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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Our Opinion

In Memoriam: Geôrgios Rallês


The death of Geôrgios Rallês last week at the age of 87 was another of those anti-Panglossian moments in contemporary Greece when one is abruptly forced to calculate the gains and losses of what consensually passes as the best of all possible worlds. It’s fitting, of course, that such thoughts are provoked by the death of a man who was looked upon, until the very end, as an avatar of “arch-conservatism.” And while it is true that Rallês was never the sort of politician (let alone human being) to occasion either extreme hostilities or undivided loyalty, it’s equally true that he was unusually burdened by his name. Whether he liked it or not (or whether it was fair or not), it became an albatross he had to carry until, finally, in the last couple of decades of his life, most of his fellow citizens came to realize that it is as pointless to blame a man for the family he was born into as it is to ascribe some nefarious purpose to the color of his skin.

Rallês was a scion of two of the founding families—or, depending on your point of view, τζάκια—of modern Greece: the Phanariote Rallês clan and, on his mother’s side, the Corfiote Theotokês line. Whether cast as tribute or aspersion, however, Rallês would never have denied that he was born into privilege and grew up and came of age in a rarefied circle of entitlement and perpetual advantage. Grandson of two prime ministers and son of a third, it was hard to avoid the feeling with someone like him that justice is not of this world.

During a time of historical upheaval, however, privilege is more often than not a deafening and blinding disconnection, an intellectual and moral amputation of one’s existential link to one’s own society. Geôrgios Rallês’s father was Iôannês Rallês, a founder of the Security Battalions—more bitterly known to Greeks at the time as Γερμανοτσολιάδες—and the last collaborationist premier during the German occupation of the country. He died in prison in 1946 after Greece’s liberation from the Nazis, serving the beginning of a life sentence for high treason.

It must have been extremely painful for the son after the father’s demise, not so much because Iôannês Rallês had died dishonored behind bars, but because young Geôrgios henceforth had to carry the name, and the singular shame, that, in Greek, translated into “Quisling.” In the event, he was saved by the same kind of historical turbulence that had destroyed his father. In the same year that Rallês père breathed his last, civil war began in earnest in Greece. A year later, following Harry Truman’s avowal before a joint session of congress of his doctrinal intention “to support free peoples…resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures” (as long as those “armed minorities or…outside pressures” were not in the pay of Uncle Sam), former German collaborators were instantly transformed into naïve but God-fearing patriots and Γερμανοτσολιάδες into latterday vigilantes defending Church, nation, and family. Geôrgios Rallês himself went back into uniform (his second time, having also served during the Axis invasion of Greece), joining the anticommunist crusade out of principle, but also, undoubtedly, out of a loyal son’s desperate need to prove the fallibility (or at least extenuation) of what had seemed an unimpeachable judgment against his generally condemned (and much despised) father.

Young Geôrgios (he was only 32) was first elected to parliament in 1950, immediately following the end of the Civil War, under the standard of the still-centripetal (but soon-to-be-dispersed) force of Greek conservatism, the Popular Party. Within four years, he had become minister to the prime minister in the government of Alexandros Papagos, the former field marshal and Civil War “victor” (the US contribution having been discreetly downplayed by Papagos’s allies, foremost among them the US itself). By the fall of 1955, however, Papagos was dead, and his party was soon to follow. In 1951, in an act of amour-propre that made the French general look like the soul of Franciscan humility, Papagos had appropriated de Gaulle’s strategy, and even ideological appellation (which, apparently, was not controlled), and had “rebranded” the Greek right (with the critical strategic support of the US) under the banner of the Greek Rally party. As soon as its founder had breathed his last, however, his replacement as prime minister (chosen without even a wink to constitutional propriety by King Paul), Kônstantinos Karamanlês, imposed a rebranding of his own and, within three months to the day of Papagos’s death, reorganized the Greek Rally into the National Radical Union.

