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Sunday, October 15, 2006


Greece, 1946: From Ballots…

This is the sixtieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Greek Civil War—the “this” being sometime in the year 1946, because no one is quite sure exactly when the war started. While its end is generally acknowledged as coming on August 29, 1949, when the communist-led Democratic Army ceased its operations and fled across Greece’s northern borders, there is a broad range of dates put forward as the moment the war began. The difficulty in determining the precise moment it broke out reflects the Civil War’s gradual emergence from Greece’s escalating post-Second World War polarization that was rooted in the wartime resistance. A good case can be made, however, for the electoral fiasco of March 1946 as the tipping point from which Greece jumped from the frying pan of deepening internecine conflict into the fire of civil war proper.

Briefly, the dates that have been put forward as the beginning of civil war range from 1943 through 1946. In the fall of 1943, the communist-led ELAS (National Popular Liberation Army) resistance army clashed with the smaller republican cum royalist EDES (National Republican Greek League) resistance forces. In the year that elapsed to the country’s liberation from the Axis, Greek-versus-Greek violence continued steadily, often involving the Security Battalions, armed units of collaborators that hounded down leftists, or ELAS units going after their own political opponents.

The clashes were particularly bloody in the Peloponnese, a traditionally conservative area in which the EAM (National Liberation Front) created by the communist party in 1941 that in turn established ELAS, nonetheless gained considerable support. It is not by chance that the Peloponnese has featured in accounts of this era that seek to highlight the violence inflicted by each side on the other from 1943 onward. In the most recent addition to this literature, Stelios Perrakis, who teaches economics at Concordia University in Montreal, describes the murder of his maternal uncle by a communist death squad in May 1944 in a book-length account entitled, The True Story of Murder and Retribution in Wartime Greece. Meanwhile, Stathis Kalyvas’s long-awaited and recently published The Logic of Violence in Civil War adds weight to the proposition that the Civil War began in 1943 by focusing on the continuum of brutality that marked Greece’s transition from occupation and resistance to the post-liberation era.

Observers have suggested another starting-point for the Civil War, however, in the clashes in Athens throughout December 1944 between EAM/ELAS and the British-backed right wing (see my “December 1944: Civil War in Athens,”, April 26, 2005). That was the moment when any hope was crushed that liberation would help end the rift between left and right spawned by the dynamics of wartime resistance. From then on, it all went downhill. The country’s politics were divided between EAM/ELAS and an agglomeration of right-wing forces made up of royalists, conservative republicans, extreme right-wingers, and former Nazi collaborators, all united around the need to prevent communist participation in the government (let alone a communist takeover). And backing them up was Britain, as a matter of political expediency and a reflection of Churchill’s stubborn determination that exiled King George II be returned to Greece.

Things fell apart in Greece because there was no center to hold them together. The centrists, basically moderate Venizelists and EAM supporters, were too few and weak to prevent sharp polarization. But there were a few turning-points in the narrative of this new national schism (partially continuing and partially replacing the older one between Venizelists and royalists) at which it could have been interrupted.

The Varkiza agreement that took its name from a coastal location south of Athens where both sides signed an armistice of sorts in February 1945 did nothing to prevent the right from unleashing its white terror in retaliation for the left’s own terror tactics. The right became particularly emboldened when the December clashes wound down in its favor. Prime Minister Nikolaos Plastêras, a veteran republican, was soon ousted and followed by several short-lived royalist administrations that did nothing to prevent official and unofficial persecution of leftists in the months that followed. Varkiza could have reconciled the two warring sides; instead, it exacerbated the conditions that led to the country’s political life spiraling out of control.

The most significant opportunity to restore a semblance of democratic law and order came with the first post-liberation election set for March 1946. There was still disorder across the country, with the royalist governments doing very little to prosecute collaborators but focusing instead on pursuing leftists involved in the December events, while turning a blind eye to the activities of right-wing vigilante groups. Nonetheless, Britain wished to accelerate the normalization of Greek political life, although it would wash its hands of it just a year later.

International observers were called in, and, in late January, the American, British, and French missions began arriving in Greece, despite conditions in the countryside that were so unstable that even the prime minister, the republican Themistoclês Sofoulês, expressed doubts about the viability of free elections. The head of the American observers responded indirectly by saying that if any parties abstained, they should not complain about the outcome as far as he was concerned. Sofoulês got the hint and participated in the election, although he raised some doubts once more.

But Nikos Zachariadês, the leader of the communists, refused to go along; the party announced instead that it would abstain from the upcoming vote unless it was postponed for two months so that more people could be registered to vote. Days later, he got support from an unexpected source, The Times of London, which called for a postponement so that law and order could be established in Greece. The newspaper also asked EAM to do its part. Several government ministers in Athens announced they were ready to quit if the elections were not postponed. Even the acting regent, Archbishop Damaskênos, hardly a friend of the left, called for a two-week postponement, citing technical deficiencies in the electoral process.

The British government saw things differently, however, and affirmed its view that the election should take place as scheduled at the end of March. The spokesmen for the large group of American observers spoke confidently of their readiness to observe. The US government sent a communiqué to Athens stating that any delay in the election could affect the provision of US aid to Greece. The die was cast, even though the Greek election would take place two years before the first general elections in Italy, where the significant right-left polarization in the post-liberation period was not nearly as violent as in Greece. (Italy held elections in June 1946, but they were for a constituent assembly and held in tandem with a referendum on the monarchy, which lost the vote and was succeeded by the Italian republic on June 20.)

In a way, the circumstances were not entirely unique and a legacy of gerrymandering and electoral games animated those who insisted that the climate was conducive to free elections. Historically, Greece’s electoral contests, including those held in the previous few decades, had never been models of an open, democratic process. The ruling party usually tailored the electoral system in order to gain the fullest advantage, and several elections had entailed serious interference by the authorities. Still, the 1946 elections appear to have taken place under extraordinary conditions of instability, which were confirmed by clashes between demonstrators and police in Athens, and violence in the provinces, on the very eve of election day, March 31.

Despite this tarnished electoral history, Greek democracy had sputtered along throughout the twentieth century, even as the military occasionally became involved in politics. And so, legitimacy was preserved, if only because the opposition to whatever government was in power bided its time for the particular crisis that would render the incumbents too weak or divided to maintain themselves in government.

As it turned out, that was the point of precipitously holding elections in early 1946 in a land divided by ideology and violence, and in a climate of fear and repression. The post-liberation anticommunist order required a fig-leaf of legitimacy, which it got. The monarchist right gained 65 percent of the vote, while the centrists secured 25 percent. Roughly 25 percent of voters had heeded the communist call for abstention, however. In the event, the foreign observers were not only quick to ratify the outcome, but, notwithstanding the prevailing conditions, they somehow minimized the abstention rate to about nine percent. That ploy in itself suggests how “fairly” the communists would have been treated had they participated in the elections.

It is no wonder, then, that Greece silently passes over the anniversary of those first postwar elections. Under different circumstances, they might have been regarded as an important moment in which democracy returned to Greece a decade after being suspended by General Iôannês Metaxas in 1936. Instead, the 1946 elections provided the monarchist right with the legitimacy and power to continue its efforts to marginalize the center and eliminate the left—which it proceeded to do most vigorously in both cases.

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