THE GHOST OF THE COLONELS

Thursday 3 November 2011, 18:00

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

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In the present crisis over Greece there is a furious argument about whether the Greek people should be allowed to vote on the proposed solution. Many of the voices against this come from the world of finance and economics. They say that the crisis is too dangerous to leave to the will of the people.

I just wanted to show why some Greek politicians - and especially George Papandreou, even though he may have retreated from a referendum - might think it important to allow the people a voice.

I have discovered a film in the archives that dramatically tells you why. It was made in 1974 and is an engrossing history of the Colonels' coup in Greece in 1967 - and what life was then like for the Greek people under the military dictatorship that held power for seven years.

As you watch it you realise, given what the Greeks have been through, it is no wonder that politicians, especially Papandreou, think the mandate of the people is important.

The present language of the finance technocrats, and their supporters in the media, portray the Greek people as just another group of lazy southern Europeans who have fed too long at the trough of state money. A bit like us - but more crap.

What is forgotten is that from 1967 to 1974 the Greek people lived under a harsh and violent dictatorship that tortured and murdered thousands of ordinary people. The Colonels also corrupted the society by handing out vast loans to individuals in towns and villages across the country - to buy their loyalty. At the same time the repression and torture bred a powerful resistance that finally burst out in incredible bravery in 1973.

This is the strange and twisted society that the present Prime Minister's father, Andreas Papandreou, inherited when he became the newly elected leader in 1981. He was faced by the task of rebuilding the peoples' trust in democracy and the state. Partly he did it through state spending - and in that policy lie many of the roots of today's crisis.

The discussion of Greece today in the press and the political offices of Europe is almost completely ahistorical - everything is couched in utilitarian terms of economic management. I just think it is important to put the present crisis in a wider historical context. Above all the extraordinary history of the military dictatorship and the savage effects it had on the whole of Greek society.

First - here is a short compilation of some of the best bits of the news coverage from the time.

Back in 1965 Mr Papandreou's grandfather, who was also called George, was the Prime Minister - leading the progressive Centre Union Party. Young right-wing officers in the military became increasingly concerned about the influence of George's son, Andreas who they saw as a dangerous leftist.

The officers were convinced that Andreas wanted to remove Greece from its frontline role in the Cold War - they believed this would open the door to communists. For eighteen months there was political chaos. Then new elections were scheduled for May 1967 - which George Snr. was certain to win.

So, on the 21st of April, the officers mounted a coup. They used a NATO plan for neutralizing a communist uprising in the event of a Soviet invasion.

The news coverage starts with a wonderful piece of reporting by the Panorama reporter John Morgan at the first press conference held by the officers after the coup. Then there are sections from other reports that both give a brilliant sense of the absurdity of the military men who now took control of the country, but also of the total fear they induced. I have included some vox pops taken by a crew inside the country in 1972.

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Here is the film about life under the Colonels. It is called Greece - The Seven Black Years. It was made in 1974 - and broadcast in early 1975.

Its commentary is very much of its time - but the film has a power both in the details and in the way it is made. It shows that along with the terrible torture, the Colonels exercised control through financial means - or what one villager calls "the big money".

The film starts with these details and some great interviewees, and then builds to a very moving climax with the students who took over the Athens Technical University in November 1973 and stood against the military might of the Junta. There is extraordinary film of what then happened - and it also tells you a lot about the radicalisation of many of the Greek people today, and how important democracy is to them in the face of unelected elites who try and control them and their society. A belief in democracy born out of struggle - something that we may have forgotten.

But history also shows that coups don't always happen because of a power-hungry military. The Times pointed out today that the cuts being demanded of Greece are on a scale similar to the reparations imposed on Germany by the victors at Versailles in 1919. And look what that did to the belief in democracy.

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    Comment number 1.

    This is terrific, cheers.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 2.

    Just to follow on from your last sentence, the power of Nightmares applies to more than one country. I think the average German has good reason to be terrified of the dilution of their currency.

