I was only a child when I arrived in Paris, at a time when the Regime of the Colonels was already in power in Greece. Georgios Papadopoulos, the junta strongman, had justified the military coup with the use of phony medical terms: he had to “put the patient’s foot [Greece] in an orthopaedic cast” to stop her from wandering onto the wrong path, namely the path of Communism.
Evi Gkotzaridis is a historian whose work focuses on Greek and Irish history in the twentieth century. Her most recent book in English is A Pacifist‘s Life and Death: Grigorios Lambrakis and Greece in the Long Shadow of Civil War (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016).
Throughout my adolescent years, I lived in complete ignorance of the reasons that had driven my family into exile. I did not know that my grandfather had helped the partisans during World War II, that one day, after returning from a mission to re-supply them, he was arrested and summarily executed because a villager had betrayed him.
My grandmother, widowed at 30, was left alone to look after her five children, her youngest only a few months old. The murderers not only deprived her of a man she dearly loved, her strongest financial and moral support, but also of her right to mourn him with dignity by abandoning the body in a nearby river from which no remains could ever be recovered and buried.
My father was only 14 when my grandfather was killed, and henceforth as the eldest son, the burden was on him to put food on the table. Nor did I know that later, during the dictatorship, my father, as the owner of a small restaurant, was routinely inconvenienced by the unnerving visits of the men of the Military Police, who subjected him to all kinds of intimidation and basically demanded from him that he snitch on his clients. They would often threaten him with not renewing the police permit he needed to run his small business.
My father never obliged and often used deception to escape their pressing questions. He avoided them as best as he could. Out of integrity and respectful comradeship for the men who refused to cower, he patiently endured the threats, until one day he had enough and left for a less stifling place — Paris.
In the Land of Collaborators
For a long time, I knew nothing about my father’s youth: how it must have been for him, growing up in a right-wing village and in close proximity to the man responsible for his father’s murder. Only years later, when I became a historian, did he begin to drop some hints. Thus, I learned that at the age of 24, he completed his military service in a special branch charged with the protection of the armed forces and espionage against “anti-Greek [Communist] activities” within them. Like all young men assigned to this branch, he underwent ludicrous anti-communist indoctrination for six months.
My father owed his placement there to an uncle who had intervened on his behalf. This uncle was considered a good patriot because he had served in a brigade posted in Egypt, which then represented the Greek government-in-exile, and contrary to some other soldiers, he had not been involved in the pro-EAM mutiny of April 1944. EAM, the National Liberation Front, was the biggest wartime resistance organization during the war, and although it was an umbrella movement, counting men and women of every democratic persuasion, its leadership was mostly Communist, and it was suspected of seeking to turn Greece into a Soviet satellite state.
EAM and its armed wing, the Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS), played a decisive role in fighting the Germans and their collaborators, and for this reason they wielded a great deal of influence on the ground, firstly by liberating most of the vast mountainous region of the country, and secondly by winning the hearts and minds of many Greeks. Indeed, many people saw them as their only protection against the Germans and as their only guarantee against the return of the King and the imposition of a new dictatorship in the style of the Fourth of August Regime headed by Ioannis Metaxas.
My father’s uncle had saved an injured high-rank officer, who was thus in his debt. As a result, after the war, this generous man had some power inside the army — not a great deal, but enough to help out his orphaned nephew. He told his nephew that if he completed his military service in that special branch, he would be “pardoned” or washed clean of his father’s sins, and the family file, the notorious surveillance record compiled by the police state, would be safely discarded. In this way, my father stood a chance of escaping the persecution and endless practical obstacles the new right-wing regime had in store for leftists during the post-Civil War era.
It is a well-known fact to historians that the purges of Nazis and wartime collaborators was a rather superficial or botched process in most post-war European countries. However, nowhere was this more evident than in Greece, where the men of the infamous Security Battalions of Ioannis Rallis’s quisling government swore an oath of allegiance directly to Adolf Hitler, and other self-appointed anti-communist militias were actually rewarded with positions in the new army and gendarmerie. The result was that by December 1944, the army and gendarmerie were staffed by men who had fought alongside the Wehrmacht and the SS only a few months before. The imperative of fighting the Civil War and stopping Greece from falling into the dangerous lap of Communism had dictated so.
