Postwar Justice and Polarization: Is Turkey Greece’s Peacemaker?

by Martha Papapostolou

Court-Martial in Thessaloniki, Northern Greece, 1948. MGA/Cut

I felt a little feverish on Wednesday, March 11th.

No, not because of coronavirus. Well, that too, since governments around Europe seemingly waited for an organization whose authority they otherwise shirk under the guise of sovereignty to declare a global pandemic, before allowing themselves to realize that they, too, might not be spared Italy’s fate.

But if shit was really going to hit the fan that evening, it was going to happen in the context of the Greek-Turkish border standoff (excuse the inadvertent pun—at that point, Greek border forces were not literally using fans to ward off tear gas just yet). Hundreds of migrants, instrumentalized by the Turkish government, had been driven to the border in a live-streamed attempt to bring pressure on the European Union to a headfirst, to support Turkey’s military campaign in northern Syria and then, to increase European aid to the four million refugees already inside the country. On March 10th, footage emerged of Turkish forces pursuing and ramming a Greek coast guard vessel in the Aegean, while Turkish fighter jets flew over the Evros land border, and Erdogan promised that Turkey would ‘chase’ Greek forces in the Aegean–this is how it ‘would be’ from now on.

Every new government must legitimize itself. The Greco-Turkish border standoff, combined with a global pandemic escalating in Europe, then, is a challenge for New Democracy, voted into office in July 2019. But perhaps this crisis, so rare in its ability to unite Greek public opinion, might also be an opportunity—the perfect moment for Mitsotakis’ government to prove itself in a country in which political polarization is often congenital.

Postwar Justice and Polarization

As in the rest of Europe, reconstruction after World War II required the exercise of postwar justice against the remnants of occupation. But justice, administered by a judge appointed by the state, was not the obvious solution. In Greece, there were those who had collaborated with the Nazis—government figures and not—there was the resistance (EAM)—communists and not—and there was the new government—conservatives backed by the British, entirely.

The new government faced a conundrum: to be legitimate after occupation, any government in Europe had to have resisted. But the new Greek government, with most of its members exiled in Cairo during the occupation, had not seen a single shot fired against the Germans. That’s what the National Liberation Front (EAM)—backed by the Greek Communist Party (KKE) while also a number of other leftist and republican groups and supported by British forces—had been doing on the ground in Greece.

Short, but not so sweet: while EAM fought until liberation in 1944, the Greek government in exile—with British meddling—prepared the resistance as its post-war sacrificial lamb. Churchill called them “murder gangs trying by the iron rule of ruffians to climb into the seats of power.” Those he was describing unsurprisingly begged to differ, fearing that they may not only be excluded from the government of the country they had helped to liberate but that they would fall prey to the anticommunism that had been present in Greek conservative and liberal political circles, as well as the country’s laws, since at least the 1930s.

While both sides agreed that collaborators should be tried harshly, the official definition of collaboration was not only wholly unclear but also heavily biased. Much less could one look toward traditional social norms for guidance, for those were a thing of the past. The occupation had so blurred the border between right and wrong that what otherwise would have extracted the highest punishment became patriotic—if it was done against the Germans.

Opinions were further entrenched by different experiences of the occupation. The Italians, Germans, and resistance fighters alike had to employ violence during the war; the former to force obedience, the latter to garner support. So, political loyalties post-liberation also reflected at whose hands one had suffered most. This differed greatly from city to city, even from village to village. While Athens experienced the Great Famine during the occupation, food supply in rural areas was less affected. But while one village may have felt the wrath of the axis, another could have experienced a particularly brutal set of resistance fighters.

Early days of the first round of the civil war, Athens, December 1944.

The State Promulgates a Narrativeand Murder Gangs

Public opinion in Greece after the occupation was highly fragmented. The state’s interpretation of events and vision for the future was far from the only option. Realizing this, governments took active steps to control public memory, for instance by declaring national holidays which nationalized the war experience. But most importantly, by 1946, the state possessed a legal-institutional mechanism to obliterate the left and a favorable balance of power in which to operate.

By the time the civil war between left and right began, a new National Guard had been established with British assistance. 90% of its forces were drawn from the Security Battalions—Greek collaborationist military groups which supported German occupation forces. After the Treaty of Varkiza was signed in 1945, the resistance forces had disarmed completely. This redistribution of military and institutional power meant that a free and normal political life was from then on reserved exclusively for the right.

To establish its own narrative—one that claimed the resistance for itself and officially and publicly promulgated the left’s guilt—the state used both courts-martial and collaborators’ trials. In the courts-martial, a state-appointed judge executed a strategy through which EAM/KKE’s significance in the resistance was to be negated. As the court-martial judges would have it, in the past of a leftist, there existed no act of resistance—and if the defendant dared to proclaim otherwise, he was subjected to doubt and mockery.

The first negation thus rejected the past of the defendant. But keeping in mind the new balance of power during the civil war, in which the right-wing national guard and other morbidly violent right-wing groups administered entire parts of Greece—such as the Peloponnese—the second negation had to reject the legitimacy of the left as a resisting party. What better way to do that than to put communists, many of them resistance fighters, on trial for collaboration?

