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Greece: Cultural Freedom in the Gangster State

Y, translated by Edward Wharton

When preventive censorship was lifted last October after a two-and-a-half-year blackout, the newspapers of Athens (not including the organs of the military regime) began once more to report the news. They did so carefully, still refusing to make editorial comment so long as this new liberty was qualified by countless taboo subjects and forbidden attitudes, and vitiated by the martial law under which Greece has been living since 1967.

Instead of editorials, front-page cartoons expressed in capsule form, daringly at first, the paradox of press freedom in a land overshadowed by Law 509, which provides savage prison sentences for whatever the military court (on the evidence of soldiers, informers, and police spies) interprets as subversion—in a police state supported, not to say enforced, by a world alliance of free and not-so-free nations. The newspapers reprinted speeches and documents from the Council of Europe when Greece withdrew last December. Every day people were able to read the frightening exchanges in the courts martial and the defense speeches of students given eighteen years to life for passing out leaflets, or possessing explosives, or making some remark against the regime that was overheard, perhaps, at the next table in a restaurant.

Just as the most insidious enemy of truth is a half-truth, so the subtlest mockery of freedom is a controlled freedom. But give Greeks one grain of liberty and they will use it to advantage, until the mechanism of that mockery works itself out and brings on the retribution that was only in the wings.

Indeed only six weeks after censorship was lifted, the regime published a new press law decreeing sentences ranging from a few months to life imprisonment for defamation, obscenity, distortion of debates, quotation out of context from documents, insult to the royal family, reporting legal cases sub judice, articles inciting to sedition or undermining confidence in the national economy, reporting crimes and suicides, inaccuracy, negligence, and other offenses minutely listed in 101 articles, for which publisher, editor, and journalist are now held collectively responsible. In addition to laying out this minefield, the new law (which begins, “We, Constantine, King of the Hellenes, by the proposal of our Council of Ministers, have decided and do command: Article 1, The Press is free…”) struck at the newspapers by abolishing the franchise on imported newsprint. This concession—granted in 1938 to facilitate freedom of expression in the press—remains in force however for those recently founded journals which are the mouthpieces of the regime, but whose circulation is still less than half that of the older papers.

Foreign observers have asked about this seemingly passive and peaceful, if perhaps exhausted, country: Why—if Greeks don’t like being spied on, denounced, held indefinitely without trial, tortured, pressured to betray friends, imprisoned for their opinions, deported, forced into exile, forced out of work, censored, having their books and music and art work banned, or being made to acquiesce in the blunting and darkening of their children’s minds in school—why don’t they do something about it, instead of waiting for the Americans? Yet the prisons and concentration camps and guarded villages are full of Greeks who did do something because they knew the Americans would not. For the rest of the population, if they get too activist, there are NATO tanks and the American Sixth Fleet. Which is almost to say that for them there is silence.

To prevent them from becoming too active there is the terror. Not guillotines nor SS troops nor kangaroo courts—these are unnecessary: only pervasive economic pressure, which affects everybody’s actions from morning till night, but which tourists don’t see and Greeks for very good reasons don’t talk about to foreigners. One false move, one indiscretion and not only a job is lost but also—because of close supervision by the police—the possibility of applying for other regular work. Not only is a university career cut short but entrance to any other advanced school in Greece is forbidden. And not only may a pension be lost but the relatives of the former pensioner may lose their jobs as well.

The phrase in the US Constitution, “…no attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood,” reminds us that two centuries ago the medieval hangover of guilt by kinship was still something to be guarded against by law. As regards many civil liberties, the Greece of 1970 is more primitive than the Thirteen Colonies of two hundred years ago, with the added danger that today the state possesses eyes, ears, and methods of control unimaginable in previous centuries. What is being tried out in Greece is not the mere brute oppression of a Vietnam war but a new and subtler form of oppression, something technologically organized, which seems to be working very well indeed.

In spite of this a few have spoken. Before censorship is re-established or worse, one paper in particular, Ethnos,1 has staked its existence on the issue of press freedom. Theater and film reviews, articles on the youth revolution abroad and education at home, on the international press and the integrity of the Greek judiciary (heavily violated last spring), serialized historical studies of foreign interference during the last century and of Venizelos’ fight against the Greek oligarchy and monarchy in the early years of this one, have all provided a medium for discussion of some of today’s more burning issues.