During his time there, my father had the dubious privilege of overhearing the sons of “superiors” bragging. They would recount with obvious glee their fathers’ glorious tales of bravery during the Civil War, how they had taken “good care” of this or that other commie rag, and even giving him “advice” on whom it was safe to socialize with inside the branch.
Needless to say, there was a lot of painful irony in this latest twist of fate, which had landed my young father right in the middle of the “snake den”, as it were, surrounded by men who during the war had been defenders of the maxim that the “end justifies the means” at best, if not full-blown Nazi sympathizers. One thing is certain: many Greeks were convinced that the fight against Communism had justified collaboration with Greece’s foreign occupiers.
As for the right-wing governments which took over after liberation, they had requited this cynical way of thinking by turning the wartime collaborators into impeccable representatives of patriotism and defenders of state integrity, and unrelentingly punishing the men and women who defended the ideals of freedom and social justice up until the 1960s. Geopolitics is a cruel game — first, because it can turn former allies into enemies, as happened with the Soviet Union and the US, and second, because it remains shockingly indifferent about the individual fates of men and women who are caught in the awful contradictions and the overpowering maelstrom it creates.
Slowly, it began to dawn on me that my father had lived all his life, until his departure for France, in the midst of the “enemy”, as it were, with all the fear, self-censorship, and paranoia it had stoked inside him over the years. Slowly, my father’s inveterate low-key personality, which used to send me into fits of anger and rebellion, began to make sense. His silence began to speak to me.
The Costs of Anti-Communism
Nowadays, it is not unusual to hear old and well-meaning ladies and gentlemen at book launches remind everyone without the slightest doubt or scruple that they fought the good fight and are proud that the country remained “free”. They point to what happened to some countries behind the Iron Curtain when they tried to gain more autonomy from the Soviet Union, such as Poland and Czechoslovakia, as further proof of their good judgment. It is an unbeatable argument.
Yet this thinking entirely glosses over the political abnormality that characterized post-war Greek society for over 30 years, until in fact the end of the dictatorship in 1974. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Greek constitution was regularly bypassed by “laws of exception” justified by a “state of emergency”, the result of which was to reduce all leftists, trade unionists, and social democrats to outright enemies of the state.
With this paralegal arsenal, the state imprisoned and executed thousands of men and women during the Civil War and even after. One estimate places the number of executions as high as 5,000 and as low as 3,000 by mid-1948. As late as 1962, roughly 1,100 men and women were still held in prison for actions committed during the December 1944 clashes in Athens, despite the fact that Winston Churchill intervened personally around the time of the Treaty of Varkiza (12 February 1945) to bind the Greek government to the principle of “no proscription”, which meant that “no person, whether ringleader or otherwise” would be “punished for his part in the recent rebellion”.
There was widespread rigging and violence during elections, the most notorious example of which took place in October 1961. The violent methods targeted not only leftists but also centrists, voters and candidates alike. Greece was subject to an incapacitating institutional imbalance with a constant vying for control between the king, the government, and secret cliques in the army that prevented the country from evolving into a stable parliamentary democracy with a properly functioning system of checks and balances.
As a rule, we historians are trained to speak a certain language, the language of science and objectivity.
There were high levels of poverty and illiteracy and an endless stream of emigration sapping the country of its life force. Greece was a police state with a robust surveillance apparatus that did not hesitate to curtail democratic rights and repress social agitation and student protests. The Directorate-General for National Security and the National Intelligence Service (KYP) kept a large number of informants recruited directly from the general population on secret payrolls, estimated at 60,000 in 1962.
Last but not least, acting in parallel to the state was a deep state composed of high functionaries, the army, gendarmerie officers, and Military Police agents. This deep state pulled the strings behind the curtain to prevent the Left from taking power by all means necessary, legal and illegal, whether on its own or allied with the Centre. The deep state channelled incredible amounts of money into paramilitary gangs composed of former Axis collaborators and petty criminals whose job was to terrorize people into muted submission and disrupt political meetings organized by leftists or so-called “fellow-travellers”, like the pacifists, who were usually portrayed as insidious and dangerous crypto-Communists.
