Metaxas, Women, and the Nation

Until we secure mothers of conscience for Greece, we must emphasise the family order... As the family is the basic cell of every society, mothers also constitute the primary foundation of society. (H Neolaia, July 1937)

The compounded impact of the economic and political crises of the interwar period undermined in a fundamental way the legitimacy of the liberal bourgeois order that was epitomised by Venizelos.

The protracted and bitter Venizelist-Royalist conflict made the 1930s, especially the period between 1932 and 1936, one of extreme political instability marked by several regime shifts, unsuccessful broad coalition governments, and three different coups, each one launched from a different point on the political spectrum. The restoration of the monarchy in 1935, and the serious political vacuum which followed, left the door ajar for the imposition of more authoritative solutions.

The dictatorship of General Ioannis Metaxas came to power on 4 August 1936, and lasted until April 1941, when the German Army entered Athens. The fascist credentials of the Metaxas regime have been the subject of significant debate amongst historians of the period, many of whom strongly contend that the Metaxas state was not fascist but authoritarian with fascist leanings, more comparable to Spain’s Franco than the fascist regimes of Germany and Italy.

The most notable differences between them were the Metaxas state’s relative non-violence; it did not pursue an expansionist agenda or institute anti-Semitic programs, and it lacked a mass political movement. But like Mussolini and Hitler, Metaxas rose to power on the wave of political and social instability of the 1920s and early 1930s, and his regime was characterised by two negative attributes: anti-communism and anti-parliamentarism, ‘evils’ which he regarded as being perilous to the integrity of the Greek nation.

The regime had two positive objectives that were linked with its extreme nationalism: the much touted Regeneration and National Unity, which in conjunction would bring into being the ‘Third Hellenic Civilisation‘. This new civilisation combined the finest elements of the ancient classical (Spartan) and Byzantine traditions, although the content of the Third Civilisation was never sufficiently developed—a vague dream comprised of generalities.

Metaxas’s regeneration promoted an inward-looking celebration of ‘Greekness’, with explicit references to the ‘Greek race’, whose destiny was to civilise the world that was characteristic of the populist, anti-Venizelist right. Sarandis (1993) has argued that the combined qualities of the Metaxas state point far less to fascism than to ‘paternalistic’ benevolent dictatorship of the New Right.

The intensification of labour unrest engendered by the Depression had reached a climax after the passing of legislation that enforced Compulsory Arbitration and Social Security Payments. This culminated in the trade-union decision to wage a 24-hour general strike. On 4 August 1936, the threat of the somewhat mythical ‘communist’ strike legitimised Metaxas’s move to suspend the constitution, with the full support of the monarchy, and declare his absolute rule over the land.

The following day, Metaxas’s address to the nation declared (a) the ‘restoration’ of order across the country; (b) the ‘relief’ of the Greek people who had been awaiting such a political shift; and (c) new government policies directed at the moral and material support of the working class and of the disenfranchised, generally.

Metaxas was simultaneously reviled for his dictatorial state and admired for the policies he introduced to socialise the Greek economy: the introduction of a minimum wage; unemployment insurance; a five-day, forty-hour working week; a guaranteed two-week vacation; stricter occupational safety; and maternity leave. At the same time there were extensive arrests of trades unionists and communists, the establishment of concentration camps on remote islands, the creation of a secret police force, and the institutionalised use of torture, although the regime did not commit political murders or instate the death penalty.

Metaxas’s repugnance for parliamentary government -and his contempt for the misguided, alien, and utopian ideologies of individualism, liberalism, and historical materialism which had conflict between state and society at their core- would be replaced by a militant commitment to order, discipline, and work. His motto of a disciplined freedom, in combination with a collectivistic nationalism, would merge the individual with the whole and forge a sense of national unity, pride, and glory which Greece had lacked for so long.

metaxas greece ιωαννης μεταξας νεολαια εονIndividualism was viewed as fundamentally incompatible with the social nature of humankind; liberalism as a misguided and utopian understanding of freedom; historical materialism as equally incompatible with human nature, for its theory of value ignored the spiritual and focused exclusively on the material dimensions of human existence. Giorgios A. Mantzoufas, an official of the regime, argued that the combined influence of these two philosophical schools of thought ultimately endangered the existence of the Greek nation, because “…each individual had become incapable of seeing beyond his own narrow egocentric concerns; he considered himself free to do as he pleased, a condition which can only lead to anarchy; and he suffered a regression in each and every attempt at spiritual progress” (H Neolaia, September 1937).

While Metaxas abolished the civil rights of men and women, as in German National Socialism and Italian fascism, Metaxas’s rhetoric bestowed upon the nation’s subjects – the working masses and women in particular – an unprecedented level of political and national significance. This was rather striking for Greek women, who unlike men had never enjoyed full citizenship status, but had been excluded from the public domain. Metaxas brought women into the centre-stage of political life and national discourse by creating a cult of Mother Worship, in which the nation’s mothers and all women, as potential mothers, were not just valued members of the national family but were also integral to the national destiny.

It parallels both Koonz’s (1987) and De Grazia’s (1992) observations of the extreme maternalism of German and Italian fascism respectively, as a means of co-opting women, who were unlikely supporters, into the regime. Moreover, Metaxas’s ‘Mother Worship’, like the German and Italian manifestations, had unforeseen consequences for the history and development of the Greek welfare state, especially regarding mothers and children.

The regime’s obsession with the ‘demographic problem’ inspired novel strategies designed to boost the birth rate and to reinforce traditional family values, which combined to bring ironic outcomes. The drive to bring the so-called Third Civilisation into being, guided by the Spartan style values of country, religion, and family, led to a heavy investment in the welfare infrastructure.

