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Monday, April 01, 2002

Balkans

The Communist with the Carnation


How much has really changed in the way the KKE, the Communist Party of Greece, recalls the memory of one of its fallen heroes, Nikos Beloyiannis (1915-1952)? This year’s fiftieth anniversary of the communist leader’s execution – his “assassination,” in official partyspeak – appears to be very different from earlier ones. With a gathering in the main hall of the University of Thessaloniki as their centerpiece, the commemorations are spread throughout Greece.

For a long time, the party faithful were deprived of honoring Beloyiannis publicly because the communist party was illegal. After its rehabilitation in 1974, the KKE organized a commemoration in March 1975. It was a modest affair, taking place in the small Chatzichristou Theater off Ipokratous Street in downtown Athens, the day theaters were closed. The age distribution of the crowd that packed the aisles and corridors that evening spoke eloquently of the KKE’s appeal in the immediate post-junta era. The KKE was proscribed in 1947 with the outbreak of the Civil War. After nearly 30 years of illegal, clandestine activity, as well as bitter internal factionalism, its appeal had declined, only to revive suddenly during the 1967-74 colonels’ dictatorship. This left the party with an odd demographic profile, much in evidence in the Chatzichristou Theater. Gray-haired 60-year-olds rubbed shoulders with young 20-something students, who looked upon the Civil War generation with awe. There were very few people of any ages in between.

Unlike most other KKE events, which are efficiently policed by over-eager communist youth, the organizers had obviously underestimated the interest in the Beloyiannis anniversary by the public, which overwhelmed the normal discipline of party meetings. Indeed, it generated unscripted initiatives from the floor that brought the generation gap to the surface. “Comrades,” called out an old communist, “the younger generation that is seated should leave its seats for the older comrades.” The 20-somethings looked at each other incredulously: the old veteran was echoing the words of a sign displayed prominently in Athens buses. The heroic older generation of communists was beginning to look a little conventional. But another old stalwart stood up and addressed the issue of overcrowding in a more appropriately communist way: “Comrades, there are too many people in the balcony! We should elect a committee to go upstairs and provide a solution to the problem.”

Eventually, order was restored, and the proceedings began with a moment of silence for Beloyiannis and his other comrades who died with him. As is the case with all KKE commemorations of fallen heroes, collective singing of the party’s funeral dirge, “Epesate Thymata Adelfia Eseis,” followed. After several speeches, a slide show ensued featuring the major moments of Beloyiannis’s role in the party, his arrest, and trial. At one point, in preparing the audience for the next slide, the speaker matter-of-factly said that there had been an international campaign of solidarity with Beloyiannis after he was sentenced to death in 1952. Then a slide came up on the screen showing what was presumably a communist solidarity committee on a podium, and behind them a gigantic photograph of Joseph Stalin. The audience in the theater erupted in enthusiastic applause.

Stalin is, of course, no longer part of the KKE’s official iconography. The mischievous sleight of hand in choosing the slides for the Beloyiannis event in 1975 would be much less likely in this year’s fiftieth-anniversary commemorations. Stalin may still be revered by party hard-liners and, according to many observers, emulated as well, but public acknowledgments of his inspiring role are not allowed. Nikos Beloyiannis was most probably an admirer of Stalin, although we cannot be sure of what he really thought. In any case, there would have been very few leading Greek communists in the immediate post-Civil War period that did not admire the notorious general secretary of the Soviet communist party. In the event, Beloyiannis died long before Nikita Khrushchev exposed Stalin’s crimes and misdemeanors at the 1956 Soviet party congress.

As for Beloyiannis’s role within the KKE, the party had given him the Herculean task of establishing clandestine cells in Greece in the aftermath of the left’s 1949 defeat in the Civil War. This was an era in which hundreds of communists and leftists were imprisoned, as Greece became a police state and the communist party was declared illegal. The KKE leadership had renounced the armed struggle, telling its members and supporters that, under the circumstances, to continue to fight would be a sign of a “petty bourgeois loss of hope and of a lack of perspective” that would play into the hands of the government.

Meanwhile, another struggle was unfolding among Greek political leaders. The center-right, under Prime Minister Nikolaos Plastiras held out the hope that left and right could achieve reconciliation. But right-wing political leaders, supported by the king, the army, and the American embassy saw post-Civil War Greece through the Cold War prism: the communists were by definition an enemy bent on seizing power. Liberalism and, needless to say, the concept of a fair trial were swept away in the name of the anticommunist crusade. Beloyiannis would become one of the earliest victims of the defeat of the project of national reconciliation.

