Desert Islands: Ransom of Humanity
Modern Greece has had a rather “idiosyncratic history,” as the first Greek Nobel laureate, George Seferis, has noted. A country created as the result of German philhellenism and Slavophobia, on the one hand, and British and French realpolitik against the Ottoman Empire, on the other, Greece was established as a sovereign nation in 1832, after a war for independence that lasted roughly eight years (1821 – 29). The notion of the sovereign nation ought to be taken judiciously in the case of Greece, however, as a foreign (German, indeed, Bavarian) king was installed by the Great Powers, followed by a royal family with kinship ties to the British and Danish throne, intermarrying, eventually, with both the Russian and the German royal lines. This is an inevitably elliptical reference to the beginnings of this new nation by way of introducing the concept of nominal sovereignty in the case of modern Greece.
World War II found Greece already in a state of emergency imposed by Ioannis Metaxas, whose dictatorship in 1936 had been facilitated by the King and put in place the architectonics for the systematic, methodical, and efficient persecution of the Left that had lasting effects for a half century.1 The Metaxas government based the development of the processes for the extermination of the Left on an already existing law from 1929, the Idiónymon, which had declared communism and the ideas that formed it to be a distinctly heinous crime that demanded the expulsion from the body politic by imprisonment or internal exile of anyone adhering to them.2 The Metaxas government, through its Undersecretary of Public Security (Konstantinos Maniadákēs), introduced measures that were certain to engender (1) the efficient and effective prosecution of the Left and (2) the dissolution of the Communist Party from within through the creation of a climate of suspicion and paranoia.3 The main measure that single-handedly effected the above was the introduction of the delóseis metanoias (declarations of repentance) that were to be extracted by any means from the members of the Left.4 These means included coercion, imprisonment, torture, and exile to concentration camps in faraway islands of the Greek archipelago,5 and they aimed at extracting from the accused a signed declaration that not only were they no longer adhering to the ideologies of Marxism and communism but that they decidedly renounced these ideologies. Along with the renouncements, they were required to procure names of others who had equally fallen prey to communism (as the state argument was) so that they, then, could be brought to their senses and renounce the party and its ideology. Maniadákēs reasoned that the party could and would order its members to sign the declarations so that they could be released and return to party work, so he insisted that the names of those who had been released for having signed the declaration be made publicly known through the printing of their declarations in the newspapers. In this way, the entirety of the party mechanism, the cadres, and the members would consider the signatory as a traitor and collaborator. Maniadákēs reasoned correctly that this measure would bring forth such levels of suspicion and paranoia within the party that it would be unable to function.6
In order to secure the ultimate demise of the leftist movement, Maniadákēs capped all this with the introduction of a certificate that was needed and required for all interactions with the state, from obtaining a building permit to enrolling at the university, obtaining a driver’s license, or being employed in any sector of the economy. These were the pistopoiētika koinōnikōn phronēmátōn (certificats du civisme, certificates of loyalty) to the state, which remained in effect from 1936 to 1974. The procurement of these certificates rested on the premise that one’s police record and the record of one’s ascending and lateral kin (both affines and consanguine) were clean of political or ideological suspicions, accusations, or indictments. Citizens were asked and oftentimes forced to come forth to the Special Security, the police, or the Special Committees for Public Security that had been instituted and provide information about anyone. The information then had to be cross-checked by the receiving branch and used accordingly. The process was abused greatly (even if it was not originally designed for such abuse) as the cross-referencing by the committees often was abandoned or even resulted in the fabrication of material and evidence. In this way, the beginning of World War II found the Greek Communist Party and the general leftist movement in Greece completely dismantled, either in prison or in exile, in a state of mutual accusations of collaboration with the police, unable to trust itself — in other words, incapacitated. With the beginning of war, many of the prisoners asked to be released and sent to the front. The Metaxas government refused.
