Could Greece be on the verge of another social explosion?

  • December 5, 2014

Anarchism & Autonomy

The hunger strike of an anarchist prisoner and the reaction on the streets are rekindling long-standing conflicts in Greek society going back to 1944.

The Greek streets have been relatively quiet of late. After four years of devastating economic depression and continued state repression, the revolutionary zeal that once animated the spectacular mobilizations of the early years of the crisis has since given way to a widespread sense of despondence. This may now be changing. Students and anarchists have been mobilizing in force in recent weeks to show their solidarity with Nikos Romanos, the anarchist prisoner who has been on hunger strike since November 10.

Both Nikos’ struggle and the response on the streets are laden with symbolic significance and historical resonance. In fact, the month of December has long brought out the best in the Greek resistance; and the worst in terms of the state’s reaction. Six years ago, on December 6, 2008, two special police officers rolled into the neighborhood of Exarchia — the well-known anarchist stronghold of Athens — and, following a brief altercation with a group of teenagers, murdered the 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos with a fatal shot through the heart. Fate has it that Nikos was there that night. Alexis was his best friend. He died in his arms.

The murder of Alexis sparked a month of intense rioting on the Greek streets. Schools, universities and empty buildings were occupied across the country as popular assemblies popped up in the most unexpected places. The establishment newspaper Kathimerini referred to the December 2008 riots as “the worst Greece has seen since the restoration of democracy in 1974.” An ominous prophecy was scribbled onto an Athenian wall in those days, one that was to portend the intense social unrest and mass demonstrations that were to follow in the 2010-’12 debt crisis. It simply read: “we are an image from the future.”

That dystopian future is now. On Saturday, it will be exactly six years since Alexis’ murder — and Alexis’ best friend Nikos Romanos, if he is lucky, will be spending it in hospital. Nikos stopped eating on November 10 in protest against the authorities’ refusal to grant him his legal right to educational furlough. His doctors warn that he is in critical condition and could succumb from heart or kidney failure anytime. The government has given hospital staff the order to force-feed him, but the doctors have refused. As Nikos’ health steadily deteriorates, the streets are becoming ever more combustible — especially in anticipation of the annual commemoration march for Alexis on Saturday.

On Tuesday night, fierce riots broke out in downtown Athens after more than 10.000 people marched through the city in solidarity with Nikos and four anarchist comrades who recently joined him on his hunger strike. The images of burning cars in Exarchia led many to wonder if a replay of 2008 might be in the cards if the state does not give in to Nikos’ demands soon. Riot police responded with the usual teargas and baton rounds, but what was truly worrisome were later reports that at least 10 detainees had been hospitalized with heavy injuries, including broken limbs and ribs. Two Syriza MPs who rushed to the police headquarters found the sixth floor of the building “covered in blood.”

In a further historical resonance, Tuesday’s clashes once again centered on the entrance gate to the Athens Polytechnic in Stournari street — the exact site of the 1973 student uprising that eventually led to the fall of the military junta. Back then, the dictatorship sent in a tank to ram down the university gates and positioned snipers on the rooftops who subsequently opened fire on the protesters down below, killing dozens. Many of today’s students and unemployed youth have parents who participated in the Polytechnic uprising, and there is a widespread sense that the new generation needs to “rise up to the challenge of our times” like their parents did in the 1970s.

But the historical origins of today’s state repression and creeping fascism can be traced back even further, to another fateful December — the Dekemvriana of 1944. This week it was exactly 70 years ago that violence broke out in Athens following the orders of the British commander Lt Gen Ronald Scobie and provisional Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou (father of ex-Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou and grandfather of ex-Prime Minister George Papandreou) to disarm the partisans of the Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS), who had just liberated the country from the German occupier.

The Greek Communist Party (KKE), with at least 50.000 men under arms in the countryside, constituted the most important part of ELAS, and the British feared that the Communists might march on Athens, take state power, and align Greece with the Soviet Union — threatening British imperial interests in the Mediterranean. So when 200.000 citizens poured into the streets to protest the decision to disarm the partisans, British troops conspired with Nazi sympathizers to open fire on the peaceful crowds, killing at least 28 unarmed civilians. In the next month, thousands of leftists were killed and 12.000 more deported to internment camps on Greek islands and across the Middle East.

Needless to say, the year 2014 is neither 2008 nor 1973 nor 1944. But the echoes of the past resound into the present to create, once again, an ominous image of the future. Unlike elsewhere in Europe, the Greek state was never truly purged of Nazi sympathizers after the war. This set the stage for the bloody civil war that lasted until 1949 and that in turn laid the groundwork for the military junta a generation later. The scars of the junta and the civil war still run through Greek society today, constituting the main fault line of political conflict along which the intense animosity between left and right continues to play out.

Even today, the descendants of Metaxas, the Nazi sympathizers and the Colonels retain control over a lingering deep state, with a heavy fascist presence in the police, the army and the judiciary. In this sense, as Ed Vulliamy and Helena Smith just pointed out in an investigation for The Observer, the youthful rebels of 2008 were really the children of the students of 1973 and the grandchildren of the partisans of 1944. And so the long-standing struggle against state repression and creeping fascism is carried over into the crisis-ridden Greece of 2014. No one can predict if the seismic frictions will once again cause the fault lines to erupt into a major social explosion. But a wave of occupations is already spreading through the country and the government — eager to stoke the tension — has banned demonstrations on Friday and part of Saturday.

This weekend will tell how far the mobilization can go, but one thing is clear: the relative quiet on the Greek streets cannot last forever.

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Magazine — Issue 11