From Kônstantinos Tsaldarês to Alexandros Papagos to Kônstantinos Karamanlês, Geôrgios Rallês followed and remained steadfast to the “evolution” (or, more precisely, migrating cult of personality) of the Greek right, being handed a number of ministerial portfolios along the way. He was nothing if not loyal. And yet, somewhere deep down in his conservative conscience and sense of social obligation, his allegiance remained above all to the belief famously articulated by John Kennedy (undoubtedly anachronistic but no less genuine in both men’s cases) that, “For those to whom much is given, much is required.” It’s no coincidence that both Rallês and JFK were “privileged sons.” Noblesse oblige? Let’s not mock the notion too quickly, although the current, notorious privileged son occupying the White House confirms the truth that dereliction of duty and outright desertion are more often the choices of dynastic offspring than service and self-sacrifice.

But Geôrgios Rallês was made of sterner stuff. The desire, Freudian or otherwise, to “kill” (that is, vindicate, or perhaps even transcend) his father’s toxic legacy might have had something to do with it. In any case, when the junta of colonels (and one brigadier) overthrew the constitutional government of Greece on the night of April 21, 1967, Geôrgios Rallês was—irony of ironies—minister of public order. He evaded arrest, holed himself up in the national gendarmerie’s operational center, and tried to convince the Third Army Corps headquartered in Thessalonikê to move against the seditionists. He failed, obviously. It must be remarked in his defense, however, that he at least made the effort—which was certainly more than can be said for the craven monarch and chief of state at the time, then-King Constantine, who quickly capitulated and gave legalistic cover to the putsch.

Rallês was arrested on three occasions during the dictatorship and also spent time in internal exile on the island of Kasos. When the junta eventually fell, the returning Kônstantinos Karamanlês immediately asked him to be his minister to the prime minister, both in the government of national unity and the subsequent government that followed the elections of November 1974. What is most characteristic of his tenure during this time is, again, how Rallês managed to balance fidelity to his ministerial obligations with constancy to his constitutional principles without violating either and remaining faithful, above all, to his responsibility to his fellow citizens. As minister to the prime minister in December 1974, Rallês was a critical part of the government that oversaw the referendum on the monarchy. Although Rallês personally supported the institution, he willingly served a prime minister who had decided that it was a permanent cancer on the Greek body politic. (Karamanlês, however, wisely maintained a public silence on the issue.) When Greeks voted overwhelmingly to establish a republic, Rallês never looked back, but conscientiously served this new republic as resolutely as he had once served the royalist constitution.

The next few years were to witness Rallês’s three great contributions to his country and fellow Greeks. In 1976, he undertook the ministry of education while still serving as minister to the prime minister. With these two crucial portfolios under his wing, he introduced the language reform that abolished the administrative use of katharevousa; made demotic Greek the official and permanent language, both of instruction in all levels of Greek education as well as in public administration; and finally ended the language wars that had plagued Greek society for most of the twentieth century.

Two years later, Rallês became foreign minister and undertook the final negotiations for Greek accession to the then-European Economic Community. It was under his watch that Greece acceded to the EEC as its tenth member in May 1979.

Perhaps Rallês’s greatest moment, however, came precisely at what seemed to be his lowest ebb as a public man. After Karamanlês’s decision to promote himself to the presidency of the Greek republic, Rallês was elected head of the New Democracy party (the fourth major reinvention of the right in the post-Civil War period) and succeeded Karamanlês as prime minister. Although it was a poisoned chalice for him, since it was widely expected that PASOK would win the next parliamentary elections, it proved vital for the country at large. Soon after assuming the government, Rallês found himself addressing a throng of New Democrats in Êrakleio’s Freedom Square. When he mentioned the name of his political opponent, and PASOK’s founder and leader, Andreas Papandreou, however, the noisily partisan crowd responded with a Greek version of booing. It was then that Rallês countered with the three words that have subsequently become indelibly linked to his name, and probably constitute the only phrase that most Greeks identify with him: Δεν θέλω ου (I don’t want booing).

