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Saturday, June 01, 2002

Balkans

EOKA Strikes Again


“You remember the farcical situation we got ourselves into over the name, Macedonia, a decade ago?” intoned one of the roundtable panelists solemnly. “We may be facing a similar predicament at this very moment over the way we remember the Cypriot organization EOKA,” he continued. The audience at the National Research Foundation in downtown Athens fell very still.

The speaker, Philippos Iliou, a well-known intellectual of the left, pulled a copy of the Sunday edition of the reputable Athens daily, To Vima, out of his bag. “I have obtained an advance copy of tomorrow’s newspaper, and in it there is an attack on one of our colleagues, who dared question the heroic myths that surround EOKA’s activities,” Iliou said. “It is precisely this type of vehement nationalistic language launched through the pages of the press that led to the nationalist campaign over Macedonia’s name.”

The audience was certainly getting more than it had bargained for at a late Saturday evening session that was supposed to wrap up a three-day academic conference on the history of the Greek press. Most of the panelists and audience members had not, in fact, attended the earlier, more mundane segments of the conference. The final session, a roundtable, included several of Athens’s best-known public intellectuals, who were to offer their views on the current state of the Greek media rather than comment on the conference’s themes.

Iliou’s announcement was the equivalent of breaking news although the story itself had begun a few weeks earlier in Cyprus. Ouranios Ioannides, the Cypriot minister of education, had discovered something he did not like in a new history textbook produced in Greece for high-school students. He took exception to the following sentence in particular: “At a time when the Third World was being shaken by radical anti-colonial movements that pursued national liberation as well as social progress, in Cyprus General Grivas’s EOKA was imbued by a socially conservative nationalism.”

The Cypriot minister was very unhappy with the conservative label attached to EOKA, the Cypriot organization founded in 1955 to fight against the British and for union with Greece. Its acronym stands for National Organization of Cypriot Fighters and its role in Cyprus’s struggle for independence, which was ultimately achieved in 1960, is revered on the island, as the minister’s ire indicates. Rather than pen some sort of rebuttal, however, Ioannides spoke out against the book at an event in the Greek embassy in Nicosia, saying that he objected to the book’s description of EOKA. Greek ambassador Christos Panagopoulos publicly agreed with him. In Athens, opposition New Democracy deputy Alexandros Lykourezos tabled a parliamentary question asking the Greek ministry of education what it intended to do.

The response was swift. Petros Efthimiou, the minister of education, announced that the offending phrase would be eliminated and directives would be sent to teachers to honor the Cypriots’ national-liberation struggle. “That was a fascist move,” Iliou told his hushed audience, “and, yes, one of you please communicate my description to my friend, Petros.” Perhaps the epithet owed something to the heat of the moment, but Iliou’s indignation is understandable. Efthimiou had not even seen the book – which had not been published yet – unless he had taken the galleys with him to China, which is where he happened to be when he issued his order to “honor” Cyprus’s national liberation struggle. Moreover, Minister Efthimiou was unconcerned that the offending textbook was the collective work of 10 academics and had been selected as the best text out of several manuscripts submitted to the Pedagogical Institute, a non-governmental organization that oversees the production and selection of Greek textbooks.

Non-governmental institutions don’t count for much in Greece, however, and they know it. Within the next few days, the Institute’s head duly announced that, while it was too late to withdraw the book, the chapter mentioning EOKA would be deleted. Furthermore, the offending chapter would be replaced by one on the Cypriot struggle to be sent from Cyprus. The conservative press in Athens was in celebratory mood. A “Historic Change thanks to Lykourezos,” cried Apogevmatini, while Agamemnon Farakos, writing in Vradyni, referred to “pseudo-Marxists” trying to brainwash high-school students being stopped in their tracks.

Pro-nationalist voices became a little more sophisticated when Antonis Liakos, professor of history at the University of Athens, wrote an op-ed piece in To Vima deploring the attacks on the textbook. He also noted that all Greek Cypriots did not support EOKA and that the organization persecuted some of its left-wing opponents. Liakos suggested that its heroic image was myth rather than history and should be scrutinized further by historians.

The sharpness of the subsequent nationalist riposte in the same newspaper on May 26 was what exercised Iliou to the degree that he warned the roundtable audience that there was a danger that the press would be turned into a nationalist-mongering vehicle. Former PASOK minister Stelios Papathemelis, one of the prime movers of the campaign to prevent the republic of Macedonia from choosing its own name, wrote that EOKA’s struggle was supported by all Cypriots and typified “what was most honest, sacred, and just that Hellenism has achieved over the centuries”; indeed, according to Minister Papathemelis, it brought about the spiritual communion of Hellenism in Cyprus, Greece, and the entire world. He also expressed strong views about the value of historical revisionism and said that the term, “hyper-conservative nationalism,” to describe EOKA was “an insult to [Greek] collective memory and intelligence.”

Nike Loizidi, professor of art history at the University of Thessaloniki, was also critical of the textbook and of Liakos’s suggestion that EOKA’s mythical status was in need of some historical revision. Had the outcome of the Cyprus question been more positive for the Greek side, she implied, then the reassessment of history would have been a less serious matter. It was not acceptable at a time of ongoing negotiations over the island’s future, however. “The correct use of history,” Professor Loizidi warned, “entails a coolheaded and complex engagement with the events of the past as well as current developments.”

Although it is unlikely that this backlash against the reinterpretation of Cyprus’s recent history will lead to a Macedonia-is-Greek-type campaign, it is a useful reminder of how obsessed Greece is with its past. There were several anniversaries in late May that were reverently memorialized in Athens during the same weekend that the pro-EOKA articles appeared in To Vima. They included the fall of Constantinople (1453), the uprooting of the Pontian Greeks (1920), the Battle of Crete (1941), and the creation of the “Second Program” on Greek Radio (1952).

When one is so focused on commemorating past events through ceremonies carried on several state and private television channels, how can one accept that historical myths can be challenged, let alone revised? EOKA’s struggle in Cyprus is officially commemorated in Athens in many ways, not least by the naming of streets. In greater Athens, there are 26 streets named “Karaoli and Dimitriou,” after two EOKA fighters executed by the British (one street is outside the British embassy), 18 named after EOKA fighter Grigoris Afxentiou, and nine streets that simply go by the name of “Cypriot Fighters.”

Clearly, EOKA’s history from 1955 to 1960 is still taboo to historians in Greece. History as memory is easier and more gratifying than critical introspection. We will obviously have to wait a little longer before we can benefit from some academic reevaluation of the Greek Cypriot struggle in the 1950s and, especially, of EOKA’s theory and practice.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to greekworks.com, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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