The ‘battle for births’ in Metaxas’ Greece, as De Grazia (1992) argues in the case of Italian fascism, established the new rather than restored the old. It established unprecedented levels of pre-natal and infant care for children up to three years of age, provided by ‘Consultation Centres for Expectant Mothers’ (established in Athens and across rural Greece). Kindergartens for 3-to-6-year-old children were set up and catered to the needs of the poor and of  “working mothers […] who can hand over their children to the protective care of Society […] rather than abandon them to the squalor of the street” (H Neolaia, August 1939).

The National Child Care Centres were expanded for the aid of children of working mothers and of widows in particular. These centres, operated by professional teachers, were open throughout the working week, and accepted children in the early morning until the early evening when they returned the children to their mothers. In addition, Children’s Seaside and Mountain Recreational Resorts were established, which aimed to take in “approximately 5,000 children each summer with special health needs, preferably from poor homes, and typically from urban industrial centres”. They were designed to boost national health and thus assist “in the production of healthy future citizens and a reduction in the number of patients in the nation’s hospitals” (H Neolaia, August 1939).

As in Italy, the Greek fascist regime’s treatment of women demonstrated the incoherence of its vision, or what De Grazia (1992: 2) refers to, in the Italian case, as the ‘deep conflict within the [fascist] state between the demands of modernity and the desire to reimpose traditional authority’. In Greece, feminist organisations such as the League for Women’s Rights were amongst the first casualties of the Metaxas state, not just because the regime condemned the goals of feminism (the vote, workforce participation, for example) but also because feminism was a product of liberalism and, as such, the cult of the individual lay at its centre.

For Metaxas, women intellectuals were ‘natural enemies of the New State’, they were social outcasts, products of ‘boulevard feminism’, despised for their perceived hostility to women’s natural and national destiny—motherhood—and, by extension, the sabotage of the ‘national family’. For instance, Sitsa Karaïskaki, a prominent propagandist for women of the Metaxas regime, preached relentlessly from the pages of the youth journal, H Neolaia, about the importance of awakening in women “[…] the desire for family, as this is the holy source of the National Renaissance […] The pseudo-philanthropy of liberals in their disdain for traditional values which they believe reduce women to child-bearing machines, is nothing less than a criminal act. Woman’s so-called liberal and communist protectors fed her soul poison and allowed her to forget her great vocation. A nation without youth is a nation condemned to death” (H Neolaia, August 1937).

The National Council, by virtue of its links with conservative political elites, continued to operate until the outbreak of the Second World War, but its scope was dramatically reduced in line with the demands of the regime. When Metaxas banned all left or liberal-leaning political activity in 1936, the National Council, unlike the League, was permitted to continue operating, as was Parren’s Lyceum. By 1940 the National Council had effectively become a philanthropic organisation, and one-third of its executive council was to be appointed by the Ministry of National Welfare (Hellinis, 1940, vol. 11).

Metaxas’s references to a glorious past lost in the mire of the liberal experiment resuscitated images of Spartan and Byzantine glories as well as images of the more recent glory of the Revolution, incorporating into inspirational narratives the heroic women warriors who had been recast as feminist icons by Parren some decades earlier. Metaxas drew on these images, not to promote the advancement of women in education and the workplace but as symbols of their tradition, sacrifice, and commitment to the nation.

Metaxas’ youth organization, the EON, was central to the Third Hellenic Civilisation he envisaged. Its journal, H Neolaia, used many of these images alongside others of uniformed child-soldiers of different ranks (scouts to phalangists) lined up in military fashion at the numerous events staged across the country by the organization. The emphasis was on ‘physical and spiritual training’ as a means of reinforcing loyalty to the regime and to embed within the young the ‘ideals of the nation’, for they were its ultimate inheritors and guardians. EON was conceived as the ‘spinal cord’ of the national project, for “…if the individual does not subordinate himself to the interests of the whole, and does not consider his individual interests as inferior to those, then the State cannot exist and nor can its institutions” (H Neolaia, September 1937).

The EON established sex-segregated schooling and activities which aimed to create “men out of boys, with a keen sense of their responsibility to the nation’s whole and to themselves, either as leaders of Society, or as humble workers […] and mothers of the young girls, guardians of tradition, transmitters of national ideals to subsequent generations” (H Neolaia, September 1938). As discussed earlier, Metaxas’s hyper-maternalist conceptions of women’s citizenship role, while narrowly inscribed, elevated motherhood to a national priority and, by extension, boosted their cultural status and the standards of health care. In a sense, this overblown maternalism offered more to women than its understated liberal counterpart, whereby men inhabited and defined public life and women were the unsung heroes of a femininised private sphere, conceived of as apolitical.

The Metaxas state trained girls in “Home Economics, which comprised three main areas of learning modelled vaguely on the education systems of Spartan military society. The curriculum concentrated on Nourishment, Attire and Spiritual Housekeeping, with a strong physical education component to nurture strong women who would, in turn, produce citizen-soldiers with healthy bodies and minds” (Neolaia, September 1938). The induction of girls into EON would “put an end to red nails and perfume brands as the central concern of young girls, and instead inspire them as true Mothers of the Race”. In the special pages for girls in Neolaia, Sitsa Karaïskaki transmitted the feminine ideal promoted by the Metaxas state: “The girl who previously called for rights and emancipation, will realise that deep inside her lies the truth of her existence as the biological foundation of the Greek social whole” (in Mahaira, 1987: 78). The specific educational program for girls in EON would facilitate this ‘awakening’.

The ‘Fourth of August’ regime collapsed in April 1941, when the Wehrmacht entered Athens. Soon after, the tri-partite Axis occupation made way for the installation of a Greek collaborationist government under Georgos Tsolakoglou.


– By Margaret Poulos