Salonika became the south European headquarters for the Russian Mafia, Kostas’ fate was never revealed, and Miltos went to work for his father’s boss.

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