Especially in Kalamata, transcripts from the collaborators’ trials show witnesses and defendants, under duress both in and outside of court, adopting the state-shaped narrative of negating and dissociating EAM/KKE from the resistance as their own. Unable to remember the resistance without the influence of the ongoing civil war, individuals became ashamed of the past, as the state-promoted narrative discredited EAM members, labelling them traitors. And so, the collaborators’ courts, rather than contributing to reconstruction, became fora for a public apology and the renunciation of past loyalties.

Festering Wounds

Why does this matter? First, because the adoption and continuation of the state-driven anti-EAM/KKE strategy by witnesses expanded the strategy’s impact. The state could forge a narrative to manipulate contemporary official and public memory of the resistance on its own, but this narrative could only distort past identities and loyalties—and with that, personal memories and recollections of the resistance—if individuals themselves adopted it.

The entire collaborator court apparatus, then, by giving the narrative access to common citizens and their personal experiences, served to expand the reach of a strategy that had so far been state-driven. The lack of post-war justice meant that there never existed a clean slate from which public opinion on either the left or right could be rebuilt after the occupation, or after the civil war. The resistance and civil war remained controversial topics, and left-wing individuals were interned and ‘re-educated’ in camps like Makronisos and Yaros throughout the dictatorship of 1967-1974.

So, until 1982, it was the left that felt cheated; only then was EAM officially recognized by the state as a resistance party. New Democracy, the center-right opposition at the time, protested EAM’s recognition even then, more than thirty years after the end of the civil war. And as this back and forth of political retribution would have it, the left reclaimed the narrative of the civil war and the resistance with a vengeance once it was able, erasing memories of some of its own gruesome contributions in the process.

This suggests, however, a vacuum in political opinion, separated between left and right at state level. Which country doesn’t have that? Thus, it is important to remember the division of Greece into extreme localities, which had experienced the occupation on wildly different terms. Political opinion was further splintered geographically, as experiences of occupation and the civil war varied village to village, as well as generationally, since the war occurred in ‘rounds,’ with each round dominated by left of right, with memories shaped accordingly. Given that no decisive line was drawn through post-war justice during the crucial time of reconstruction, and since the words of the court-martial judges and the testimonies in the collaborators courts form the majority of official post-war documentation regarding the left’s role in the occupation, these are also the memories of today.

Far more than just rubbing salt in wounds that have yet to heal, the polarization which emerged in the struggle to shape post-war memory created new conditions for political life in Greece; left and right, and each family, each generation or village in between, would never again see eye to eye. And experiences of the civil war still provide context for key political developments today. For instance, the 2018 Prespes Agreement between Greece and now-Northern Macedonia, and much opposition against it, links directly back to a civil war era argument: that everyone on the political left in Northern Greece was a traitor, simply because some Slavic-speaking leftists had threatened the country’s territorial integrity by collaborating with Bulgaria when it threatened to annex Greece’s northern territories.

United Public Opinion?

Owing to the fact that past injustice stills melds and shapes the political stereotypes of today—though this may also have something to do with the fact that political office in Greece likes to be passed on as an heirloom in certain families. Nevertheless, Turkey may have created favorable conditions for Mitsotakis’ government to overcome this obstacle.

This isn’t the perfect opportunity because Greece finds itself on the brink of war—tensions are actually de-escalating, and Erdogan is set to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron today, March 17th. But, rather, these are perfect conditions for a center-right government to prove itself because rarely does an issue have the power to so unite Greek political and public opinion. For example, a 2018 survey conducted by the ENA Institute of Alternative Policies found that 84% of Greeks perceived Turkey as a non-friendly neighbor, with 78% of Greeks considering Turkey an aggressive neighbor.

As such, there exists a generally homogenous base for any Greek government facing escalation from Turkey, a certain amount of ‘breathing room’ in which to operate without immediately being held hostage by oppositional outcry. This is the case now too—Alexis Tsipras, leader of the opposition, only joined the conversation when Erdogan publicly called Greek border forces Nazis.’

Two opportunities arise for the Mitsotakis government. Due to the unifying nature of the crisis, and if Erdogan continues on his path of détente, Mitsotakis’ hard-line approach, and therewith New Democracy’s center-right identity, may break free from blanket stereotypes as more people realize that a hard-line stance is effective. This is made no less likely by the fact that SYRIZA left much to be desired in their approach to refugee politics, considered too mild and ineffective by many.

Secondly, this crisis could ensure for Mitsotakis lasting EU endorsement—an endorsement that Tsipras squandered in 2015. Such support could reverberate on the domestic level, providing Mitsotakis with further opportunity to legitimize his government. So far, key decision-makers have been forthcoming.

Given the obstacle polarization is to Greek domestic politics, these opportunities for Mitsotakis to legitimize himself and his party before a more receptive audience could contribute to lasting change. More united than otherwise through the national threat posed by Turkey, pundits and public alike may for once leaving behind decades-old preconceptions to focus on solutions the country needs today, regardless of who is prescribing them. But it remains to be seen whether Mitsotakis uses the elbow room he is afforded to resolve pressing issues or to further consolidate questionable political ties.

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