One of the more striking things about living in Greece is the existence of a very active Communist party. Communism in Canada and the US was always something that happened elsewhere. Here it’s different. For example, in little villages like Gavalohori we find posters like this:
Here’s the same message in both English and Greek, beneath a well-known building in Athens:
Οχι (pronounced “O-hi”) means “No”. The word is politically resonant, as this was supposedly the one word answer given on October 28, 1941, by Ioannis Metaxas, Prime Minister of Greece, when Mussolini demanded that Italian troops be allowed to occupy certain strategic parts of the kingdom. There is now an “Οχι Day” every October 28 with much flag waving and parades. Of course, Metaxas was a fascist dictator himself, but the spirit of Οχι seems to transcend ideology.
In case you cannot read Greek, or the English below the Parthenon is too small, the posters say:
NO: to the Tsipras – Zaev agreement;
to the plans of USA – NATO – EU;
to irredentism and nationalism.
YES: to friendship – solidarity, and to the joint struggle of the people.
The Tsipras-Zaev agreement is the Prespa agreement, by which the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (otherwise known to the world as Macedonia) will be officially re-named “North Macedonia”. I wrote about this a few days ago. Although some 70% of Greeks are opposed to the deal, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras seems to have the votes in the Greek Legislature to get it passed. The newly renamed North Macedonia will then be able to enter NATO and the EU with Greece’s consent.
As Communists the Κομμουνιστικό Κόμμα Ελλάδας, or KKE for short, are opposed to anti-Soviet alliances such as NATO and capitalist unions like the European Union, and they blame the United States and its dastardly plans for all of this. I suspect the USA – NATO – EU are the bogey-men of the Greek left-wing, to be opposed until one is in government, when one suddenly realises the benefits of the alliances. The KKE is opposed to irredentism – that is, the claim of any nation to redeem territory that should belong to them but is occupied by another power. This is a bit bizarre in a Greek context, because the history of Greece from the 1820s to 1947 has been about the nation reclaiming territory. The fear that somehow little FYROM/North Macedonia is going to take the Greek region of Macedonia from the heavily armed Hellenic Armed Forces is palpable but not realistic. Fearing North Macedonian irredentism is a populist nationalist ploy – but the KKE also says it is opposed to nationalism, so I am really unclear what they believe.
The KKE is now the oldest political party in Greece, just over a century. For most of its existence it was outlawed. With the rise of the Soviet Union they never got much purchase on the mostly rural, conservative population, especially when word came back of the Communist persecution of Russian Orthodox Christians.
Things became confusing in the late 1930s. Following the Comintern’s official policy they supported the right of ethnic groups to establish their own separate regional governments. Thus, they supported ethnic Macedonians in their desires for self government – the Slavic Macedonians, that is, not the Greek Macedonians. The Greek Macedonians had only become part of Greece in 1913, and were dead set opposed to the aspirations of the Slavic Macedonians. Thus, most Communists in that part of Northern Greece were not Ethnic Greeks, but belonged to the Slavic minority. Then in 1939 Stalin and Hitler agreed in the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty to divide Poland and not go to war, and so the Greek Communists felt obliged to support Nazi Germany and its ally Fascist Italy. Then Mussolini issued his ultimatum, and the Greek Communists did not know what to do – support the Greek dictator Metaxas and go against Moscow, or break with the Comintern and join the popular defense? It did not help matters when the Germans invaded in the Spring of 1941 and rolled up the Allied opposition. It only got sorted out which side they should be on when Hitler broke his treaty with the Soviets and invaded Russia later in the summer of 1941.
The Communists in Greece were part of a very active resistance, not only attacking Germans but also building up an army that had a broad left-wing support, including some Orthodox clergy. They were also very good at “eliminating” in good Bolshevik fashion any rival leaders in the alliance so that they dominated the resistance throughout the country (except in Crete, where the British were active behind the lines). they were in an excellent position to rule the country after World War II except, alas, Stalin sold them out. At a conference in Moscow in October 1944 Stalin and Churchill divided up Eastern Europe into spheres of influence, supposedly using the back of a napkin, and the United Kingdom got “Greece – 90% UK”. The British landed troops in Athens in late 1944 and the King and his government-in-exile returned.
The Communists launched a revolution in 1946 and this became a civil war that lasted for three long years with an estimated 178,000 deaths and over a million people displaced. While not adverse to Greece becoming Communist, Stalin did nothing to help, feeling bound by his agreement with Churchill. The UK and then the US assisted the Greek army in its battles, while the KKE received support from the communist-controlled nations of Albania and Bulgaria , and especially Yugoslavia. At the end of the war much or Greece was in ruins and the KKE and its army was defeated. NATO was formed in 1949 and Greece (along with Turkey) joined in 1952.
The KKE remained underground for the 1950s and 1960s. As Greece industrialized and urbanized they gained a bit more support. The danger of a KKE revolt was used as an excuse in 1967 for the military to overthrow democracy and establish a dictatorship, but in reality the Communists were never in a position to threaten the country.
Finally, after the junta was overthrown in 1974, democracy was restored. The centrist politician Konstantinos Karamanlis returned from exile in France and became the Prime Minister of the transitional government. He legalized the KKE, supposedly in a attempt at inclusion, but I suspect he knew just how small the support for them was, and wanted that to be shown. They received just under 10% of the vote in the first democratic election in 1974, and while they have had seats in the Hellenic Assembly ever since, they have never received more than 13.1%. In the last election mustered a mere 5.5%. While active and visible, and well supported by a small core of voters, they do not appear to be able to gain the support a significant part of the population.
Greeks, having suffered in living memory from a civil war caused by the Communists and having also endured military juntas, seem wedded to parties that are just left or right of centre. While the current Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, was in fact a member of the Communist Youth, he left the KKE and moved to the centre, and now supports Greece’s ongoing membership in both the EU and NATO. While the KKE may say “No!” to any number of things, the Greeks people are saying “No” to it.