On being a boy during the Metaxas years

“Metaxas? They make good brandy,” Joel (who lived for six months in Greece) jokes, when I tell him one of my co-bloggers has asked what Greeks today think of Metaxas, the dictator who ruled Greece during the late 30s.

In fact, I’m hard pressed to say what Greeks think of Metaxas now. I never see the Metaxas years referenced in Greek papers. I’ve read Greeks harking back to the German occupation, or the long shadow of the civil war that followed, and certainly to the junta that ruled Greece when I was a child, but not to Metaxas. Nor does his name come up in conversations with my cousins. Just one act of Metaxas is celebrated to this day, the day in which he refused Mussolini’s ultimatum, still celebrated every October 28 as Ochi Day, “No Day.”

Still, there’s one Greek whose memories of the Metaxas years I did hear, and, if I can’t speak for Greeks in general, I can relate what Dad told me of those years. Dad was born in 1930, and died in 2004. When Ioannis Metaxas suspended the Greek constitution, on August 1935, Dad was not quite six. The first government Dad knew was Greece’s version of 1930s fascism. So, here are the things that I remember Dad telling me, about those days.

Greece, at the time of Metaxas, was deeply divided by the rift between royalists and Venizelists, and it’s that rift that colors the politics of Dad’s earliest childhood stories. My grandmother, Dad told me, was a staunch royalist, who named her first three sons after the first three kings of Greece (not counting King Otto, whose house did not last). Conveniently, the first two of those names were also the names, respectively, of Dad’s paternal and maternal grandfathers, so that Dad and his older brother George also got named, as Greek custom would have it, for their two grandfathers.

Dad told me that my grandfather, an army officer, welcomed Metaxas’ rule, having mistrusted the political strife that preceded it. If you shake your head at my grandfather, the fascist, you should remember that he was also my grandfather, the brilliant army civil engineer, and my grandfather, the war hero who died fighting the Axis. Some things simply looked different, in Europe in the 1930s, than they do now, in the twenty-first century.

Metaxas’ rule was brutal to Communists, but to a young child in a royalist army family, this repression didn’t hit home. And Dad’s accounts of life in Greece at that time included no official anti-Semitism in Greece’s version of authoritarian rule. In saying this, I don’t deny that Greece, like other countries, had its own degree of popular anti-Semitism, only that, to the best of my knowledge, Metaxas’ rule did not include repression of Jews, as it did of Communists.

Given what followed when the Nazis came to Greece, I questioned Dad about what life was like for Jews in Greece before the war. Dad’s mother had grown up in Thessaloniki, where Dad himself was born. Dad described Thessaloniki as “like New York,” with a large and thriving Jewish community.

He insisted, though, that my grandmother, with the Jewish sounding surname of Veniamin (Benjamin), the fluent command of Ladino (a variant of Spanish that is to Sephardic Jews what Yiddish is to Ashkenazi Jews), and the childhood in a largely Jewish city, could not have come from a Jewish family. Jews, Dad said, did not marry Christians, in the Greece of his childhood.

I have never been entirely sure whether to believe him, about the Veniamins, partly because my sense of the world is to doubt the efficacy of such barriers. I expect people to intermarry other people every which way, no matter what the barrier. For the same reason, it would surprise me not a whit if the WASP lineage on my mother’s side included, somewhere along the line, a black person or two who had passed. Still, he may have been right about our particular Veniamins, for they bear Christian rather than Jewish first names, and their civil records, microfilmed by the Mormons, describe them all as Christian, including a baptismal record for one uncle. In addition, all of my Veniamin relatives seem to have survived the war without incident (or at least, without incident beyond what Greeks in general suffered under occupation). At the very least, Greece at that time was not a place where Jew and Christian intermarried as readily as they did in the New York of my own childhood.

Dad did, though, attend school with Jewish, as well as Christian, children. He recalled envying his Jewish classmates when it came time for religion class, for they, unlike the Christians, were excused. Greece was not, Dad said, a secular country. Once I asked him how the Nazis determined who was Jewish. Everyone, Dad said, knew who was Jewish.

Dad himself spent the war in Volos, which turns out to be one of the few places in Greece where most Jews managed, with the help of their Gentile neighbors, to escape the Nazis. Dad told me he later encountered one of his classmates, who had been rescued in this way, both of them as adults living in the United States.

If Dad’s account of Metaxas’ rule didn’t include any official anti-Semitism within Greece, it also didn’t include any particular sensitivity to anti-Semitism in other authoritarian regimes of Europe. By Dad’s account (admittedly the memory of a child), the news from Germany was sunny enough that even intelligent adults might know little of the fate of the Jews under Hitler; the first sign of trouble from within Greece was not Krystallnacht, but the invasion of Poland.

One of the features of Metaxas’ rule was that he organized a mass youth movement. Dad, though, spoke only of being in what he described as a Greek version of the Boy Scouts. He told a story of being taken somewhere and asked to point out which direction was north. He pointed, correctly, north. On being asked how he had known, he said, “I looked at how the moss grows on the trees,” but really he had looked around till he spotted a church, which by Greek custom faced east. I’m not sure whether this Greek version of the Boy Scouts was or wasn’t the same thing as Metaxas’ National Youth Organization (EON); I’ve read that was the only mass organization allowed under Metaxas, so it seems likely that it would be the only version of the Boy Scouts that Dad could have joined. Dad’s account of it, though, involved more scouting type activities than political indoctrination.

The decision of Metaxas that had the biggest influence on Dad’s life, pre-war, though, was the construction of the Metaxas line. This was a line of fortifications, similar to the Maginot Line, built between Greece and Bulgaria. It failed in the same way as the Maginot Line, being outflanked when Germany invaded Greece through Yugoslavia. As far as I know, though, the fortifications themselves were sound. My grandfather, as an officer in the Greek Army Corps of Engineers, supervised their construction. My father’s family moved from one town to another along the northern border of Greece as construction proceeded.

If Dad’s memories of life under Metaxas were relatively benign, you should not assume, for that reason, that Dad himself had any sympathy for fascism or authoritarian rule. Dad was a Republican whose hero was Reagan, and whose strongest political beliefs involved support for free trade, supply side economics, and low taxes. I can’t recall him ever defending the junta that ruled Greece when I was young, or the military coup that deposed Allende in Chile (I’m sure his opinion of Allende would have been low, but that doesn’t mean that his opinion of Pinochet would have been high). One of Dad’s first jobs, while still in Greece, involved writing for a paper run by a man who proved to be quite right wing, and Dad told me he got in trouble, at that job, for writing that fascism and Communism were equally bad (his boss insisted that Communism was far worse).

Still, Dad’s early childhood under Metaxas gave way to a later childhood of German occupation followed by bitter civil war. And, compared with either Nazi occupation or civil war, homegrown fascism must have seemed, to a child, almost benign.


– Written by Lynn Gazis-Sax [Source]