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Monday, June 16, 2003


Lambrakis, Forty Years On

O Lambrakis Zei! Lambrakis Lives! The cry of thousands of young demonstrators in major Greek cities 40 years ago was a defiant reaction to the cold-blooded murder of a popular leader of the Greek left. Lambrakis did live on through his political legacy. In the immediate aftermath of his death, a group of young left-wing activists formed a youth movement, the Democratic Lambrakis Youth — Dimokratiki Neolaia Lambraki — which was the forerunner of several political youth movements that helped shape Greek politics through the 1980s. Those organizations are no longer significant, as they have fallen victim to the end of ideology and the rise of the technocrats in contemporary Greek politics. But it may well be that Lambrakis’s legacy lives on thanks to the hundreds of politically unaffiliated young people who took part in demonstrations against the Iraq war in Greece earlier this year.

The man before the myth
As a young man, Grigoris Lambrakis was an overachiever, but no one would have guessed that he was destined for the pantheon of fallen left-wing activists. He was born in 1912 in the village Kerasitsa, in the Arcadia prefecture of the Peloponnese, at a time when financial difficulties caused many villagers to emigrate to the United States. Lambrakis managed to do well in high school, however. He also excelled in the long jump and triple jump: he broke the Greek record in the long jump and became a member of the national team, competing successfully in international meets. His equally excellent academic performance enabled him to study medicine at the University of Athens.

Lambrakis’s dual career as a medical student and athlete was interrupted in the 1940s when German forces occupied Athens. In response to the hardships faced by student athletes in the city during the wartime famine, he organized an athletic union that raised funds to help secure adequate food for its members. It was his first step in what would prove to be three decades of activity dedicated to social justice, which was nevertheless combined with a successful medical career.

By the time Lambrakis arrived in Thessaloniki on the fateful Wednesday, May 22, 1963, he was a parliamentary deputy and leader of the Greek peace committee. He had been elected to the Greek parliament in 1961 as a candidate of the Pan-democratic Agrarian Movement of Greece on the ticket of the Eniaia Dimokratiki Aristera (EDA). Lambrakis ran in Piraeus, one of the few urban centers where left-wing deputies managed to get elected in 1961, in what went down in history as the elections of violence and fraud. Stung by EDA’s astonishing 25 percent of the vote in the 1958 elections, the conservatives used all their resources to ensure that the ballot boxes yielded a friendlier result in 1961. It was a dirty job done easier in the provinces.

As an EDA deputy and a peace activist, Lambrakis was vulnerable to accusations of being a communist, a political option that was illegal in post-Civil War “democratic” Greece. EDA was a legal party, but left-wing in its political orientation, which meant it stretched the establishment’s tolerance to the limit, and was routinely described as a communist-front organization, which it was not. In fact, part of EDA’s strengths and weaknesses as a political party was that it was a type of federation catering to various shades of left-wing ideology, including communism, as it was illegal for the communists to form their own party. And, of course, to be a peace activist and opposed to nuclear weapons back in those days was also grounds for being called a communist, as the nuclear arsenal of the “free world” was the main force in its struggle against communist world domination.

Yet Lambrakis was an independent socialist as well as a pacifist; he was not a communist or even an admirer of the Soviet Union. Moreover, he was very different from the older and stodgier left-wing leadership. Lambrakis gained wide popularity when he led a peace march from Marathon to Athens. The police prevented the march and used violence to stop those who tried to continue, but they could not lay a hand on Lambrakis because, as a deputy, he enjoyed parliamentary immunity from arrest. The former athlete cut a fine figure as he purposefully marched on his own toward Athens carrying a banner that read Eirini (Peace) in a blaze of publicity that he did not seek. The Greek left suddenly acquired a new, human face and a charismatic leader, while the right-wing establishment had a new target.

EDA’s good showing in the 1958 elections had sent shivers down the backs of the country’s conservative elite. Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlis, in a move he would regret bitterly later on, tacitly permitted the KYP, Kentriki Ypiresia Pliroforion (Central Information Service, the Greek CIA), to establish its own auxiliary forces made up of various shady characters that ranged from former members of anticommunist right-wing groups to police informers and former criminals, all of whom were willing to do the police’s dirty work. They formed what were ostensibly right-wing citizens’ groups protesting the growing anti-conservative opposition movement that was spreading throughout Greece. In effect, they were undercover shock troops, funded and directed by the KYP and used to break up anti-government demonstrations and the peace movement’s public gatherings, such as the one Lambrakis was scheduled to address on May 22, 1963.

From hero to martyr
When Lambrakis arrived in the city, he went straight to the offices of Efthimios Kamoutsis, chief of the Thessaloniki police, to demand that there be no interference with the meeting he would address that evening. Things did not look good, however. The police had suddenly decided that the venue for his speech, the Piccadilly Club on Aristotelous Street in the city center, did not have a permit to host public meetings. Meanwhile, the event’s organizers, the Greek Committee for Peace, had reliable information that thugs operating under the protection of the police were out to get Lambrakis.

That evening, the police duly cordoned off the street on which the organizers had found an alternative meeting hall for the Lambrakis speech. Their thin blue line kept the crowd of right-wing protesters at bay. Several weeks later, the state prosecutors who had refused to be cowed by police pressure demanded to know how and why a small three-wheel pick-up truck — the subsequently infamous trikyklo — made it through the police cordon, given the high degree of security that was supposedly in place.

