Archaeology under Metaxas

This article is part of a paper examining the interplay between archaeology and dictatorship in the context of the Greek experience. This particular part is related to the period of fascism in Greece (1936-1941).

The picture of Greece in the inter-war years was one of military movements, successive general elections, economic strains and social anxiety, which eventually led to the downfall of the constitutional government. The elections of 9 January 1936 produced a hung parliament with the communists, who had received only a minimal portion of the national vote, holding the crucial balance between the royalists and the republicans.

The political deadlock that ensued was finally resolved on 13 April by King Georgios II, who, without consulting party leaders, designated as prime minister loannis Metaxas, a marginal far right figure in the parliament. The General had already had a long military and political career, always a devoted royalist.

Soon after his appointment as premier, he proceeded to abolish democracy, under the pretext of constraining trade union demonstrations that were taking place in several cities against the rising cost of living and the threat of incoming dictatorship. When a general strike was called for 5 August, Metaxas took the ultimate step by persuading the king to declare martial law. The king accepted the installation of a dictatorship, with Metaxas at its head, to forestall a “communist uprising” and a “repetition of events in Spain” (cited in Andricopoulos, 1980:577, 583, n. 46).

A number of key articles regarding civil rights in the Constitution were suspended and parliament was formally dissolved. Unsurprisingly, Metaxas claimed that these were merely temporary measures until the Communist menace was driven off. In reality, however, parliament was not to reconvene until 1946, after ten of the most tragic years in Greece’s modern history. Since the dictator had seized power on the pretence that the country was threatened by the communists, the latter were by far the greatest victims among his political opponents. Imprisonment, torture and concentration camps on remote islands were the most popular “corrective” methods employed by the regime.

Backed by the army and police and tolerated by the king, Metaxas met with little opposition but equally with little support; the reaction of the majority of Greek people was one of resignation occasioned by the inability of the politicians to reconcile their differences.

In ironic contrast to his Germanophile pronouncements, Metaxas’ foreign policy remained friendly to Britain, in harmony with the king’s wishes. Indeed, he caught the popular mood, the politicians’ and even the Communist Party’s approval when he gave his famous, one-word negative answer (“Ohi!”, i.e. “No!”) to a humiliating ultimatum posed by the Italian government on 28 October 1940, thus leading Greece to war against the Axis forces as the only then-active ally of the British.

Ideological Contours

Metaxas’ doctrine, an amalgam of anti-communism, racism, nationalism (albeit of the non-expansionist variety) and populism, was developed along with the personal history of the man. Born on the Ionian island of Ithaca to an old aristocratic family which traced its roots back to late Byzantine times, he considered Byzantium as his ultimate homeland. Devotion to the king (the alleged successor of the Byzantine emperors) was for him an unquestionable duty of his nobility, and he looked down upon the nouveau riche bourgeoisie of politicians. These ideas took root during his study at the prestigious military academy of Berlin early in the twentieth century, under the patronage of the Crown Prince of Greece Konstantinos.

Indeed, Metaxas perceived it as his prophetic mission to reconstitute the “old glory” for his now “humble” country. His paternalistic style was signaled by the adoption of titles such as “Great Hellene,” “National Father,” “First Peasant,” and “First Worker,” and he shared the loathing of parliamentary democracy and communism, characteristic of German Nazism and Italian fascism, although his regime altogether lacked their dynamism.

He envisaged a “New State” as a means of deactivating communist conspiracies, intervening “in all branches of social and economic life, in order to reconcile capital and labour and to meet the growing grievances of the industrial proletariat” (cited in Kofas, 1983:66,219 n. 61).

His admiration for the “serious German spirit” was in contrast with what he saw as his compatriots’ lack of sense of corporate loyalty. In pursuit of his objective to recast the Greek character in a more disciplined mode, he adopted many of the practices of fascism. He placed great emphasis on the youth’s national indoctrination, which would accomplish his vision of regenerating Hellenism and secure the continuation of his “ideals” after his death. To this effect, he founded the National Organization of Youth (EON), modelled after the German and Italian youth bodies, to serve as his Praetorian Guard.

