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Friday, February 01, 2002


Law and Disorder: 1952 and Other Unconstitutional Conventions

The fiftieth anniversary of the Greek constitution promulgated in January 1952 passed quietly last month. There was not much to celebrate. The glaring loopholes in that supposedly liberal charter kept the divisive spirit of the Greek Civil War alive for many years and paved the way for the colonel’s military junta in 1967.

But fifty years is a long time in politics. The memories of the Greek Civil War are fading fast. After the junta’s collapse, the healing process from the wounds of that conflict began, slowly, with the legalization of the communist party in 1974 and the return of left-wing political refugees. In the summer of 1989, Greece witnessed the unthinkable: political cooperation between communists and conservatives in a coalition government. It was the Greek equivalent of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, which took place a few months later.

Yet as the 1952 constitution descends into the nether regions of collective memory, its similarities with other Greek constitutions should not be forgotten. One thing that this ill-fated constitution shows is that such documents have not counted for much in Greek history. Popular recourse to the constitution through the courts can ultimately be short-circuited: in most cases, it is parliament that has the final word in constitutional interpretation.

As for individual rights, they are always memorialized, but the transition from theory to practice is complex. Ordinary citizens have limited scope in making claims without parliamentary support. And, historically, the executive branch of government has overshadowed the parliament. Athens’s main square may be named Plateia Syntagmatos (Constitution Square), but, appropriately, the erstwhile royal palace – now the parliament building – towers above it. Indeed, looking back in history, the rise and fall of successive constitutions were the result of a continual contest to determine the powers of the head of state as opposed to those of the government. Citizens’ rights have figured only in the background.

The first head of state didn’t even bother with a constitution until he had to. King Othon (1815-1867) ruled for a decade until an uprising forced him to agree to the constitution introduced in 1844. Although it granted the monarch considerable powers, Othon tried to shut out the political leaders. Finally, another uprising in 1863 ended his career as king of Greece and ushered in the constitution of 1864. On paper, this was one of the most democratic political documents in Europe, modeled closely on the Belgian and French constitutional charters. In practice, the new monarch, George I (1845-1913), became so involved in hiring and firing prime ministers that he had to be persuaded a few years later to concede a democratic commonplace: a prime minister with majority support in parliament should be allowed to keep his job.

The new political leadership headed by Eleftherios Venizelos (1864-1936) overhauled the 1864 constitution with 50 amendments in 1911. The protection of citizens’ rights, freedom of the press, and the independence of the judiciary were some of the main points. As constitutional historian Alexandros Svolos put it, the underlying theme of the amendments was to introduce the “rule of law.” Venizelos, a moderate, resisted pressure to use the constitutional revisions as an opportunity to curtail the monarchy’s powers.

Within a decade and a half, however, the pressure to abolish the monarchy was overwhelming and led, ultimately, to Greece’s first republican constitution in 1927. The electorate had already approved the introduction of a republican polity in a referendum in 1924, punishing the monarchy for its ill-conceived political and military initiatives. By now, the pattern was set. The constitution followed the government – and the latter defined citizens’ rights; never the other way around.

In 1935, yet another political change nullified the republican constitution. The royalist “Popular Party” won the elections and quickly held a referendum whose fraudulent outcome supported the monarchy’s restoration. A year later, General Ioannis Metaxas (1871-1941) delivered the coup de grace to the 1927 constitution by seizing power and establishing a dictatorship.

Given all this history, one could have predicted that the 1952 constitution would do no more than rubber-stamp the anticommunist post-Civil War regime. The way it did so, however, revealed the grotesque hypocrisy of the right, victors of the war. The constitution itself was democratic, even if it gave the king considerable political powers. What was undemocratic was a series of so-called emergency laws enacted to “defend” the country from the defeated communists, still considered a threat. These laws were left in place by a parliamentary vote in April 1952, even though they violated the constitution.