A secret bargain existed between the “official” state and the “unofficial” deep state, thanks to which the former could vent its anti-communism with more “freedom” or “leeway”, and in exchange the latter were promised and given jobs in bodies controlled by the ruling party, work permits for small vendors, redemption of penal offences, and even an occasional or permanent induction into the armies of informants, the indispensable stooges of the Directorate-General for National Security and KYP.
Such was the dismal state of Europe’s ancient cradle of democracy in the 1960s. The Greek people lived in a general climate of authoritarian control and repression that belied the facile and puerile claims of Greece belonging then to the Western free world.
Bursting the Bubble
I grew up in Paris, in a sort of illusive bubble, because the city was a powerful melting pot back then. My family never spoke of the past and my few tentative questions usually fell on deaf ears. They were focused on the future, not the past, because the past was mostly an emotional burden.
One day, at my Greek school, the teacher made us listen to a recording of the bloody repression of the student uprising at the Athens Polytechnic School on 17 November 1973. This was the event that spelled the beginning of the end of the seven-year dictatorship.
I remember listening to the shouting of the slogans, the beautiful singing, the defiant spirit of the students, their repeated calls for solidarity, and then suddenly the tanks bursting through the main gate, the screams, the total chaos and the ambulance sirens. We, the young uprooted Greeks, all sat riveted to our seats, both awestruck and terrified. It was a moment of intense emotion. And yet, who among us fully understood what was at stake in that pivotal event? Soon, life resumed its course as if nothing happened. My country and its troubles seemed distant and abstract to me in the late 1980s, despite the feeling that forces beyond my comprehension had shaped my fate.
But one day, by chance, I happened to watch Z, the film of Costa Gavras on the assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis, and the cosy bubble began to dissolve like a deep mist quickly receding from view. I did not immediately understand the movie’s complex historical and political implications. Rather, experiencing the movie was tantamount to an almost violent moment when “the feelings precede the thoughts”, to borrow the words of Irish intellectual Conor Cruise O’Brien. This time, however, the feelings were so strong as to trigger inside me real questions. In hindsight, it is strange that a movie affected me so very deeply, but back then, it seemed to carry greater intelligibility and a greater promise of self-knowledge than anything I had seen or heard before.
As a rule, we historians are trained to speak a certain language, the language of science and objectivity. Therefore, we do not readily admit that behind our intellectual pursuits lies a powerful undercurrent of emotions that guide our curiosity and our research choices. And yet, any writer worth his salt is involved in a silent balancing act between the need to acknowledge these emotions and the need to channel them towards a higher creative purpose. Moreover, historians must imaginatively enter the individual past without losing sight of the bigger picture. It is this continual zooming in and out that gives history its particular signature as a discipline and also represents its greatest difficulty and challenge.
This was certainly my objective when I set out to recount the life and the death of Grigoris Lambrakis. I wanted to tell the story of this extraordinary man but also that of an entire people with their feuds, their tribulations, and their mistakes.
We historians research the past, our personal and collective past, not because we harbour any grandiose illusion of being able to discover the absolute truth — we know it is impossible because humanity is made up of countless experiences, all hiding some ironic lesson and some personal price dearly paid — rather, we do so because we are impelled by the need to understand why we feel and think the way we do. It is our own emotional and intellectual habitat we seek to explore through our scholarly endeavours, partly in order to experience it in all its baffling mystery and partly in order to loosen its grip over us.
One of a Kind
“The feelings precede the thoughts, as it were, and then, of course, are qualified by the thoughts”, said the wise Conor Cruise O’Brien. Nevertheless, you may ask, who was Grigoris Lambrakis, this man whose devastating story sparked all these buried feelings?
Lambrakis belonged to the handful of men who have the power to exert an endless fascination, perhaps because, contrary to most of us, they remain steadily moored to their ethical values and ideals all their lives and exude an inextinguishable light as a result. Indeed, who among us, in our “post-postmodern” and “post-truth” Western societies, can claim the force of such conviction?
All his life, he had been an overachiever and a man imbued with a genuine sentiment of patriotism. Yet his brand of patriotism was set against the zeitgeist of post-war Europe because it sought to include rather than exclude. He was a former champion who had distinguished himself for his athletic prowess. He held the national long jump record for 21 years.
After liberation, Lambrakis continued to treat all destitute patients free of charge.