    The Euro has in many ways been a sort of Socialist dream. At the heart of it is the notion that the wealth of *rich* countries can somehow be shared with those not so wealthy, even if only by allowing those *poor* countries to obtain loans at very low rates of interest.

    Back in the Cold War days the socialist nightmare we all used to be afraid of was the loss of democracy. You have just seen the terror democracy strikes into the heart of the Euro dream. Join the dots.

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    Comment number 3.

    Remember London with the refugees from the coup and their tales of horror. Then I remember an artist friend. She had said something wrong but she was American and found herself tortured. Her living body came back from Athens but her mind was gone. Most Americans cannot understand the consequences of American meddling. Many Greeks spit when one mentions Germans, the Resistance never forgets.

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    Comment number 4.

    "You know the saying, that ... when its wonderful to know that when the doorbell rings at seven o'clock in the morning, it's the milkman."

    That sentence alone speaks volumes.

    That Panorama piece was golden. I'll bet John Morgan wasn't very popular with the colonels. The bit at the end with several (one painfully beautiful, please allow me to say) people dodging questions about the junta is especially gripping.

    Thanks, Adam, for continuing to haunt the BBC archive, and to present not only the past, but the present, in such a straight up fashion. I can't get enough of this.

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    Comment number 5.

    It is an absurd idea, as Moor Larkin suggests, that the Euro is a socialist project.

    The market is king, here. Greece is trying to make decisions according to the dictates of her citizens and not the market.

    This is a crisis of capital, and a crisis brought about by unregulated capitalism.

    Germany and France are acting in the defensive of *capital.* Of course they are—the exercise of democracy in Greece threatens wealth and investment everywhere Euros are spent.

    The notion that Germany and France are somehow "socialist", and the European project somehow "socialist" because it's fractionally more regulated than the American model is, simply, an American fantasy. It isn't.

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    Comment number 6.

    "the Colonels exercised control through financial means - or what one villager calls 'the big money'."

    Like the parallels of the finance world excercising control, using 'the big money' through lobbyists and other means, on politicians and the media. How more isn't made in the media of the fact that all the average struggling workers are paying more in cuts for this continuing financial crisis while the financial institutions and hedge funds are making more and more money on the back of it, I'll never understand (apart from a sprinkling of voices like Mr Curtis and George Monbiot). I've almost finished reading a book called Supercapitalism by Robert Reich - http://bit.ly/uhsw2H - that has been a great read and one I definitely recommend - it gives a clear picture of how power has been lost to the financial world since 'The Not Quite Golden Age' and how our demands as 'consumers' and 'investors' has worn away our demands as 'citizens'.

    Finally, I also completely agree with the comment by Neil Bennun above against the comments made by Moor Larkin, I just can't see how this is a socialist issue?!

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    Comment number 7.

    Couple of side notes

    It's worth checking out Greece's contribution to another story Ad has mentioned on here - the Gaza flotilla raid.

    Also - if you look at the PIGS countries it they who were poorest 20 years ago, and it's they who have paid primarily in this crisis. It ain't an accident and it sure ain't socialism.

    The Euro and the Union appeals to a lot of people on the left, perhaps it's an anti-American thing. But the same forces are in play in both territories - as we're finding out now.

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    Comment number 8.

    Thanks for bringing this to light, Adam. The scale of the structural adjustment offensive in Greece and Europe certainly does summon up these kinds of ghosts.

    And there is an incompatibility between the savage austerity and the democratic space that has been carved out over the last six decades. But that does not mean that it is is only through coup d'etats or fascist takeovers that democracy is curtailed.

    For example, in Greece the democratic participation of students and faculty in the administration of universities is already under attack, under a social democratic government. The demand of the EU/ECB/IMF troika mean subordinating the decisions of Greek ministries to appointed troika officials who are to be ensconced in government buildings.

    While more dramatic steps, including resort to military intervention, should certainly not be ruled out. I think it's a mistake to see the manoeuvring of the zombie Papandreou government this week as a democratic rallying against some imminent military coup. (A palace coup to remove him by figures in his own party in cahoots with the political class and EU officials/leaders is a very different matter and is certainly in play.)