Greece was attacked by Italy on October 28, 1940. Unwilling to surrender, Greece fought on the side of the Allies and defeated the attacking Italian forces but was unable to resist the German war machine. On April 6, 1941, Greece was attacked and within a week was defeated by Nazi Germany and had surrendered, and the Metaxas government handed all its political prisoners to the German commanders.7 The German victory meant a tripartite occupation by the Axis forces: Italy controlled much of the South (until the collapse of 1943), Germany the North, and Bulgaria the Macedonia and Thrace regions in the north. A formidable Resistance front was quickly put together, mainly by the leftists who had returned underground and had the knowledge and the structures to put together such a clandestine movement, but eventually also by members of the centrist parties and the liberal right wing. The largest resistance power, by far, was ELAS, the army of EAM (the coalition of leftist forces). Resistance was not unified but was almost universal and against an exceptionally brutal occupation made even more so because of the German and Italian retaliations. To counterbalance the influence that ELAS had throughout the country, first the British helped in the formation of a second resistance front, EDES, headed by a high-ranking officer of the pre-Metaxas era, and within a few months, in 1943, the collaborationist government, in tandem with the Germans, established a counterresistance army, the Security Battalions (Tágmata Asfaleias), which terrorized the country as they had full impunity for their actions. Other collaborationist units appeared through the country in small numbers but heavily armed by the Germans and with full impunity. Resistance was, indeed, not universal.
Greece was one of the first European countries to be liberated from the Germans, on October 12, 1944, and perhaps inevitably (although this has been a subject of great debate), such a history could not announce an uneventful return to normalcy and the rule of law. Greece slipped into a civil war that lasted for three torturous years, from 1946 to 1949, with almost as many casualties as the country had during the war and the occupation. The civil war started with a battle for autonomy from the king that took place in Athens in December 1944 (which quickly came to be known as the Dekemvrianá), went through a period of “White Terror,” and ended with a nominal democracy based on rigged elections, authoritarianism, and the sealing of patronage by the United States through the implementations of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan.
Perhaps also inevitably, given the particular history that preceded the war and liberation, Greece had the hideous privilege of establishing the first concentration camps in Europe after the end of World War II, and only twenty-two months after the last existing Nazi camp at Dachau was liberated in April 1945. These camps were established with the expressed aim of reeducating and rehabilitating the leftists and were set up on three Greek desert islands,8 Makrónisos, Yáros, and Trikeri, a few months after the beginning of the civil war. Ideologically and financially under the auspices of the German-born Queen Frederica, who had been a member of the Hitler Youth, the camps were quickly supported by funds supplied by the Marshall Plan following the Truman Doctrine.9
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This essay is part of my book Dangerous Citizens, forthcoming from Fordham University Press. That project addresses the question of necropolitics as biopolitics by interrogating the processes and gestures through which the category of the leftist as a “dangerous person” becomes possible in the context of parliamentary democracy, and the different ways in which the production of such a category that is inhabited by political subjects organizes the everyday, lived experience of the entire body politic. I thank the editors of Public Culture for their comments, which have made this piece more readable and accessible. I also thank Gil Anidjar, Athena Athanasiou, James Boon, Carlos Forment, Stathis Gourgouris, Michael Löwy, George Marcus, Reinhold Martin, Beth Povinelli, Anupama Rao, Felicity Scott, and Eleni Varikas — this essay is largely the result of our discussions over the years. In various forms, this essay has been presented at Princeton University, University of California – Irvine, Université de Paris VIII, and the London School of Economics, and I have profited from the ensuing discussions.
- The Left in the case of Greece and for the purposes of the state, at this point in time, included the membership of the parties of the Left: the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the Agricultural Party; trade unionists; readers of the leftist newspapers; anyone adhering to the ideologies of the Left even when not being an organized member of any party; and “fellow travelers.”