However, athleticism was not just a demanding and competitive physical activity for him. Nor was it an end in itself. It was an opportunity to promote mutual understanding and rapprochement between erstwhile bitter enemies. Thus, in 1961, with much enthusiasm, he declared:
Let us spend less money on war and more on track-and-field. Besides, today Greeks, Turks, Bulgarians, Romanians, Yugoslavs, and Albanians have forgotten that they once met in the terrible trenches with the gun in hand. Nowadays, they fight over who will run faster or throw the discus farther. It is only a matter of time before this friendship consolidates.
At the young age of 38, he became a gynaecologist and professor at the University of Athens, blazing new trails in the under-developed area of gynaecological endocrinology, thereby gaining the unanimous respect of his senior colleagues. Endocrinology is a branch of medical biology that treats hormonal imbalances caused by a malfunctioning of the glands. These hormonal imbalances can cause serious diseases, notably infertility. With his tireless dedication to his patients, his incomparable human touch, and his painstaking clinical experiments, Lambrakis helped many women whose bodies the medical profession had condemned to barrenness to become pregnant and give birth to healthy children.
During the Axis occupation and the dreadful winter of 1941, when Greeks were dying of starvation because the Italians and Germans had stolen all the food, he helped many of his fellow men by offering medical care to them and their families free of charge. He also set up a special association to support the diseased, unemployed, and imprisoned athletes and organize sport events, the proceeds of which were used to organize soup kitchens in the city’s impoverished neighbourhoods.
During the fighting in December 1944, the so-called “second round of the Civil War”, Lambrakis categorically refused to distinguish between friends and enemies of the new state. At his clinic, he offered his services to anyone who had the misfortune to be wounded by cannons, mortars, rifles, and General Ronald Scobie’s aircraft: combatants and civilians, left-wing partisans and government forces alike.
Nevertheless, his inclusive practice of medicine was regarded as a treacherous action by a state under siege. Thus, when the British military reinforcements overpowered the EAM/ELAS forces, compelling them to pull out from Athens’s Ambelokipi district, Lambrakis, who was suffering from severe jaundice, was accused of being a “cruel butcher”, an “awful flayer” who had “committed unspeakable crimes”. On 20 December 1944, he was arrested along with three invalid men and thrown in Goudi prison.
During the Civil War, he and his brother Theodoros, who was also a highly respected cardiologist, had hidden many leftists in their private clinic in Piraeus. They gave them a false identity, a white coat to wear, and kept them in the clinic as doctors going about their medical duties and doing their daily ward rounds. This was a highly perilous thing to do, because the patients at their “White Cross” Clinic were sometimes prominent members of the right-wing political Establishment.
Standing Up for His Convictions
After liberation, Lambrakis continued to treat all destitute patients free of charge once every month at the clinic of his cousin, Constantine Tsoukopoulos in Tripoli, and once every week at his own clinic at Patission in Athens. Throughout his life, he continued to honour the Hippocratic Oath with an unparalleled devotion to the welfare of everyone, the kind it is hard for us to imagine nowadays, when more often than not medical practice is conceived as just another commercial transaction.
When he became an independent deputy in the October 1961 elections, he did everything to draw attention to the plight and the declining health of political prisoners. He attended many trials, learning about their individual stories in order to better defend them from the parliamentary bench and in the many motions asking for amnesty he sent to the Ministers of Defence and Justice.
On 26 April 1963, he flew to London to intercede on behalf of Betty, the wife of Antonis Ambatielos, a famous trade unionist and leading figure of the Greek Resistance who had been detained for 16 years. He wanted Queen Frederika to finally grant him an audience. Although he failed to get the attention of the stiff-lipped queen, he made a famous statement to the British press on 29 April, drawing much international attention:
I came to London to ask the Queen to listen to Mrs Ambatielos because it is a well-known fact that it is neither Parliament nor Government that decides in Greece but Queen Frederika. Unfortunately, the Queen has also refused to meet me who, as a Member of Parliament, represents the Greek people, a people who desire democracy, freedom, and the release of all political prisoners. I wish to warn the Queen that she is leading the Throne to inevitable demise with her attitude.
Lambrakis was not in the habit of mincing his words, and more importantly, he was not afraid to condemn the Throne’s role in hindering the arduous and long overdue labour of national reconciliation and return to democratic normality.
