ATHENS, Greece – A cold wind was blowing and dark clouds filled the sky the day I visited the Acropolis in December. There, in all her glory, stood the Parthenon, the temple to the goddess Athena.
Cranes were deployed around the Acropolis as reconstruction of the 2,600-year-old ruins continues, part of the preparation for the Olympic Games of 2004. It is the first time the games will be held in Greece since the modern Olympics were founded in April 1896.
That year the Greek runner Viradon Louis won the marathon. That race celebrates the Greek courier Pheidippides who, legend says, ran 26 miles from the Plains of Marathon to Athens in 490 B.C.
He brought news of the Greek victory over a far larger Persian army. The runner’s dying words were “Rejoice, victory is ours.”
In my six-day visit, I was to learn that the Greek people have defended their country against heavy odds throughout history. The Turkish Ottoman Empire ruled Greece for 400 years, at one point using the Parthenon as a powder magazine. It exploded in 1687, nearly destroying the sublime edifice.
In 1806, the Turks granted British Lord Elgin permission to remove most of the marble statuary from the Parthenon for “safe keeping” in the British Museum. Much of this loot was lost when a British ship sank in the Mediterranean.
Recently, the Greek government politely asked the British Home Office to “lend” them the Elgin Marbles during the Olympic Games. This ancient struggle is in plain sight everywhere in Greece. I took home with me a 5,000-drachma bank note with an engraved portrait of Theodore Kolokotronis, who led the Greeks to victory over the Ottomans in 1821.
The European Union (EU), struggling to convince the Greeks to give up their drachma, platered Athens’ brand new subway system with posters showing a hand holding out the new euro currency and the message, “It’s your euro.” The Greek Communist Party (KKE) answered with a poster of an obese banker in top hat grasping the euro in his pudgy hand and the words, “It’s all mine.”
I had been invited by the KKE to speak at a conference on the threat to civil liberties in legislation approved by the European Parliament (EP) to “combat terrorism.” It is modeled on the Patriot Act rammed through the U.S. Congress by Attorney General John Ashcroft.
The EP law establishes a prosecutor, based in Brussels with, authority to gather intelligence, compile dossiers, arrest, detain and prosecute “suspected terrorists” anywhere in the EU. Speakers denounced this law as an encroachment on Greek sovereignty and a violation of the Greek constitution.
The law contains such a sweeping definition of “terrorism” that Greek farmers, then blocking roads with their tractors to protest ruinous prices imposed by the EU, could be defined as “terrorists.”
Orestes Kolozof, a member of the KKE’s Political Bureau and a leader of the Party’s International Affairs Department, told me that Greek Communists strongly condemned the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, in which thousands of innocent people of many nationalities were killed.
“It has created a new situation,” he said. “It has given imperialism an opportunity to accelerate the programs they had planned well in advance of Sept. 11. Our assessement is that the United States will try to consolidate its newly acquired positions in Central Asia.”
Greece, he said, is in a particularly complicated position because in both the Balkan crisis, the Middle East crisis, and the crisis in Cyprus, “our country is in the zone of destabilization. Our party is in favor of cooperation by all the peace and democratic forces in mobilizing against imperialism and war.”
Evangelos Maxairas, president of the Greek Peace Committee and former president of the Athens-based World Peace Council, is a revered civil liberties lawyer who said his main task as an attorney will now be defense of Greek trade unionists and farmers threatened by the new “anti-terrorism” law.
During World war II, Maxairas was a leader of the Greek partisans known by their acronym, ELAS, who fought heroically against the fascist armies of Germany, Italy and Bulgaria.
ELAS and its political arm, the EAM, had assembled a broad democratic front that liberated 90 percent of Greece, forcing the Nazi army out in April 1944. Maxairas stressed that the movement embraced both Communists and non-Communists. “I myself belong to no Party,” he said. “I am of the independent left.”
EAM was ready to take on the post-war reconstruction of Greece, he said, but British and U.S. imperialism instigated a civil war and then deployed troops to put in power the extreme right-wing Metaxhas regime.
“I was exiled along with thousands of other resistance fighters at internment camps on the islands of Ikaria and Makronissos,” Maxairas told me.
“Hundreds were beaten to death and I, too, would have been executed. But a delegation, led by former French Premier Leon Blum, arrived. They insisted that trials be convened in Athens. My life was saved.”
U.S. domination has been enforced ever since, he said, with the American embassy playing a treacherous role in the military coup d’etat of 1967 that plunged Greece into fascist rule.
A mass upsurge led by Communists and socialists finally overthrew the U.S.-backed junta in 1974. The U.S. Navy decided to move the home base of the U.S. Fifth fleet from Pireaus to Naples. Thousands of U.S. troops were withdrawn and some U.S. and NATO bases were closed.
It is not unusual for the Greek peace movement to mobilize 30,000 or more protesters in recent years, Maxairas told me. Tens of thousands protested the 1991 Persain Gulf War, and later the war to destoy Yugoslavia and Serbia.
The Peace Committee has built a broad coalition that includes human rights organizations, the labor movement, youth and students, the women’s movement and community organizations.
“We have two main tasks. First, is to oppose wars such as the U.S. war on Afghanistan, the war against Iraq and to support the rights of the Palestinian people,” he said.
“Second is the movement against corporate globalization. We are trying to coordinate this movement against globalization with the peace movement … I have been in the struggle without interruption for 65 years. I am always in the front lines of the peace demonstrations. I will keep marching for peace as long as I live.”