The pick-up had sped down the deserted street going straight at Lambrakis as he was leaving the meeting. As it came up to him, a passenger riding on the back of the truck swung hard and landed a terrible blow on Lambrakis’s head before anyone around the victim could react. As the parliamentary deputy crumpled, some gave chase and one person, Emmanouil Hadjiapostolou, the later legendary Tigris (Tiger), a construction worker and former member of the anti-Nazi resistance, caught up with the truck and dragged the assailant off, while Lambrakis was rushed to Thessaloniki’s AHEPA hospital, where he would lie in a coma through May 27, when he died.

“Who is ruling this country?” Karamanlis is supposed to have said, ruing the leeway he had allowed the security services and their parakratikoi (agents of the “parastate”). The Lambrakis affair, as it became known, was a Watergate-type setback for the ruling conservatives. They lost the elections within six months after enjoying a decade-long hold on Greek politics. Karamanlis went abroad, only to witness from afar the monarchy’s botched attempt to restore the conservatives in power, the political turmoil of 1965-1967, and finally the colonel’s coup, when the “parastate” became the actual state.

The legacy
Greece marked the fortieth anniversary of Grigoris Lambrakis’s death last month with a series of retrospectives on the turbulent 1960s. Most accounts saluted the courage of the principled peace activist who stood up to rightist terror tactics and paid with his life. They also lamented the ways in which the conservative establishment managed to cover up and absolve the real perpetrators of the Lambrakis affair on the eve of the colonels’ coup.

The anniversary inevitably raised the question of how relevant the Lambrakis affair was to present-day Greek politics and society. A documentary shown on ERT, the state-run television network, used Lambrakis mostly as a vehicle to remind viewers of how rotten the country’s “democracy” was in the early 1960s. Thus, the anniversary of his death became another reminder of the tawdry past of Greek conservatism. More realistically, an article in Anti, the left-wing fortnightly review that owes its emergence to Lambrakis’s legacy, conceded that the establishment was no longer as authoritarian as it was back in 1963, but that Lambrakis’s principled stance made him a role model and his leadership in the peace movement was still relevant in the wake of the war against Iraq.

There was, however, much more to the Lambrakis affair than a dramatic exposé of the glaring shortcomings of Greece’s supposed post-Civil War democracy, the killing of a charismatic leader of the left, and an attack on the peace movement. Equally important was the fact that Lambrakis’s death triggered a growing political movement among young people that was unprecedented in Greek political history. Hours after he was pronounced dead, composer Mikis Theodorakis and several EDA cadres formed the Dimokratiki Neolaia Lambraki, which became the first mass youth political movement in Greece. It grew exponentially, spawning other radical youth organizations that all coalesced in the events of the Athens Polytechnic in November 1973, the only significant mass protest witnessed in Greece against the colonels’ dictatorship between 1967 and 1974.

After the restoration of democracy in 1974, the youth movement, channeled into youth organizations affiliated with the major parties, would remain a major force that shaped the consolidation of democracy and, ultimately, brought about the end of the conservative hegemony by helping PASOK win the 1981 elections. By that time, even the conservatives had acquired their own youth organization, and every party had its own organizations in the high schools, vocational schools, and among university students (in Greece as well as abroad). Above all, these organizations prepared the younger generation for work in the respective parent parties.

All this was quite new for a political system that had rivaled the pre-Gorbachev Soviet Union in the way that party leadership was synonymous with gerontocracy. Since the creation of the modern state in the 1830s, Greece’s political elite had hardly changed: Venerable (or at least old) males ran the country while younger generations were supposed to respectfully bide their time. In the event, although the new developments did not mean that the youth movements were now free to do as they liked, without recourse to their senior comrades, the point is that they embodied the coming of political age of younger generations. In some cases, their public appearances might have been too much like imitations of guerrilla armies marching through the streets, but they did involve teenagers and 20-year olds making a political statement.

It all began with Lambrakis. He was 51 years old when he was brutally murdered, but there was something about his athletic youthfulness, and his independent spirit and courage, that brought thousands of young people out into the streets the day he died. In a political sense, those young people never went back indoors. Eventually, the youth movement became too important for the party leaderships to ignore, although it gradually became bureaucratized and an empty shell, without the spirit and enthusiasm from the time of its initial emergence. By the late 1980s, the youth movement had ossified thanks to the fatal embrace of the parent parties. The younger generations rightly began to spurn politics.

Judging by their dynamic presence in the peace demonstrations in Greece earlier this year, however, today’s younger generation is carrying the torch. Eschewing the regimentation of the political youth organizations, high school and university students took to the streets with their friends or schoolmates displaying their own signs. Drama students performed impromptu street plays as the marches made their way through the streets of Athens. This was perhaps the real evidence that Lambrakis’s legacy continues to matter in Greek political life. The parakratos is long gone, as is the corrupt judiciary that stymied the prosecutors’ efforts in the Lambrakis affair’s trial. Gone also is the old, anticommunist Greek right. Nonetheless, Lambrakis will always remain a role model for radical activists, and the Lambrakis affair a reminder of what authoritarianism can breed. Most important, the politically conscious youth movement his sacrifice helped unleash may be experiencing resurgence — and in that sense, yes, O Lambrakis Zei!

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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