Reminiscences of Greece during a Christmas Season

by George Anastaplo

(This article was published in The Greek Star, Chicago Illinois, December 24, 2009, p. 8.)

I.

I have been asked, once again, to supply a Christmas piece for The Greek Star.  One such contribution provided, in the December 23, 2004 issue of this newspaper, my recollections of the first Christmas present I recall receiving, an anthology of great stories from all nations. That article is included in my Lexington Books volume, The Christian Heritage: Problems and Prospects.

I have recorded the fact that it remains for me a mystery how my parents, hardworking immigrants from a Peloponnesian village, ever settled upon that gift for a Christmas season.  We were living in a town of three thousand in Southern Illinois where my father had a restaurant.  My two brothers and I had been born in St. Louis.

II.

My first visit to Greece was during the Christmas season of 1946-1947, while I was a navigator in the United States Army Air Corps stationed in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.  (I had served earlier in the Pacific.)  This was the only time I have visited Greece during the Winter.

I met during that 1946-1947 visit only relatives on my mother’s side (including my grandmother, three uncles, and an aunt, as well as their spouses and children).  (I had come to know earlier, in St. Louis and Sioux City, relatives on my father’s side.)  My relatives in Greece were to be found, during the winter of 1946-1947, in Athens and in the Peloponnesus.

III.

I became, for a few days, something of a celebrity (as an American officer in uniform) in the Peloponnesian town where an uncle was a doctor, so much so that I could be noticed in a holiday skit in the local theatre.  Another uncle, in the same town, had been far less successful than his medical brother, but he could be quite witty.  It was he who, when helping himself to money that had been left in a roadside shrine, explained to the saint depicted there in an icon, “You don’t smoke” (Tden kapnizies).

The American visitor could see, in such a town, what a closely-knit community could be like.  Another uncle, an important police officer elsewhere in the country, could be seen exhibiting the inquisitiveness that reinforced the honesty that the Greeks of that day could be expected to exhibit.  I was personally well received by family members, wherever I went, partly because of the generosity with which my mother had responded for years to the needs of her relatives in Greece.

IV.

My 1946-1947 visit to Greece began in Athens, where my aunt lived.  Of course, famous monuments were to be seen.  But I was better able, after much more schooling, to appreciate such sights in subsequent visits to Greece.

Paticularly memorable, from that first visit, was the destitution evident everywhere.  Thus, I recall seeing, during a stroll with relatives in Athens, a man collapse on a sidewalk.  My companions kept me from going to help him, insisting that there was too much of that for strangers to get involved.

Greece had not yet recovered from her fierce Occupation by the Nazis.  Although that atrocity had ended in 1944, it continued to have consequences for five years thereafter in a civil war.  Thus, there were then even parts of the Peloponnesus that relatives insisted it would not be safe for me to visit, including on the way to the village in Gortinea where my parents had been born.

V.

Civil strife in Greece began even before the German invasion in 1941.  The country had been subjected since 1935 to the quite divisive Metaxas dictatorship.  All the Greek factions did come together to resist the Invaders and thereafter the Occupiers, but deep divisions persisted.

Greece was not dealt with sensibly by her Western Allies, either when the German Occupation ended (in 1944) or when the Colonels took over (in 1967).  Consider, as indicative of how matters of  state can sometimes be mishandled even by gifted leaders, the secret directive by Prime Minister Winston Churchill to his military commander in Athens, that he must act as though he were in a “conquered city” (Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life.  [New York: Henry Holt, 1991, p. 808]).  The Civil War, and hence the Second World War, did not end in Greece until 1949.

Even then old wounds continued to fester, contributing (after all respectable factions in the country had repeatedly insisted on acting imprudently) to the takeover of Greece by the Colonels in 1967, two decades after my first visit to the country.  During those years immediately after the Second World War “the Colonels” of 1967 had been young officers corrupted by corrosive civil strife.  The visitor to Greece could see, in the turbulent summers of 1965 and 1966, the determined (if not even the suicidal) inability of the decent elements in that country to resolve sensibly their political differences.

VI.

I had personally become intimately familiar, by 1967, with affairs in Greece.  This permitted, perhaps even obliged, me to investigate and then to discuss publicly what the Colonels were doing, with several of my published reports reprinted in the Congressional Record.  My most recent comment on the Greece of the Colonels is included in my September 24, 2009 talk, “What the United States Can Learn from China and Greece,” which has been published in the August 28, 2009 issue of The Greek Star [and thereafter in www.anastaplo.wordpress.com].

