Friday, October 15, 2004


History and Memory: The Liberation of Athens 60 Years On

By Alexander Kitroeff

The specter of the Second World War still haunts Europe. But the memory of its crucial turning-points does not always correspond to the historical record. When Britain, France, Germany, and the United States put aside their differences over Iraq in order to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day, France’s president, Jacques Chirac, played gracious host to George W. Bush, Queen Elizabeth, Gerhard Schröder, and Vladimir Putin, all of whom attended the events that took place on the beaches and at the cemeteries of Normandy on June 6 this year. The joint appearance of these leaders underscored how much the memory of the common good fight during the Second World War overshadows current, sharp differences over issues such as Iraq. Putin’s presence symbolized the unity spawned by the end of the Cold War, while Schröder’s attendance, the first ever by a German chancellor, emphasized Germany’s transformation into a close ally and the unity of “Old Europe.”

There were, of course, dissident voices here and there, but not among the invitees to Normandy. The Financial Times published a long version of the D-Day invasions recounted by German soldiers stationed in Normandy in 1944, who waxed lyrically about the more-than-cordial relations they had had with the local citizenry and even deplored the “catastrophic” effects of the Allied invasion. The Allied landings in Normandy sixty years ago set in motion the slow German retreat from western Europe. The D-Day commemoration in June was the first of a series of sixtieth-anniversary celebrations of events that led to the Second World War’s end. But all these ceremonies, like those in Normandy, are more likely to be about present political needs than reopening old wounds.

Less than three months after D-Day, on August 25, Paris was liberated from Nazi occupation. Parisians marked the sixtieth anniversary with pride and nostalgia. The celebrations began with the French flag being raised on the Eiffel Tower in a reenactment of events in 1944. As the German forces had torn down the French tricolor from the Tower when they occupied Paris, it flew once again the moment the Germans evacuated the French capital.

There were other reenactments of the past events. Two columns of vehicles—one French, the other American—retraced the Allied thrust into the city, and President Chirac addressed the crowds from the Hôtel de Ville (the city hall), from where Charles de Gaulle had improvised a memorable speech in 1944. The commemoration included the most memorable part of de Gaulle’s speech: “Paris! Paris outragé! Paris brisé! Paris martyrisé! Mais Paris libéré!” (“Paris! Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyred! But Paris liberated!”) De Gaulle then went on to proclaim that Parisians had liberated themselves, with the help of the Free French army—but this was patently untrue. As leader of the French exiled government, de Gaulle had actually persuaded General Eisenhower to divert enough Allied troops from the north of France in order to push the Germans out of Paris, which is why there were American and French columns at the commemoration. (Nonetheless, last August’s tribute did indeed recall a historical fact by honoring the role of Spanish Republican fighters in Paris’s liberation, which included storming the Hôtel de Ville itself.)

Actually, one could even take issue with the idea that Paris had been “martyred” during the war. There are many sources confirming extensive French collaboration with the German authorities in wartime Paris. What resistance there was came mostly just before the city was liberated. It was left to the French communist daily, L’ Humanité, to focus on that fact in its August 25 edition. (It was the story told in the 1965 bestseller by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, Is Paris Burning?) In the event, De Gaulle’s point had not been historical accuracy, but political expediency: he had needed to rally French unity.

Another city that suffered at the hands of the Germans during the Second World War—in fact, much more than Paris—was Athens, which was liberated on October 12, 1944. As in Paris, however, the celebratory commemoration three days ago of Athens’s liberation did not quite fit the historical facts. Indeed, there has always been a discrepancy between history and memory in the way Athens has marked the anniversary of its wartime liberation.

Traditionally, Athens’s liberation has been observed by a ceremony on the Acropolis on October 12, the date the Germans evacuated the city. One of the last things the Nazi forces did was to lower the swastika from the Acropolis, over which it had flown, almost uninterruptedly, since they had marched into the city in April 1941. (On the night of May 30, 1941, two youths—Manôlês Glezos and Apostolês Santas—climbed the steep rockface and tore the offending flag down in what was one of the first, and became one of the most legendary, acts of Greek wartime resistance.) The liberation’s commemoration always culminates in the raising of the Greek flag, a reenactment of the action taken by George Papandreou (the grandfather and namesake of the present-day PASOK leader), who was the head of the exiled Greek government (a mixture of mainly centrist and right-wing politicians beholden to Britain) that had just returned to Athens.