It is logical that a wonderful doctor like him, committed heart and soul to the future of humankind, would be alarmed by the rickety state of world peace in the 1960s. In 1962, he became president of the Committee for International Detente and Peace, an organization set up by the United Democratic Left (EDA), the only legal left-wing umbrella party at the time. EDA had given him full freedom to represent the Commission, and he soon emerged as its most articulate and popular leader. In Oxford, in Aldermaston, in Piraeus, and in Marathon, he campaigned with passion and tirelessly for a world free of the threat of thermonuclear annihilation.
Grigoris Lambrakis was one of the very few men who could have changed Greece’s destiny.
On 22 May 1963, he went to Thessaloniki to officially welcome the opening of a local branch of the Peace Commission. For some years, there had been repeated rumours that the Greek government was going to accept the installation of US Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles in Crete, or allow Polaris missiles, a submarine-based nuclear weapon, to float in its waters. In August 1961, Nikita Khrushchev had even warned that should Greece accept US missiles, a Soviet attack would spare “neither the olive trees nor the Acropolis”. The danger seemed real because as late as 1963, John F. Kennedy had proposed the creation of a Mediterranean fleet of 25 ships for the launch of these special missiles.
That evening in Thessaloniki, Lambrakis spoke for world peace and Greece’s withdrawal from NATO. Throughout his speech, he repeated one powerful leitmotif: “It is so beautiful to live for peace. It is so noble to die for peace.” Just a few minutes later, he did.
Lambrakis was murdered in cold blood while surrounded by a large crowd of thugs hurling obscenities and threatening to kill him and a completely impassive police force. Although the area around the location of the pacifist meeting was supposedly cordoned off, a three-wheel pick-up truck came barrelling out of the darkness and ran over him at lightning speed. Witnesses caught sight of a man standing on the back of the truck and hitting him on the head with a club. His death could easily have passed as an “unfortunate traffic accident”, had it not been for the intervention of a bystander who jumped on the rear platform of the truck and pounced on the murderers, causing the man who hit Lambrakis to lose balance, tumble out, and leading to the arrest of the driver a few moments later.
Searching for the Truth
Before long, information about the perpetrators and the sinister aspects of this affair emerged thanks to the persistence of a few men who resisted the enormous pressure coming from the political and judicial authorities. These men were one Examining Magistrate, Christos Sartzetakis, three prosecutors, Dimitrios Papantoniou, Stilianos Boutis, and Pavlos Delaportas, and three journalists, Ioannis Voultepsis (of the newspaper Avgi), Georgios Romaios (of Vima), and Georgios Bertsos (of Eleftheria), who threw themselves into the nitty-gritty of a criminal investigation the police had washed their hands of.
Since there were no police officers worth their salt, that is to say no dependable or impartial force, all the important information collected to build the prosecution’s case derived from research carried out by the journalists. Their investigations revealed that both perpetrators had criminal backgrounds and were members of Ethniki Enosis Ellinon, a paramilitary gang that had collaborated with the Germans during the war. The man at the head of this association, Xenophon Giosmas, was a former Axis collaborator who had acted as director of the Propaganda Division of the volunteer battalion of Georgios Poulos — one of the most ruthless figures in the anti-communist camp.
One of their alarming findings was that Giosmas had entertained cordial relationships with state representatives and organized regular meetings between members of his association, local politicians, and army and police officers in a coffee shop in Toumba, facetiously called the “Six Little Pigs” — a name suggesting an innocence that was missing in a neighbourhood swarming with former war-time collaborators.
Later, a dockworker by the name of Panagiotis Mitsis revealed in a letter to the chief investigator Christos Sartzetakis that Lieutenant Emmanouil Kapelonis, who was the chief of the Sixth District police station of Toumba where Mitsis lived, had recruited hundreds of men from the underworld, officially to protect the life of General Charles de Gaulle during his official visit on 19 May 1963, but unofficially to “disperse the Communist peace meeting” on 22 May. Mitsis admitted that he, Emmanouilidis, and Gotzamanis had all belonged to a gang called Karfitsa, Greek for “pin”, named after the pin they wore on the inside of their jacket collars in order to recognize one another during one of their “top-secret missions”.