When left-wing deputy Grigoris Lambrakis (1912-1963) was assassinated in Thessaloniki in May 1963, Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis (1907-1998) asked: “But who is ruling this country?” Anyone could have answered him, had they dared. The answer would have been the parakratos, a word that evokes the political reality of Greece generated by the 1952 constitution. It is as difficult to translate as it is difficult to explain the twilight zone between democracy and dictatorship that Greece experienced for most of the 1950s and 1960s.

The parakratos was a repressive political mechanism sanctioned by anticommunist emergency measures and administered by the military, with the collaboration of the police and the tacit agreement of the government. The thugs that bludgeoned Lambrakis to death were parakratikoi, on the payroll of this unofficial mechanism and under the orders of military officers answerable only to their commander-in-chief, King Paul (1901-1964).

The anticommunist emergency measures, primarily Law 509 of 1947, penalized not only communist activities but also the intention of committing any such acts. It followed, therefore, that any dissenting ideological belief could be construed as procommunist. The persistence of those prosecuted in not disavowing their politics and signing loyalty oaths to the state was also considered a crime. As constitutional expert and Athens University professor Nikos Alivizatos has pointed out, this system abandoned the liberal positivist tradition of criminal law and reverted to a framework characterized by lack of clarity and concrete specification in the definition of crimes against the state. As a result, thousands of people were dragged through farcical trials and imprisoned in the Kafkaesque atmosphere of Greece in the 1950s.

Why, then, was the 1952 constitution nominally liberal? Simply because it represented a compromise between the electorate, the country’s conservative political and military leaders, and the Americans. The citizenry was predisposed to burying the Civil War hatchet. Elections in 1951 yielded a coalition government made up of liberal, center-right parties. Together, they represented a greater part of the electorate than that which voted for the right-wing Greek Rally party, headed by Civil War victor Marshal Alexandros Papagos (1883-1955).

The electoral outcome led many right-wingers to recommend a form of royalist coup d’etat. Such a move, however, would have clashed inconveniently with the 1947 Truman Doctrine’s pronouncement that the United States was intervening in Greece to preserve democracy. The US ambassador, John Peurifoy (1907-1955), urged restraint and suggested a change in the electoral system that would favor the party with the biggest percentage of the vote – Papagos’s Greek Rally.

Peurifoy set out energetically to “persuade” Greek politicians to change their electoral system. Elections were held again in record time in November 1952. Papagos received 49 percent of the vote – but, thanks to the new electoral system, he also won 82 percent of the seats in parliament! Greece embarked on eleven years of conservative rule until the Lambrakis murder shattered the cohesion of the conservative power bloc and enabled the Center Union party to win the 1963 elections by the narrowest of margins.

The 1952 constitution was therefore a fig leaf, unable to hide a formidable undemocratic monster composed of the excessive constitutional powers of the king, the US-supported conservative political wing, and the repressive shadow-state mechanism (parakratos) run by the army. For many Greek citizens, the situation was just as bad as it would have been under a Papagos dictatorship or, ironically, one run by the Stalinist communist leaders imprisoned or banished into exile by the post-Civil War regime.

After 1952, the rest is history. The king made a series of major political decisions without consulting with parliamentary leaders. These included the agreement to establish US military bases in Greece, the appointment of Karamanlis as Papagos’s successor in 1955, and a controversial state visit to London against Karamanlis’s advice. Meanwhile, all those suspected of left-wing sympathies had to scramble to sign loyalty oaths in order to obtain a university degree or even a driver’s license. The parakratos thrived, turning noon to darkness for many Greek citizens.

In response, protesters in the streets of Athens vainly chanted 1-1-4, invoking the concluding article of the 1952 constitution, which stated that the constitution’s ultimate defense lay in the patriotism of all Greeks. Unfortunately, before Greeks ever got a chance to defend it, a group of colonels established a dictatorship on April 21, 1967, and abolished the by-then useless 1952 constitution.

The junta’s collapse brought a new, democratic constitution in 1975, revised in 1986 in order to curtail the powers of the president of the republic. This new charter strengthened the role of parliament and the rule of law. To suggest, however, that it did not go far enough to foster civil society and non-governmental control of public life might be too ungrateful – after all, it’s been only 50 years since the 1952 constitution.

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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