But Papandreou and the exiled government were not in Athens on October 12, 1944, when the city was liberated. They were in Italy, preparing to travel back to Greece by sea. In fact, they arrived days later, so the actual date Papandreou raised the flag on the Acropolis was October 18. (The government should have arrived one day earlier, but October 17 was a Tuesday, which was considered inauspicious because Constantinople fell to the Ottomans on a Tuesday. In any case, the government had scheduled a stop at Poros, an island just south of Piraeus, in order to transfer, for the sake of appearances, from a British warship to the Greek battleship Averôf.)

Needless to say, the citizens of Athens had not waited for the return of the exiled government to begin celebrating the Germans’ departure. Moreover, the exiled government had been mostly irrelevant to occupied Athens between 1941 and 1944. It had been the resistance, primarily the leftwing EAM-ELAS, that had preserved the city’s spirit by fighting against the Germans and trying to organize some form of relief to protect Athenians from the terrible hardships inflicted by the occupiers. Worst of all had been the famine during the first winter under German rule, which claimed the lives of over fifty thousand Athenians between September 1941 and July 1942.

The moment of liberation on October 12 inspired impromptu parades of EAM-ELAS members amid the throngs of people who had taken to the streets of the city’s center. Reliable sources mention a near-carnival atmosphere, with a variety of groups and individuals, ranging from priests to female guerillas astride horses to children, all taking part in pro-EAM processions. But despite its effective control of Athens, EAM-ELAS stayed true to its months-old agreement to cooperate with the exiled government, so it patiently waited for Papandreou and his cabinet. While the pact between the Greek left and the British-backed right was not to last much longer, it did remain in place during Athens’s liberation. Anyone, therefore, who is intent on proving that the left was bent on seizing power in postwar Greece must look elsewhere for evidence.

The exiled government arrived to an enthusiastic welcome. Papandreou rode in an open car from Piraeus to Athens, sitting next to British general Ronald Scobie, the commanding officer of British troops in Greece. The motorcade went first to the Acropolis, where Papandreou raised the Greek flag, and then to the cathedral for a special service to give thanks for Greece’s liberation. Following the liturgy, Papandreou addressed a large crowd from a balcony in Syntagma (Constitution) Square. His speech lacked any phrases comparable to de Gaulle’s memorable words at Paris’s liberation. It was also long, running to 12 pages in his published memoir of the period, and read like a series of policy statements. EAM-ELAS supporters heckled him.

But Papandreou’s speech shared an important, if obverse, similarity with de Gaulle’s in that it carefully articulated a politically slanted interpretation of that particular moment. Whereas de Gaulle had said that the Parisians had liberated themselves (even though Allied forces had been an important factor), the Greek prime minister, wary of legitimizing his leftwing opponents, stressed that the Greeks needed to thank the British—not their own resistance—for the city’s liberation.

No one chooses to remember that speech, however. The two lasting images commonly associated with Athens’s liberation are the street demonstrations on October 12 and the flag-raising on the Acropolis on October 18. In a sleight of hand quite common to official commemorations of historical events, the liberation’s anniversary is celebrated on October 12 with a ceremony that includes raising the Greek flag on the Acropolis.

This conflation of the left and center/right’s moments in Athens’s liberation is a silent acknowledgement of both EAM-ELAS and the exiled government’s presence at that time. It purposely seeks to balance the two sides because, within a few weeks, they were to be engaged in bloody clashes that continued throughout December 1944 and paved the way for the bloody Greek civil war that ended in 1949. Still, if the commemoration of Athens’s liberation from the Nazis were faithful to the historical record, it would have two reenactments: marches in the streets on October 12 and a flag-raising on October 18. But official celebrations of such anniversaries, as we have already seen in Normandy and Paris, are designed to promote the unity of the present, not the divisions of the past.

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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