It is impossible to ignore that a deep state existed, that some state services overstepped their authority and went beyond the limits within which the fight against Communism could be deemed reasonable by using public money to fund groups of violent thugs.
The journalists also found a batch of confidential documents in the archives of the Athens and Thessaloniki Divisions of the KYP, which then was directly attached to the Premier’s Political Office. These confidential documents proved beyond any doubt that a privileged relationship had existed all along between state and paramilitaries, including the fact that the state had financed all 50 paramilitary gangs active at that time, of which at least seven were legal, via the KYP.
Proof of this privileged relationship between state and paramilitaries could be found in the letter that Paschalis Kontas, Director of the Prime Minister’s Political Office, sent to Ioannis Cholevas, General Secretary of the Northern Greece Ministry, just 25 days before Lambrakis’s assassination: “I have received letters from some paramilitary organizations of Northern Greece, Ethnikofrones Elasites and Ethniki Enosis Ellinon [Xenophon Giosmas’ group], among others, complaining about the lack of interest from the competent bodies for a coordinated retaliation against the Communist provocations. I share their concerns and demand that after agreement with the Party you urgently take the necessary steps to remedy this situation.”
These confidential documents clearly documented the overly close relationship between the ruling National Radical Union (ERE) and elements of the underworld, and confirmed the direct involvement of the paramilitary gangs in the rigging and violence that plagued the 1961 elections. They showed that the general supervision of these gangs was in the hands of the Greek gendarmerie and the Directorate-General for National Security, the body responsible for the overall surveillance of the Left’s activities. Finally, they exposed the detailed workings of a well-oiled deep state that was busy engineering an anti-communist master plan and violating the principles of legality and democracy.
Closing a Dark Chapter in Greek History
The murder of Lambrakis set in motion a series of dramatic political consequences, not least of which were the resignation of Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlis in June 1963, the sudden end of the Right’s nine-year monopoly on power, and the electoral victory of the Centre led by Georgios Papandreou the following November. Fundamentally, Karamanlis was the first “victim” of the political fallout of this assassination, which seemed to give the lie to the opposition’s accusation at the time that he was a “moral accomplice”. Indeed, it seems unlikely that Karamanlis and his cabinet would have compromised themselves in an assassination from which they stood to lose so much politically. But what if the Government was not entirely cognizant of the hidden activities of all its bodies and services, including certain personalities in charge? This remains an open question.
Lambrakis’s assassination represents one of the darkest chapters in the history of the Cold War. To this day, there is disagreement as to who may have been responsible for this dastardly action. Some pinned the blame on the CIA because it was supposedly alarmed by the deputy’s efforts, through his defence of “peace, democracy, and amnesty”, to re-establish the good name of the Left. Others have pointed the finger at Frederika of Hanover, wife of King Paul, because Lambrakis had condemned her inflexibility on the issue of political prisoners in his statement to the British press. Others continue to believe the incendiary argument the right-wing press, the perpetrators, and even the authorities had spread at the time, namely that the Left, in need of a “martyred hero”, had not hesitated to fabricate one by cynically and carefully planning the killing themselves.
A fourth opinion, adopted by the men who carried out the investigation in lieu of the police, singled out EENA, a secret organization within the armed forces incuding Georgios Papadopolous and Dimitrios Ioannidis, who would go on to lead the military junta. They contended that Papadopoulos and Ioannidis were betting on the potential to spark a sufficient amount of popular indignation and general mayhem to justify their intervention by a coup d’état.
We may never know who the masterminds were. Yet, it is impossible to ignore that a deep state existed, that some state services overstepped their authority and went beyond the limits within which the fight against Communism could be deemed reasonable by using public money to fund groups of violent thugs and issued dangerous orders to them. Nor is it possible to forget that many of the “deep state high officials” who were involved in sabotaging the Left’s political revival and the undermining of democracy in the lead-up to dictatorship had a collaborationist background.
The injuries Lambrakis sustained were fatal, and doctors declared him “clinically dead” upon his arrival at the hospital. The murderers had targeted his head, undoubtedly the most fragile part of a person’s body and the seat of his beautiful mind and soul, that secret place where his dream for a different Greece and a different world had fluttered vividly and soared freely against all odds. Grigoris Lambrakis was only 51 years old, and one of the very few men who could have changed Greece’s destiny. The rest is history!