Beloyiannis was arrested in December 1950, six months after he entered Greece under cover. There were a series of other arrests of suspected communists, and a total of 92 persons stood trial for treason at the hands of an “extraordinary” military tribunal. Embarrassed by the international exposure of Greece’s anticommunist legislation, and the arbitrary powers with which a military tribunal was judging civilians, the Plastiras government tried to suspend the proceeding. New evidence – in the form of wireless sets belonging to the communists – diligently unearthed by Greek security forces, however, led to a second trial of Beloyiannis and some of his comrades. “Communists love Greece with their hearts and with their blood,” Beloyiannis asserted proudly from the dock.

Meanwhile, the Greek communist had become an international cause celebre. A campaign to save his life embraced a remarkably broad spectrum of international public opinion and many well-known figures that ranged from Charles de Gaulle to Charlie Chaplin, and from the patriarch of Alexandria to Jean Cocteau. A photograph of Beloyiannis at the trial, holding a red carnation to his face, circled the world. Pablo Picasso made a drawing based on it, entitled “L’homme à l’oeillet.”

The international outcry was ignored in Athens, and no doubt by Greece’s handlers in the US embassy, and on March 1, 1952, an “ordinary” military tribunal passed death sentences on Nikos Beloyiannis and seven co-defendants. Appeals were heard on Friday, March 28, as the international movement to save their lives had been joined by the Pope, Albert Einstein, and the Italian Senate. When the death sentences were upheld at midnight, things began to move at a startling pace. On Saturday evening, King Paul informed the government that he approved of the verdict. Within hours, the king’s representative arrived at the jail in the Kallithea district of Athens where the prisoners were held and demanded that they be handed over.

At 3.55 am, Nikos Beloyiannis, Elias Argyriadis, Dimitris Batsis, and Nikos Kaloumenos were loaded on a truck and taken a short distance away across town to the Goudi district, where executions were held. At 4:10 am, on Sunday, March 30, 1952, they were executed by a firing squad. Within hours, Greeks woke up to the astonishing news that four of their countrymen had been shot on a Sunday – the one day on which even the Nazis had refrained from executing prisoners. Two government ministers were shamed enough to resign.

Needless to say, Beloyiannis achieved martyrdom and became a symbol of the persecution of communists by the Greek US-backed police state in the 1950s. His image as “the man with the carnation” – or the red carnation – young-looking, slightly pale, unshaven, and innocent of the charge of treason, lives on in the photograph taken at the trial and in Picasso’s drawing. A small town in Hungary where thousands of Greek political refugees settled after the Civil War was renamed “Nikos Beloyiannis” – the name remains to this day, as do many of the Greeks, who were visited in 1998 by the ecumenical patriarch, in a bizarre homage to the fallen hero’s memory. The East German authorities named the square near the former concentration camp, and later anti-fascist memorial, at Sachsenhausen after Beloyiannis. In the 1980s, sculptor Memos Makris and his daughter Clio created a memorial for “the man with the carnation” in the square that was named after him in Beloyiannis’s hometown, Amaliada, in the Peloponnese.

Who knows how Beloyiannis would have reacted to the turbulence that swept through the Greek communist movement shortly after his death and which continued for several decades? It is not coincidental that the only heroes of the 1950s whom the communist movement reveres, Beloyiannis and Nikos Ploumpidis, were both executed by the blinkered, anticommunist ruling elite that governed Greece at the time. Grateful for being handed a martyr, the KKE leadership is now being sophisticated about the fiftieth anniversary. Beloyiannis and his comrades have been neatly extracted from the Stalinist context. They now figure as patriots who died fighting for a Greece that would have been self-reliant and more independent of imperialism – and now globalization.

Beloyiannis’s co-defendant, Dimitris Batsis, who died alongside him at dawn on March 30, 1952, authored a book on Greek heavy industry – or the lack thereof – and its implications for underdevelopment. Batsis’s vision, along with that of Beloyiannis, will be prominently featured in the commemoration of their deaths at the special event held at the University of Thessaloniki. Thanks to the fury of the Greek establishment’s anticommunism in the 1950s, the operatives of a party that was aligned with Stalin now live on in the memory of many Greeks as heroes.

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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