- In 1917, the liberal republican (antiroyalist) government reenacted the 1871 law against brigandage that authorized the banishment of relatives of bandits. In 1913, another law authorized the penalty of individuals suspected of engaging in the disruption of public safety and order, effectively banishing the first socialists and trade unionists. For a comprehensive and succinct historical account of the political and social developments in Greece during the times that are of interest to us here, including the interwar period, World War II, the civil war, and the post–civil war period, Constantine Tsoucalas’s The Greek Tragedy (London: Penguin, 1969) is indispensable. For a more detailed assessment of Metaxas and his dictatorship, see P. J. Vatikiotis, Popular Autocracy in Greece, 1936 – 1941: A Political Biography of General Ioannis Metaxas (London: Frank Cass, 1998), a book that maintains the apologetic line about Metaxas that, although he was a dictator, he established a social state that cared for and about the masses, established a system of socialized pension, and legalized the workers’ unions, and that Metaxas himself decided to enter into war with Italy in 1940 rather than allow the surrender of the country to the Italian forces of Mussolini; and Marina Petrakis, The Metaxas Myth: Dictatorship and Propaganda in Greece (London: Tauris Academic Studies, 2006), which deals more specifically with Metaxas’s use of propaganda and the use of the press and cultural institutions for the cultivation of an image of the regime as benevolent, caring, and paternal. In Greek, Spyros Marketos’s Pos Filesa ton Moussolini! Ta Prota Vemata tou Hellenikou Fasismou (How I Kissed Mussolini! The First Steps of Greek Fascism) (Athens: Vivliorama, 2006) is the most comprehensive and detailed analysis not only of the Metaxas dictatorship and the bourgeois ideology that sustained its development into a form of fascism, but also of the process of aestheticization of Metaxism as modernism. Metaxas aspired to create a political environment in Greece akin to Nazism (he invited Joseph Goebbels to Greece shortly after the dictatorship was established and sent a Greek delegation to the School for the War against Communism that had been established by the Gestapo under the direction of Heinrich Himmler), although by his own assessment his ideology was closer to that of António de Oliveira Salazar’s in Portugal. See Georgios Andrikopoulos, Oi Rizes tou Hellenikou Fasismou (The Roots of Greek Fascism) (Athens: Diogenes, 1975), on the correspondence between Metaxas’s Undersecretary of Public Security, Konstantinos Maniadákēs, and Himmler. For a history of the persecution of the Left during the civil war (1946 – 49) with a brief account of the history that preceded it, see Polymeris Voglis, Becoming a Subject: Political Prisoners during the Greek Civil War (New York: Berghan Books, 2002), which remains the most systematic analysis of the relationship between the Greek state and the leftist movement in Greece until the end of the civil war in the Anglophone literature on the subject.
- Maniadákēs commented on the ultimate inefficiency of the existing legal framework to dissolve the leftist movement in Greece when he, alluding to the failure of the Idiónymon to contain and obliterate the leftist movement, noted that “Communism, let us not have self-delusions, does not disappear through common policing means and through the material imposition of the state forces.” Ho Kommounismos stēn Hellada (Communism in Greece) (Athens: Ethnikē Hetaireia, 1937), 3. This comment was further elaborated by the editors of the pamphlet in the section titled “Instead of a Prologue,” where they wrote: “One must arrive at a point of great panic and mental confusion to think that simply by using proscriptions, imprisonment, exiles, in other words with the dynamic imposition of the state, could such an enemy be fought effectively” (6). Theodoros Lymberiou (Maniadákēs’s nephew) further elaborated on this comment when he sneered and characterized as “sloppy” the manner in which the Greek state had tried to manage the question of subversive communist activity throughout the 1920s through a law that “was not concerned but with the prosecution of brigandage!” Theodoros M. Lymberiou, To Kommounistikó Kinēma stēn Hellada (The Communist Movement in Greece) (Athens: Papazeses, 2005), 165.
- Grigoris Farakos, former secretary general of the Greek Communist Party (KKE), mentions that during the Metaxas dictatorship 100,000 leftists were persecuted, of whom about half were members of the party, including the entirety of the leadership of the party’s Central Committee. Approximately 2,000 members remained imprisoned or exiled until the German invasion. “Ioannis Metaxas,” Eleftherotypia “Historika” supplement, August 2, 2001, 36 – 43. The article is important in the ways of assessing the role of Metaxas in the development of the communist and leftist movement in Greece by Farakos, who was deeply and intimately involved with the movement as one of its major actors. Farakos calls the idea of the delóseis a “diabolical invention” (36). See also the edited volume by Farakos, Dekémvrēs tou ’44: Neōterē Erevna — Nées Proseggiseis (December 1944: Latest Research — New Approaches) (Athens: Philistōr, 2000).
- The term used for these camps during the Metaxas period, stratópeda sygkentrōseōs, was a direct translation from the German. During the civil war, when the camps of the Metaxas period were officially closed and new ones opened, the term was changed to “disciplined existence” (peitharhēmenē diaviōsis).