In Metaxas’ ideological construct, the immediate past—the period from independence to the institution of his dictatorship—is denounced as a period of degradation, which justifies disciplinary measures. It is always contrasted with the present, the quintessence of “national greatness.” Greek history is seen as having experienced three landmarks of “glory,” all three under authoritarian regimes. The “First Hellenic Civilization” was the “Golden Age” of Athens, when Pericles ruled as a virtual dictator behind a democratic façade. The “Second Hellenic Civilization” was the Greek medieval empire of Byzantium, when Christianity spread among millions and the Greek spirit flourished for a millennium under an imperial autocracy. In conscious imitation of Hitler’s Third Reich, the “Third Hellenic Civilization” was to be the long-term result of Metaxas’ work.

The Metaxas era saw repeated book burnings in well-publicised gatherings, in pure Nazi style. Among the classic works that were destroyed were those of Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Bernard Shaw, Johann Goethe, Johann Fichte, Heinrich Heine, Anatole France, Fiodor Dostojevski, Maxim Gorki, Leo Tolstoy, Stefan Zweig, the Greek novelist Alexandros Papadiamantis, and others whose ideas were believed to be “anti-national.”

Even the staging of Sophocles’ Antigone and the teaching of Pericles’ funeral oration in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War were banned. Thus, we read the following provincial order, which was made general for all of the country on orders from Athens:

… In the teaching of ancient Greek in the 6th High School Grade, omit the funeral oration of Pericles, substituting some Platonic dialogue, because the funeral oration, extolling democratic ideas, may be misunderstood by the students as indirect criticism of the vigorous government policy and, in general, of the trend of the present State. We say misunderstood because the National Government in reality is furthering democratic ideas and properly conceived liberty by striking at demagogic tendencies and sources of decay Because, however, adolescence does not have the ability for induction and for the tiresome search for truth, and is prone to the formation of beliefs based only upon emotions, it is advisable that the brilliant pages of Thucydides be left for those years when the Greek youth, sufficiently mature, may hear from university professors an analysis of the beauty of the ancient texts. Otherwise, there exists the probability that these pages will produce the same ruinous disintegrating results that they did during the period of the Peloponnesian War, when they were recited to the unstable populace of Athens by the great Pericles, who presented so brilliantly the victories of democracy to the intellectually unprepared Athenian rabble, that it overestimated its strength and destroyed with anarchist arrogance the wonderful works which democratic ideas had created in a more suitable period… (cited in Stavrianos, 2000:673)

The above excerpt illustrates eloquently the selective use of the distant past in the service of Metaxas’ propaganda. On the one hand, ancient Athens is celebrated as a cultural archetype and, on the other, Athenian democracy, which produced the very intellectual achievements so admired by the regime, is criticized as a mob rule responsible for the Peloponnesian War. It should come as no surprise that Metaxas felt more comfortable with Sparta, because its citizens were blindly devoted to the state. The Spartan model of self-discipline, prowess and obedience became the principal model for the “New State;” and the promise “we shall surpass you,” which young Spartans gave their fathers before the latter went to war, was used to reinforce the youth’s belief in the country’s progress.

In ironic contrast to the status of ancient Spartan women, the morals of the 4th of August regime demanded that their contemporary counterparts remain low-key and domestic. Only the motherly role was highlighted with powerful images of the motherland and women-as-mothers-of-heroes—again validated through glorious examples of the past, such as the Spartans. Motherhood has traditionally been a sacred notion in Greek society, politically manipulated within a heroic and thus male-centered context. On the contrary, motherhood as an essentially female quality, divorced from the heroic spirit, tends to acquire ambiguous, if not negative, connotations. Loukia Metaxa, the dictator’s daughter and a leader in EON, remarks:

Greeks have always known to show a virile ethos, low in numbers, frugal, poor, victorious over the flaccid matriarchal materialism and its infidel and barbarous hordes. (Metaxa and Govostis, 1977:269)

Prehistoric matriarchy had been a hotly debated issue for several decades. Bronze Age Crete, in particular, had been considered as a prime example of matrircal goddess-centered societies. During these very years the father of Minoan archaeology, the celebrated Sir Arthur Evans, sought (late in his life) the roots of Christianity in the matriarchal (as he believed) cults of Crete, thus creating an image of a “Minoan Madonna”:

