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Monday, June 16, 2003

Our Opinion

As Others Continue to Fall, One Statue Keeps on Rising

While statues from Moscow to Berlin to Prague, Warsaw, and Budapest to, most recently, Baghdad, have been coming down to the general acclaim of the citizens of those cities for the last decade and a half, there is one statue in one city that seems eternally riveted to its plinth. The American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA) could have done much better in marking the fortieth anniversary of the Truman statue’s dedication in Athens on May 29, 1963. It issued a press release announcing that it was working closely with (who else?) US ambassador Thomas Miller and the city’s mayor, Dora Bakoyianni (listed in that order), “to prevent unfavorable actions from occurring” to their — we can think of no other term to describe it — fetish.

Ever since its erection in downtown Athens, the statue has been a favorite target of citizens wishing to express their opposition to US policy toward Greece. The very idea of placing a US president’s statue in the capital city of a country whose civil war was decided thanks to that very president’s intervention is at best disingenuous, while, at worst, is the kind of commemoration that only a banana republic would undertake — especially in lieu of the extremely controversial role in Greece’s subsequent history that the US continued to play.

What was AHEPA thinking (or, more accurately, not thinking) when it came up with this idea? One clue is that the work’s sculptor was Felix W. de Weldon, the creator of the US Marine Memorial based on the famous photograph depicting the Stars and Stripes being raised at Iwo Jima. Clearly, AHEPA was hoping to prove its American patriotism (at the same time it was confirming its sad ignorance of Greece). The Greek expression is doron adoron: a giftless gift. With its demand that this statue be placed in Greece — instead of on the grounds of the organization’s own headquarters in Washington, for example — it turned its “present” into an open target for political protesters armed with small explosive devices or buckets of red paint.

O Lambrakis Zei

We’d like to thank Alexander Kitroeff for guest-editing this special edition of commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis. As one of the most astute historians of modern Greece, Alexander Kitroeff’s contribution from the outset to has been essential, irreplaceable, and much appreciated. We look forward to many more special editions under his perceptive guidance.

Meanwhile, Dora Bakoyianni’s transparently silly defense of the statue as “art,” and her decision to include the oversized, bronze effigy of Truman in a new Athens pilot program protecting works of art, verges on parody. We happen to have a great deal of respect for Athens’s new mayor. Indeed, we think she’s the best and surest hope for revitalizing the New Democracy party and returning it to the democratic and modernizing impulses of its founder, Constantine Karamanlis. In the event, Ms. Bakoyianni has done neither her image nor (more important) her reputation much good by embracing this pointless Cold War relic that permanently enshrines the worst — and most tragic — moments in Greece’s postwar history. Maybe, however, Ms. Bakoyianni has read Joyce Carol Oates, and this is just her sly way of endorsing the American writer’s notion of the validity of the grotesque image as historical commentary.

We’d like to think (and we hope) that Ms. Bakoyianni’s sudden attachment to the Truman statue was simply her way of combating kneejerk anti-Americanism. We know that she is savvy enough as a politician not to get caught kowtowing to the US. Indeed, there is enough evidence in the news coming out of Athens to confirm that the politicians of both major Greek parties understand the need to maintain a cordial and balanced relationship with the United States, while at the same time developing independent views and policies on all matters, foreign and domestic, in addition to continuing the country’s ever-closer integration with the European Union.

AHEPA’s response to Ms. Bakoyianni’s initiative was, in the event, underwhelming. (Why are we not surprised?) To say that “it is truly welcome” does not even begin to address the Greek American group’s responsibilities in this matter. If Greek politicians are able to publicly fight popular anti-American sentiment and just as publicly call for the statue’s protection, AHEPA must be able to put aside its own kneejerk support for whatever policy the US adopts toward Greece and acknowledge the often disastrous consequences of many of these policies. It should also understand that Greece cannot be forced — and should not undertake — to guarantee the statue’s security, with AHEPA and the US embassy acting as self-styled vigilantes imposing their writ on the country.

The fortieth anniversary of the dedication was a rare opportunity for AHEPA to meet its critics halfway, and to acknowledge the political controversy surrounding the sculpture. Their press release mentioned that 20,000 people attended the statue’s dedication on May 29, 1963, and that President Kennedy sent a message that was read during the dedication ceremony expressing the hope the statue would “serve to remind us of the high priority President Truman gave the progress of Greece toward economic development and social justice in peace and freedom.” What the press release did not mention — isn’t there anyone at AHEPA’s headquarters who knows this? — is that exactly a day earlier, half a million people marched in the streets of Athens demanding precisely that “social justice in peace and freedom” from America’s pawns in Greece.

They were attending the funeral of left-wing deputy and peace activist Grigoris Lambrakis. He had been attacked in Thessaloniki on May 22 and had lain in a coma in the city’s AHEPA hospital — a reminder that the group has indeed made some useful contributions to the Greek people — where he died five days later. His murderers were right-wing thugs in the pay of the Greek security forces, formed in 1953 and trained by the CIA, hence their name, Kentriki Ypiresia Pliroforion (Central Information Service). The murder enraged and ultimately undermined Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlis, who spoke at the Truman statue dedication.

Clearly, the end of May 1963 was not a moment in Greek history in which one could in good conscience celebrate the outcome of the Civil War. The Truman doctrine may have saved Greece from communism, but it did not save it from right-wing authoritarianism, and certainly did not save it for democracy. Far from it. The unveiling of Truman’s statue and all the pious speeches that went with it cloaked the very different — and much more insidious — reality that existed at the time. Greeks, however, are prepared to reconcile these two different sides of their history. It behooves AHEPA to follow suit.

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