Even the proceedings of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the appointment of the new ambassador to Greece were translated verbatim from the Congressional Record of last December 19—with dotted lines profusely interspersed wherever Senators Pell, Goodell, Fulbright, or McGovern spoke of the Colonels’ regime in words that cannot be printed in Greece under the Colonels’ press law. A series of brief interviews and letters called “If I were Dictator” has been giving a number of public and private figures the chance to let off steam and anathematize tyranny. Finally on February 2 Ethnos began a significant inquiry into the present state of cultural life in Greece. Leading figures in the intellectual and artistic world answered two questions: Was the past decade in Greece creative? Is the new decade likely to see a flowering or a decline?

Significant for what was said, and for what wasn’t. Many of the artists and thinkers questioned kept silent despite strong convictions; silent about the real condition, not of politics or economics, of which it might be disastrous to speak openly, but of the arts themselves in Greece during the present critical years. Still, a few spoke; these are years when the brave stand up and are counted.

The public responded and joined forces as only Greeks will do when someone takes risks on their behalf. Though the cost of newspapers has risen twice since the New Year (the organs of the regime again excepted) and though the sale of Ethnos is forbidden in provincial towns by the army and gendarmerie despite a supposed guarantee in the press law; and though on three days in February news vendors in Athens itself were told by the police not to sell their copies of the paper—a sinister hint of what may yet happen—Ethnos‘s circulation has nearly tripled in the city. “We can’t do without it now,” one reader said. “We have to read what people dare to say. We need it every day now, it’s like bread.”

Alexander Xydis, art historian, critic, and Greek Ambassador to Syria until the Colonels dismissed him, was the first to give a precise reply to Ethnos‘s question about the past decade, contrasting the state of things before the coup d’état with their condition ever since. Does one have to be a Greek living in the Greece of Colonel Papadopoulos to sense the full implications of a statement ostensibly about graphic arts?

I do not see one decade 1960-70 but a seven-year period 60-66 and a three-year period 67-69. During the first, notable young painters, sculptors, and engravers appeared on the scene, while the older established figures showed a renewal of their talent.

There was more work and better quality. More exhibitions inside Greece, in Salonica, Volos, Patras, Heraklion, Hydra, and Mykonos, and more exhibitions of Greeks abroad, where some won prizes. A wide circulation of artists and their works within the country so that many more than just the inhabitants of central Athens became familiar with the living art of today. More artists commissioned to decorate public and private buildings. A homecoming of expatriate artists in great number. Newer and freer channels of communication with the outside world for artists, for their works, for art books and for a whole public eager to educate itself in the artistic field.

This continuous movement and exchange between artists and their unhindered dialogue with the public, which are the vital needs of art, took place quite freely, and a fertilizing pollen was thus transmitted in all directions, regardless of schools or political alignments.

Today the artists, like all intellectual and creative people in Greece, are living in isolation, inside hermetically sealed aesthetic and political compartments, whose channels of communication with the outer world are suffocatingly controlled by ill-digested moral and aesthetic dogmas or else by calculations of expediency. Art has nothing to do with a dubious ephemeral expediency, and dogma drives out art—together with the artists—as bad money drives out good.

Three years we have seen this axiom progressively confirmed. A slowing down or complete stoppage of exhibitions; the movement of artists and their works obstructed, both in Greece and on their way to other countries; prohibition of works, sometimes even names of certain artists; mediocre figures chosen to represent Greek art abroad; the mediocre selected or made to participate by Diktat in the Panhellenic Exhibition of 1969. Meanwhile the squares and gardens of our towns and villages are being filled with products by ‘workers of art’ in the most Soviet sense. [Last five words eliminated from printed text, in accordance with Greek press law.] Discrimination against and attacks upon the most valid currents in modern art are increasing. In competitions, exhibitions, and public commissions the reward goes every time to mediocrity. Mediocrity alone is recognized because it alone is harmless, poses no problems, lacks impetus, looks backward, does not overflow with that quality of which André Breton writes, ‘La beauté sera CONVULSIVE ou ne sera pas.’

My reply to the second question: decline. But flowering (and consequently decline) cannot be forecast or artificially produced. Where the creative spirit is degraded, art dies and no administrative measure can revive it. Where it still lives but is pressed down, it will burst out sometime, somewhere. The artistic or creative spirit is, of all human activities, the most imponderable and explosive. It cannot be compressed or statistically recorded or mobilized or controlled or directed. If it withers in one country because of the environment, it may flower—perhaps through the same practitioners—in another. But woe to the country that has lost it.”

  1. 1

    After this article was written, the newspaper Ethnos was closed down. On April 2, its chief editor was sentenced to five years imprisonment and other senior staff members received sentences ranging from two to four and a half years. The reason given by the junta was the publication of an interview with a former politician, J. Zigdes, urging the quick return of democratic rule. Mr. Zigdes himself was sentenced to four and a half years imprisonment for having given the interview.

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