[Minoan] Religion itself belonged fundamentally to Western Asia. It is not strange, therefore, that the form of Christian belief that we still see to-day throughout the Mediterranean area shouldfind some interesting anticipations in that of Minoan Crete. The root idea was matriarchal and the Mother Goddess presides. The adoration of Mother and Child on a Minoan signet-ring, with the Magi in the shape of warriors bringing gifts, is almost a replica of a Christian ring-stone of the Sixth Century of our era. The mother here with the Child on her lap is a true Madonna, (cited in MacGillivray, 2000:302)

Evans was a principal honoree at the 30th anniversary of the British School at Athens. During the celebrations held in London in the fall of 1936, the Greek government representative aptly captured the publics (partially informed) perception of archaeological achievement by stating that:

… Sir Arthur Evans had the unique distinction of turning into authentic history what had previously been considered as mythology (cited in MacGillivray, 2000:301)

Olympic Festivals

Nazi abuse of the past manifested itself in international exaggeration of Germanic influences and idealization of classical antiquity (Arnold, 1990; Fleischer, 2000; loannidis, 1988). Sparta was admired for its “pioneering eugenic” policies and Athens for its artistic and intellectual perfection. Hider contributed his own views on the subject referring to the Greeks as Germans who had survived a northern catastrophe and evolved a highly developed culture in southern contexts. By contrast, Byzantium and contemporary Greece were seen as having been “contaminated” by “inferior human material.”

Among the love for the ancient Greek civilization, the sanctuary at Olympia had always held particular significance for the Germans, who had been conducting excavations there since 1897. Hitler himself saw to the renewal of the Olympic games on the occasion of the Berlin Olympics in 1936, and the torch relay was then introduced after a German proposal to promote an upgraded (as much as distorted) image of ancient Greece (Mackenzie, 2003).

In the same year Athens celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the revival of the Olympic Games, and splendid ceremonies were organized by the International and Greek Olympic Committees (Yalouri, 2001:39-40). It was during the Berlin Olympics that Metaxas overthrew democracy. The Nazis naturally welcomed his regime, although they did not acknowledge it as purely fascist since the king, the second member of the dictatorial duo, was attached to the British (Fleisher, 2000:36-37).

The Archaeological Protagonists

Despite an inevitable difference owing to time, modem Greek civilization is in many aspects connected to the historical core of integral Greece and represents its moral, spiritual and psychical continuation. (Oikonomos, cited in Petrakos, 1987b: 168)

Thus spoke Georgios Oikonomos, Secretary of the Athens Archaeological Society, in his ceremonial address on the Society’s centenary. The celebration took place at the Parthenon on 23 October 1938 and was attended by the royal family (Petrakos, 1987b: 168-170, 1987c: 207-208, figs. 2-3). Oikonomos, professor at Athens University, director of the Archaeological Service and a declared friend of the palace, was indifferent, if not hostile, to any effort for improvement of the archaeological situation (Petrakos, 1995:35).

At the same time some young archaeologists were promoting within the Service the new ideas that had had a profound impact upon Greek society in the first thirty years of the 20th century: liberalism, Marxism, educational transformation and the acceptance of spoken Greek (demotic) instead of an artificial archaist Greek (katharevousd), theretofore used by the establishment.^ The principal advocates of innovation in archaeology were Christos Karouzos, his wife Semni Papaspyridi-Karouzou, and Yannis Miliadis. Humanists of erudition and uncompromising integrity, they had been militant defenders of the archaeological profession and mission. Their commitment, courageously expressed under adverse circumstances, cost them repeated conflicts with the establishment throughout their careers.

In 1935 Karouzos was transferred unfavorably from Thebes to Volos; his archaeological guide to the Museum of Thebes, written in lively and pioneering demotic was ignored by the government publishing services. In a letter to Oikonomos (15 June 1935), he protests unfair dealings and conservative prejudices, also referring to rumors that the prime minister’s wife Lina Tsaldari had spoken of him as “the worst archaeologist in the Service” (cited in Petrakos, 1995:36-38).

Interestingly, however, Oikonomos voted for Karouzos’ doctoral dissertation, which was successfully defended in 1939 against other conservative examiners. In a letter to Oikonomos (3 May 1939), Karouzos properly acknowledged this support (cited in Petrakos, 1995:51). He had first submitted his dissertation in 1929, but it was then rejected by the principal examiner Apostolos Arvanitopoulos, another conservative academic with a controversial role (Petrakos, 1995:39-42). The main defender of Karouzos in the first examination was Antonios Keramopoulos, under whom he had served as a young curator at the Acropolis (Petrakos, 1995:23, 51-52,81).