My involvement, as a commentater on Greek affairs, eventually got me declared persona non grata by the Colonels, contributing thereby to a permanent cessation of that quite personal involvement in Greek life which I had become accustomed to.  But before that rupture, I had gotten to know (in Greece) Eleni Vlachou, Panayiotis Kanellopoulos, and Stylianos Pattakos (one of the Colonels), and (outside Greece) King Constantine, Andreas Papandreou, Orestes Vidales and Constantine Karamanlis.  I could even be invited to a State Department conference in Washington where I argued, without success, that the United States should repudiate the Colonels and support the immediate return of Mr. Karamanlis (a conservative politician) to power, a move that would have spared Greece considerable misery (including the continuing troubles today in Cyprus) if it had been done promptly.

My concluding evenings, during the summers I was permitted to visit the Colonels’ Greece, were spent in hours-long visits by me in his house with George Seferis, the Nobel Laureate poet and Greece’s former ambassador to the United Kingdom.  We first got together after I learned that he was distributing in Athens (well before he issued a dramatic statement of his own against the Colonels) articles of mine quite critical of the Colonels’ regime, something described in my account of him in my book, The Artist as Thinker: From Shakespeare to Joyce (Swallow Press, 1983), p. 331.

VII.

I have been moved, with a view to these 2009 reminiscences, to learn what Mr. Seferis himself had had to say about the Greece of my first visit, the Christmas season of 1946-1947.  There chance to be, in his Poet’s Journal (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1974), accounts then of his life on Poros (where he can remark on the light of Greece) and thereafter in Athens.  He had, on Poros, finished his poem, The Thrush”and was revising it.

Names enlisted in this poem—such as Eteokles, Polynikes, and Antigone—can remind us of the Seferis (and our?) debt to Greek antiquity.  Not named (but certainly recalled) in the poem is these persons’ father/brother, the “old man in supplication who looks on you.”  Also not named, but hardly a supplicant, is another old man who continues to challenge us all, “calm, changeless, still” (in the Rex Warner translation):

If you sentence me to drink poison, I thank you.

Your law shall be made my law.  And where should I go

Running about in foreign lands, a rolling stone?

I chose death rather.  Which of us goes to the better fate God knows.

VIII.

Then the poet went, in 1946, to Athens, an obviously troubled city which could remind one of the time-and-place that got Socrates killed.  Mr. Seferis and I were in Athens at the same time, it turns out.  And even I, barely twenty years old, could see (or at least feel) what civil strife was doing to Greece.

It must have been apparent to Mr. Seferis (who died in 1971) that it would take decades to repair the damage wrought in Greece by the Second World War and its Civil War.  We have noticed that the Civil War was in three stages (1935-1941, 1944-1949, and 1965-1974).  Contributing to the recent moderating of Greek politics, it seems, has been the economic and the political (if not also the spiritual) discipline imposed upon Greece by its ongoing incorporation in the European Union.

IX.

It should become apparent, the more one studies The Greek Case, how many of the Hellenic troubles go back to that Supreme European Folly, the First World War.  That war contributed to the Disaster in Asia Minor which further uprooted the Greek communities that had been there since the Age of Homer, anticipating (a half-century later) the related development for the Greek communities in Egypt (people I had gotten to know while I was stationed in Cairo).  Mr. Seferis himself had been born in Smyrna in 1900, a city very much a part of Greece, if only in spirit.

I return briefly, in these reminiscences, to Eleni Vlachou, of whom it could be said in April of 1967, after her conservative newspaper defied the Colonels who expected her to support them, “The only man in Greece was a woman.”  I was privileged to visit with her not only in Athens but also in Chicago after she escaped from the Greece of the Colonels.  I particularly recall her admiration for Chicago’s Hancock Building, the obvious solidity of which appealed to her at a time when her beloved country had been shaken dreadfully by one mindless disaster after another.

Editor’s Note: George Anastaplo is Professor of Law, Loyola University of Chicago; Lecturer in the Liberal Arts, The University of Chicago; and Professor Emeritus of Political Science and of Philosophy, Dominican University.  Citations to his discussions of contemporary Greece may be found by checking the “Greece, modern” entries in the indexes for his books.  See, also, his bibliography in John A. Murley, ed., Leo Strauss and His Legacy (Lexington Books, 2005), pp. 733-855.  See, as well, www. Anastaplo.wordpress.com

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