    But there is no evidence that George Papandreou's manoeuvre over the referendum had anything to do with securing democratic legitimacy. In the current horse-trading over the formation of a government of national unity he wants a lash-up to last for a considerable time in order to *avoid* elections until the latest austerity measures have been rammed home (some hope).

    It was about forcing the establishment, particularly the party of big business, New Democracy, to come out and fight for the austerity rather than leave all the pressure on his and Pasok's shoulders, which threatens to rip the party apart and destroy his family's political legacy.

    On another point in your useful commentary: I think it is wrong, though a journalistic commonplace, to claim that the roots of the present Greek crisis lie in the public spending of the early years of Andreas Papandreou's government in the 1980s.

    It's true that the nationalisation schemes did generously compensate the owners of, in effect, already bankrupt enterprises (rather like the British nationalisation of the coal industry in the 1940s). So these were hardly anti-capitalist measures.

    But the state-run electricity, water and other industries efficiently developed the infrastructure of the country. The villages got decent roads, clean water and electricity for the first time. The necessary infrastructure for industry and mass tourism was developed. Still today the total deficit that can by hypothecated to the public sector is dwarfed by the private debt the state has ensovereigned in response to the crisis and in the years preceding.

    We shouldn't, and don't have to, accept the ideological linchpin of the austerity drive - that the Greek people in their majority, through a too generous, corrupt and bloated public sector, have been living beyond their means.

    The main proximate problems are the weaknesses of Greek capitalism (much of its profits invested abroad) and the rapacity of its ruling class, combined with with the terms of the Eurozone, which is in fact a transfer union - it's transferred productive capital and capacity from the periphery to, especially, German enterprises for a decade and more.

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    Comment number 9.

    "What is forgotten is that from 1967 to 1974 the Greek people lived under a harsh and violent dictatorship that tortured and murdered thousands of ordinary people." Yes, and then there was the harsh and violent dictatorship twenty-five years before that as well. The Greeks are well aware of the issues around unpaid reparations, Greek gold, Germany being let off their debts in the 1950s.
    The European project appeals to those on the left partly because it was originally an attempt to avoid further European conflicts; is also appeals to that side in the UK precisely because it doesn't appeal to the right, who view it as a threat to their Churchillian perception of this country.
    Ulitmately however, a single "United States of Europe" may well be the only way for these nations to compete within a global capitalist system in which India, China, the USA, Russia and Brazil will all have bigger populations and more natural resources than individual Euro nations, and more of an ability to control those resources because they won't be fettered by the individual sentiments of the populations of small nation-states. So, not a socialist dream, but a capitalist one.

    The Americans probably disdain Europe for being so petty and unable to reach agreement (as usual, they think no doubt ) while at the same time they probably don't like the idea of the single Euro superstate either as it would be a much more powerful competitor.

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    Comment number 10.

    The simple fact is Greece is not doing anything everyone else is doing anyway except their rate of return was that they got here first.

    If Greece defaulted rather than excepted the bail out plan it would spread contagion across the banking sector.

    Trying to see the downside of that eventuality is perplexing because the debt burden being placed on us all never mind the Greeks is unaffordable and will lead to a collapse of the monetary system anyway. So while the markets may demand this or that response in the end its all going to end in fire. This means the only really logically response is to globally erase debt and restructure the source of new money by withdrawing the power of banks to conjure credit out of thin air.

    This would have the added bonus of allowing politicians to kick the financial technocrats out power and retrench faith in democratic institutions.

    everybody knows these bankers have to go. And the momentum for change is growing

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    Comment number 11.

    Neil Bennun

    Well said. It's incredible that the eurozone can be described as socialist when, frankly, a fundamental dislike of the EU is one of the few things that socialists and conservatives agree on.

    The EU, of course, was designed entirely to aid the neoliberal project. As you note, the desire to set up a large deregulated market. Low to non-existent trade barriers was one of its core aims.

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    Comment number 12.