This innovative spirit was met with a strong reaction from Spyridon Marinatos and his court, which prevailed in archaeological affairs up to 1974. The rivalry between Marinatos and Karouzos dates back to their undergraduate years at Athens University as competitors for a scholarship (1916), which was eventually awarded to Karouzos (Petrakos, 1995:21). A recognized specialist in Aegean prehistory, Marinatos was also known for his view of Greek archaeologists of his generation as “Bolsheviks or social reformers of no international recognition” (letter to Professor Georgios Sotiriou, 8 June 1928; cited in Trimis et al., 1995:42). Soon after his appointment as professor at Athens University by Metaxas, Marinatos succeeded Oikonomos in the directorship of the Archaeological Service when the latter chose to move to the more prestigious position of the Director General of Antiquities, Letters and Arts in 1937 (Petrakos, 1995:46).

Following his crushing of the Cretan Revolt in July 1938, Metaxas proclaimed himself dictator for life; then, he tightened his repressive policies, which transformed his regime into an extreme authoritarian (quasi-fascist) state. While purges in the academy affected most of the School of Philosophy of the newly-founded University of Thessaloniki (1925), owing to its innovative character (Hasiotis, 2000:22; Tiverios, 2000a: 115), the Athens academic establishment enjoyed the regime’s support. On 13 March 1940 Metaxas attended a public lecture by Marinatos. The latter, in return, paid tribute to the “Deceased” (the dictator) and the “Absent” (King Georgios II), in his ceremonial speech at Athens University on the first national celebration of 28 October 1940. This speech, delivered and broadcast on radio on the eve of the civil war (27 October 1945), inevitably caused reactions (Petrakos, 1995:201, n. 52).

Although the majority of Service staff hoped that Marinatos could play a positive role, Miliadis sketches the real character of the man as follows:

Marinatos has certainly better intentions than the other one [G. Oikonomos], but it is the other one who governs behind the scenes. Besides, Marinatos has good intentions up to the point that they are confronted with his personal interests… It seems, however, that he is beginning to feel—as all of those who made it and established themselves—that he belongs to the cast of the establishment rather than to the ranks offighters, (letter to Karouzos, 4 December 1937, cited in Petrakos, 1995:47)

Marinatos was soon to show his old hostility against Karouzos, sabotaging applications of the latter for study leaves and reprimanding him for his refusal to publish in Greek archaeological journals.^ Semni Karouzou, one of two female, married archaeologists out of four total at that time, was not spared either; she became the principal target of Marinatos’ legislation of 1939 (Petrakos, 1995:50) as part of wider gender discriminations introduced into the public sector (Avdela, 1990:149), to ensure that women were confined to their “natural” roles as wives and mothers. The new act established that:

Only male graduates of Philology are appointed as curators on the grade and salary offirst class Secretary…

The female component already on staff shall continue in service but shall not under any circumstances be permitted to undertake the directions of museums or regional offices, in accordance with the provision of article 17, paragraph 7 of the present Law. Should female members of the academic staff happen to be married, they must take obligatory retirement after completing 25 years of public service.^ (cited in Petrakos, 1982: 52)

The law in question was abolished in 1942 (Petrakos, 1995:50, 202 n. 57).


By Dimitra Kokkinidou and Mariana Nikolaïdou


  • Nanno Marinatos

    I have read this article with great interest. I would like to mention the other point of view, however, which reveals that Marinatos and Meliades were good friends during the mid-war period and they were all Venizelos parisans. Who betrayed whom first is an unanwerable question.

    When the Nazis invaded Greece, Yiannis Miliades and Christos Karouzos denounced Marinatos as a Metaxist to the pro-German Minister. The document is avilable at ELIA (Meliadis Archive).
    As historians we ought to mention both points of view; in any case it is perhaps to Marinatos’ credit that he remained steady in his principles and stood up for Metaxas even after his death when he had ONLY to lose by the association.

  • Dear Nanno, thanks for your contribution! Are you perhaps in family with Marinatos?