The Face of Greek Resistance

Meet the 92-year-old communist who explains why Athens can't capitulate to its creditors.


In the spring of 1941, German troops occupied Athens and raised a large Swastika-emblazoned flag over the Acropolis. Crete, the last Greek holdout, was succumbing to German paratroopers, and the Nazis were declaring victory in Greece. Manolis Glezos was 18 and getting ready to go to college to study economics. “So that’s how you are?” Glezos thought at the time, he told me more than seven decades later. “We’ll show you that today, the fight begins.”

On the night of May 30, 1941, Glezos and a high school classmate climbed a steep slope of the Acropolis. Reaching the top, they snuck past the ruins to where the Nazi flag fluttered, and tore it down. The pair escaped undetected. German authorities condemned the culprits to death in absentia, and while Glezos ended up being arrested and imprisoned three times for other resistance activities during the World War II occupation, he was never caught for taking down the flag. After the war, Glezos was active in Greece’s communist opposition, and the flag exploit won him a great deal of notoriety; Charles de Gaulle called Glezos Europe’s first partisan. In 1963, New York Times journalist C. L. Sulzberger, in an article about the threat posed by Greek communism, called Glezos “heroic but dangerous.”

Today, Glezos is 92 and a Syriza member of the European Parliament. Still revered in Greece for the spectacular feat he pulled off on May 30, 1941, he now urges opposition to what he considers a new foreign tyranny. On June 3, as Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras prepared to meet European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels to try to reach a breakthrough in deadlocked negotiations over the terms of further financial aid for Greece, Glezos offered the 40-year-old Tsipras some advice.

“He should tell him that Greece has an ideology, the ideology of resistance,” Glezos said on a Greek radio station. Greece, in other words, must not retreat in its confrontation with its European and International Monetary Fund creditors.

The notion of resistance to foreign domination holds strong emotional sway in Greece, and it’s a theme often emphasized by Syriza, the leftist party leading the Greek government. Syriza traces its ideological heritage to the communist-led resistance force that fought occupying Axis troops during the war, and the party now depicts itself as once again leading the resistance against the austerity policies mandated by the country’s creditors.

Now, in advance of a critical summit of European leaders on Monday that could represent Greece’s last chance to reach an accord with its creditors, Syriza leaders face a stark choice. While the vast majority of Greeks want to guarantee their country’s place in the European monetary union, many of Syriza’s core supporters and leading members urge continued opposition to the creditors’ demands despite the profound economic and political turmoil a Greek euro exit would bring. In order for Tsipras to avoid a break with the eurozone, he will have to break with the hardliners in his own party.

* * *

I spoke to Glezos on a Sunday morning in May 2014 in his modest home in a leafy suburb of Athens. He was sitting on his living room couch in his pajamas, nearly buried in the several newspapers he was reading. His eyes had an intensity that seemed at odds with his age. His long, gray hair was combed back to his shoulders, and his broad mustache reached the creases of his cheeks. Before I could ask him any questions, he gave me a signed copy of a book he had recently written: a registry of massacres and executions that took place in Greece during the war called The Black Book of the Occupation. He then reminded me that Greece, in addition to its tenacious guerrilla resistance during the occupation, had also repelled Mussolini’s invasion in 1940, a morale-boosting, early victory for the Allies. “What’s happening in Greece right now isn’t by chance,” Glezos told me. Just as Greece had destroyed the “myth of invincibility of the Axis” back then, he said, it was once again leading a righteous fight against Greece’s creditors. “We’re asking for another Europe.”

Many Greeks see the current conflict with the country’s creditors in terms that are suggestive of World War II. For the last five years — a time of economic collapse, record high unemployment, and rising poverty — Greece has been under the sway of its foreign creditors, and because Germany is the most powerful among them, allusions to last century’s period of German domination have become numbingly commonplace. During my travels in Greece, I’ve often heard people claim Germany is once again occupying the country, only this time through economic means. This sentiment is often expressed in crass terms, which have the effect of trivializing the immense suffering Greeks endured under the occupation, a time of famine and violence that was the most destructive period in the nation’s modern history.