It’s much more concise, and admonitory, in the Greek. It quickly became a joke. It was one of those many moments in modern Greek life when the wicked satirical gift of the Greeks was too clever by half and, ultimately, lost the point of its parody. Andreas Papandreou went on to win the elections of October 1981, of course, and Rallês quickly retired to the backbenches.

It took many years for Greeks to finally understand what that “Δεν θέλω ου” had really meant. The person that Rallês had defeated for the leadership of New Democracy when Karamanlês chose to ascend to the presidency was the party’s ostensible favorite, Euangelos Averôf, a man for whom the term, “hardliner,” seems an almost excessive kindness. Much can be said of the author of that (very personal) “history” of the Greek communist party during the Civil War entitled By Fire and Axe. (It was characteristic of Averôf to blame all the burning and chopping in Greece between 1946-1949 on just one side, while conveniently ignoring the much more technologically efficient devastation inflicted by his own—with, for example, the first use of napalm after the Second World War, and years before this particular weapon in the arsenal of democratic freedom would achieve its notoriety in the rice paddies of Vietnam.) Suffice it to note here that it would have been inconceivable for someone like Averôf, when confronting a political opponent (especially from the left), to admonish his partisans, “Δεν θέλω ου.”

Kônstantinos Karamanlês understood that better than anyone, which is why, behind the scenes, he threw his backing to Rallês. It is very difficult for people now, a quarter of a century later, to remember the almost palpable tension in the country during the runup to the 1981 elections. Everyone in those days—pundits, street-vendors, one’s concierge, even one’s spinster Aunt Eufrosynê—expected PASOK to win. Paradoxically, that collective sense of inevitability heightened the apprehension. Especially for voters on the left, it was feared that the final end to their half-century in political and civic exile would be somehow sabotaged. Again, it is easy now to scoff at this (seeming) paranoia, but Greece in 1980 was only six years distant from dictatorship. Rallês’s “Δεν θέλω ου” was a laconic, and unquestionable, warning to his more extreme supporters that times had indeed changed, and it cleared the path for the real normalization, and authentic democratization, of Greek public life.

After losing the elections, Averôf took over New Democracy, but it was too late by then for the return of the living dead. Indeed, in the face of Andreas Papandreou’s actual program of “αλλαγή, εδώ και τώρα” (change, here and now), it was risible, not to say downright ridiculous, to paint this anemic (in truth, pathetic) agenda as “revolutionary” or even threatening in any way. As for Rallês, nothing so became his parliamentary life as his leaving it. Staying in the backbenches through the various ups and downs in Greek politics and in his own party, he finally decided in 1993 that he had no ethical choice but to resign his parliamentary seat, even though his own party was back in power. His resignation was purely on a matter of principle and in specific opposition to then-Prime Minister Mitsotakês’s disastrous handling of the Macedonia issue. Rallês felt that Mitsotakês had failed to accept a compromise on the name of the republic of Macedonia because of fear of losing the next elections, and that his position had alienated Greece from its traditional friends and allies. Rallês also believed that Mitsotakês had played the most cynical sort of politics with the future of the country. He was right on all counts, of course, and, predictably, Mitsotakês’s cowardice cost him the next election and put an end to his political career.

Geôrgios Rallês left behind two children, neither of whom is in politics. This is his final gift to his country. This privileged son of privileged sons saw how ugly privilege can turn when it ignores all those who are deprived of it. Being Iôannês’s son was possibly the best thing that ever happened to Geôrgios: if nothing else, it taught him the treachery of lineage. Look around today, in this Greek “republic” that only a generation ago abolished dynastic rule. Government has become the plaything of dynasties: Karamanlêses and Mitsotakês-Bakogiannêses and, above all, Papandreous. Indeed, it’s the “radical socialists” who’ve flooded this so-called republic with dauphins, princess royals, and princelings of every sort and bastard conception: Gennêmatases and Aleurases and Koutsogiôrgases. It’s a sad comment on the degradation of civic life in Greece and yet more evidence of the fact that, as Geôrgios Rallês proved in his own life, it’s harder to become an honest man than to be born a prince.

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