- Another measure that Maniadákēs brought about was the establishment of a shadow KKE (since a second KKE would not be recognized by the Communist International), a second party newspaper, and a second Central Committee that were staffed by the five or six members of the party who were later proven to have genuinely and knowingly collaborated with the Special Security. The collaborators were called hafiédes (snitches), and an entire discourse (hafiedologia) was developed within the party and outside of it. The importance of hafiédes in the political landscape of modern Greece cannot be overestimated, as it has produced generations of suspicion and paranoia not toward outsiders but, particularly and significantly, toward friends, neighbors, and comrades, one’s own closest.
- Metaxas himself had died in January 1941, but the government remained in place until, led by the king and the cabinet, it fled first to Crete and then to Egypt while a collaborationist government was established. I use “Germans” as the local term used in Greece to denote the Nazis or the Third Reich.
- Gilles Deleuze engages in the radical deconstruction of the notion of the “desert” island by invoking the lack of recognition by the European traveler/settler of the humanity already existing there. He is primarily thinking of and discussing the European travel literature of the Enlightenment. Deleuze is most emphatically not referring to actually desert islands, places where only the most tenuous of life can be sustained with the scant rainfall of a couple of months a year, places that have no aquifer or an aquifer that holds only contaminated or nonpotable water. Deleuze is speaking of the construction of the desert as part of a discourse that has sustained colonialism. I am speaking of actual desert (not deserted, even metaphorically) islands. See Deleuze, Desert Islands and Other Texts, 1953 – 1974 (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2004). Michael Taussig has actually captured not only the horror of the islands as colonies of the undesirables (Poulantzas’s “anti-nationals”), but also the complicity in the management of undesirable life by capitalist ventures, especially in the way in which he erects the problem of offshore operations as not simply an economic but a political one. See Taussig, My Cocaine Museum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
- Greece marks the beginning of the Cold War. As Michael McClintock notes, quoting Lt. Col. Robert Selton, officer of the U.S. Army, the Greek civil war “constitutes the formal declaration of the cold war” between the “Free World . . . and the forces of communism.” McClintock, Instruments of Statecraft: U.S. Guerrilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, and Counterterrorism, 1940 – 1990 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992), 11. It was because of the civil war in Greece (and the announcement by the British that they could not sustain their presence there any longer) that President Truman articulated his famous (or infamous) doctrine about the necessity for intervention on behalf of other countries to prevent the infiltration of foreign ideologies originating elsewhere. As McClintock mentions, as of November 1961, starting with an initial allotment in 1947 of $400 million through the Marshall Plan, Greece had been granted $3.4 billion for postwar reconstruction, out of which only $1.2 billion went to reconstruction, the rest being used for military aid and defense support, including the establishment and maintenance of the concentration camps and the containment of communism. See Lt. Col. Robert W. Selton, “The Cradle of U.S. Cold War Strategy,” Military Review, August 1966, 68; and McClintock, Instruments of Statecraft, 466n31. The importance of Greece in the “containment” strategy of former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union George F. Kennan, cannot be overstressed, as it not only indexes U.S. foreign policy and political and military involvement in the southern Balkans at the time but also had far-reaching results in later U.S. foreign policy and involvement, primarily in Vietnam, which was seen by President Lyndon B. Johnson “as the ‘Greece’ of Southeast Asia.” U.S. News and World Report, August 8, 1966, quoted in Todd Gitlin, “Counter-insurgency: Myth and Reality in Greece,” in Containment and Revolution: Western Policy towards Social Revolution: 1917 to Vietnam, ed. David Horowitz (London: Anthony Blond, 1967), 178. For the parallels between the U.S. involvement in Greece and Vietnam and an excellent (if brief) account of the British, American, and local Greek right-wing forces in the Greek civil war and the events of December 1944 that preceded it, see Gitlin, “Counter-insurgency,” 140 – 82. George F. Kennan was U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union right after World War II. While in the Soviet Union, Kennan wrote a memorandum to President Truman that came to be known as “file X,” in which Kennan explained why communism had to be contained within its borders and prevented from expanding to the West. File X was the primary material used for the composition of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. Later on Kennan noted that his point had been gravely misunderstood and that “containment” referred to diplomatic means and did not include (or justify) the militarization of the Cold War.