One day in 2013, I walked by the German embassy in Athens and noticed two large banners hung from an apartment across the street, one depicting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the other Hitler. The writing on them was intended to inspire Greeks to resist the current occupation as they had the previous one. On an Athens radio station one morning, a populist right-wing commentator bellowed: “We don’t have a democracy. The will of our people applies nowhere. We don’t have our own laws. We are slaves. Vassals. A colony.” His voice rose to a scream. “From Thrace to Laconia, the foreigners are trampling our country. The Germans are torching again! They are burning Greece again!”

Syriza leaders have not shied from allusions to German domination. When he was still in the opposition, Tsipras often accused the Greek politicians who signed the bailout agreement of a kind of collaborationist stance — referring to them as Merkelistes, acolytes of Merkel. He warned that austerity policies would lead to a “social holocaust” and vowed not only to cancel the bailout agreement, but to vigorously lobby for German war reparations — a cause supported by the vast majority of Greeks. On Jan. 26, right after Tsipras was sworn in as prime minister, he visited a memorial in an Athens suburb, the site where the Nazis executed hundreds of Greek communists and partisans, among them Glezos’s younger brother, Nikos. As Tsipras lay red roses on the memorial, a crowd of supporters gathered behind him and chanted slogans of praise for the communist war resistance.

After Tsipras’s visit to the memorial, Glezos issued a statement praising the act, calling it confirmation that Tsipras would “fight with all his might” to realize the ambitions of generations of Greeks. For Glezos, Syriza’s rise to power meant the realization of a lifelong ambition to see a leftist government established in Greece. Like many Greek leftists, he saw the communists’ failure to take power in the aftermath of World War II — a time when Greece fell into a civil war between communist rebels and a right-wing government backed by the United States — as a bitter defeat. He has spent a total of 16 years in prison or exile as a result of his political activities, most of those at the hands of post-war Greek governments, which persecuted communist dissidents — and may have been executed had the flag episode not won him international attention and support from figures like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

* * *

“We had it once before,” Glezos told me one evening in Athens prior to Syriza’s election victory in January, referring to the communist-led war resistance, which by the end of the occupation controlled much of Greece’s mountainous interior. “Unfortunately, we gave it up.” Now, it seemed to him, the left was on the verge of taking Greece back.

At the time, Glezos was clearly energized by the party’s rising popularity. In the spring of 2014, he announced what would turn out to be a successful bid for a seat in the European Parliament. His main reason for seeking the post, he said, was to bring to Europe the “escalating struggle for the claiming of Germany’s debts to Greece” — his way of referring to reparations claims for wartime damage. At the time, he spoke at a series of political rallies around Athens. At one of them in a working class Athens suburb, I met a retired teacher who told me she grew up thinking of Glezos as an almost mythical figure. “This person has never stopped fighting for one moment. He wasn’t afraid of disease. He wasn’t afraid of senescence. He wasn’t afraid of the Germans,” she said. “When you see a person in his 92nd year standing up in this manner, toiling and getting out front, whether you want to or not, you fight too.”

The event that evening was a particularly emotional one for Glezos. It fell on the 70th anniversary of the wartime execution of his brother. Glezos still keeps the lining of the hat his brother wore before his death. On it is a hastily written goodbye note: “Dear Mother. I kiss you. Greetings. Today, I’m going to be executed. Falling for the Greek people.” During the rally that night, Glezos bellowed into the microphone, telling the crowd that his fallen comrades visited him in his dreams, and would not let him rest from trying to realize their hopes: the establishment of the people’s rule. “Companions, fellow fighters who I lost in the battles. They come to me and say, ‘Manoli, what’s going on? Our dreams. Where are they?’ And my brother is in front, who speaks to me with a hard tongue: ‘You, Manoli, are living, but I didn’t even manage to live out the years of my youth. I want back the years that you live and I don’t live.’ How do I answer him?” By this point, people in the crowd were in tears, and Glezos sounded like he was pleading to them for mercy. “How do I answer him? How?” Glezos paused for a breath and answered. “I say: ‘Niko, believe. We are trying. We are fighting.”

Glezos seems to have tried to make good on this promise — even when it has put him at odds with his own party. In February, when the Syriza-led government struck a deal with the creditors to extend the current bailout agreement, Glezos released a dejected statement from Brussels in which he denounced the agreement and apologized to the Greek people for having participated in an illusion. “First of all, between the oppressor and oppressed, there can be no compromise, just as between the slave and the conqueror, the only solution is freedom,” he wrote. Glezos, who will be leaving his European Parliament post next month — from the outset, he said he would not serve the entire term — has little effective political power, yet his stature among Greek leftists gives him outsize influence. His statement in February was widely seen within Greece as a sign that the party was fracturing just weeks after its election.

Glezos has since moderated his criticism and expressed continued support for Syriza’s leaders while urging them not to capitulate to the creditors. Still, wider fault lines within Syriza remain. The party, also known as the Coalition of the Radical Left, formed in 2004 as an alliance of leftist parties, including Trotskyists, Maoists, euro-communists, and ecological leftists. Today, many of its more strident members advocate exiting the eurozone rather than agreeing to the creditors’ strict fiscal targets.

Glezos, in line with Syriza’s official position, has said Greece ought to remain in the euro. Yet he promotes a path that is clearly unpalatable to its creditors. He proposes Greece be granted a one-year moratorium on debt payments, and in that time, a Greek parliamentary committee will examine Greece’s “supposed” debts and determine what should be paid. Glezos is far from the only Syriza member to question Greece’s debt obligations. On June 18, the president of the Greek parliament, Zoe Konstantopoulou, in announcing the preliminary findings of the parliament’s “Debt Truth Committee,” called Greece’s debt “illegal” and “illegitimate.”

Tsipras and his inner circle have long argued that Greece’s creditors would eventually concede to Greek demands for more lenient bailout terms out of fear that a Greek exit from the eurozone would destroy the entire currency union. The threat of mutually assured destruction, they have argued, gives Greece a strong negotiating weapon. Yet, ahead of a June 30 deadline to begin repaying debts to the IMF, Greek leaders will almost certainly have to make concessions on pension cuts, privatizations, and consumption tax increases — measures particularly abhorrent to Syriza hardliners — if they want a deal that will stave off default. In the event of an eleventh-hour agreement, defections within Syriza are likely, say analysts.

Some Syriza factions would rather “press the self-destruct button” than go along with such a deal, says Dimitris Papadimitriou, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester. Since Greece’s civil war, he says, the Greek left has been steeped in a mythology of victimization by foreign powers — those that prevented communism from taking hold in the country. This fuels a sense of “just struggle” in which many Greek leftists would prefer to go down as “the victim of history again” rather than retreat.

If enough Syriza parliamentarians leave the party, it may necessitate new elections in Greece. Still, any bailout agreement brought to the Greek parliament is certain to pass with the support of more centrist parties, which have urged a quick resolution to the impasse with the country’s creditors. This outcome, however, would likely come as a bitter defeat for many of the party’s most zealous members — those, like Glezos, who in Syriza’s rise have seen the fulfillment of the hopes of generations of Greek leftists.

Even before Syriza’s election victory, Glezos often reminded Tsipras of his moral obligation to Greece’s past communist fighters. “We are on the road to vindication,” Glezos told an audience of Syriza supporters one night in Athens as Tsipras looked on. “Very many fellow fighters, fighters never subdued, inconspicuous fighters you don’t know, they call me, and they cry from joy. We cry from joy. Why?” He then glanced at Tsipras. “Because the road has opened, Alexi.”

Photo credit: LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images