    What's all this nonsense about the Euro being socialism, or that the Greek people are standing up to the will of capital? Adam you claim the media is calling the "Greek people as just another group of lazy southern Europeans who have fed too long at the trough of state money. A bit like us - but more crap." None of the above comments are getting to the heart of the matter are they?

    Let's be frank what's happened in Greece: Greece is a cheat's charter. The politicians are frauds. They doctored their financial statements before getting approval into the EU. If Greece was a country, it would be Enron. HUNDREDS of billions of dollars of infrastructure loans went in, and only TENS of billions of dollars of assets were built. Where did the rest go? Look in the swimming pools and fancy homes. Look in the bank accounts in Cyprus and Malta!

    The Greek public finances may be doing bad, but the Greek elite (the top 25%) have been squirreling away all those funds offshore, or benefiting from the same. And now the swinger's party is over and everybody's got the Greek clap!

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    Comment number 13.

    The Greek tax economy has long been known to be corrupt at every level, according to the BBC... ;-)

    From February 2010:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/8509244.stm
    "Anyone who has ever been at the mercy of the American health system knows that even if you are critically ill, many hospitals will not let you near a doctor until they have swiped your credit card. In Greece, if you try to pay for private treatment with a credit card, even the most distinguished surgeon might raise his eyebrows and click his tongue, which means: "What part of no don't you understand?" Because the doctor wants cash. Stelios is one of the few doctors who will give you a receipt. He declares his income to the taxman and pays his proper dues to the state. As opposed to many of his colleagues who are pillars of Greece's thriving black economy."

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    Comment number 14.

    There is quite a good documentary on Youtube.com called "Debtocracy" by Katerina Kitidi and Aris Hatzistefanou which focusses on the causes of the debt crisis in Greece, a survey of what Argentina and Ecuador have done to solve their own debt crises and what Greece must do to save itself.

    The documentary makes it quite clear that Greek people themselves should not be held responsible for paying off the country's huge debt as most of it if not all of it was incurred by successive governments imposing an unfair taxation regime that exploited the poor but was generous to corporations while at the same time borrowing heavily to fund a welfare state. The film also shows examples of illegal debts that were made in the form of bribes and gifts made to politicians by foreign firms like Siemens.

    My understanding also is that Greek politics is dominated by a few families whose members intermarry. Dispensing favours and calling on connections are also customary in Greek politics. It's also not unusual for governments to gerrymander electoral boundaries to keep their favoured parties in power.

    Another issue to consider is Greece's military expenditure. According to Wikipedia (Politics of Greece article), Greece spends 4.3% of its GDP on its military and in 2004 the country ranked 3rd in the world in arms purchases. This is a serious issue given that since 1821 Greece has viewed itself as being in the shadow of a large neighbour and rival (Turkey) and needs to defend itself against an invasion or takeover of Greek territory. As if the Turks these days care. The problem though is that even if Greek politicians wholeheartedly agree to reduce arms spending, there are various interested parties that do not want the country to reduce its expenditure, though they are keen for the country to reduce its social welfare, health and education spending. "Debtocracy" nails two such countries that want to keep Greece's snout in the feeding trough for arms purchases: France and Germany. Yes, one of these is the country that is tightening the screws on Greece.

    Just to rub more salt into the wound is that a historian interviewed in "Debtocracy" mentions that the only time Greece was a creditor nation was during the early 1940s when Nazi Germany invaded the country and forced Greece to send food supplies and essential materials to German forces in eastern Europe and the Balkans. Greece was also required to make a loan to Nazi Germany - incidentally, a loan that Germany has never repaid. The demands that the Nazis made on Greece were so severe that during the 1941/2 winter, some 300,000 people perished in greater Athens due to famine. Seems to me that Greece has more than paid its outstanding debts with blood.

    If you do come across "Debtocracy", you'll find it a very interesting film: it was made on the cheap and features some interesting animation.

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    Comment number 15.

    To the comment above "Seems to me that Greece has more than paid its outstanding debts with blood." i will agree..
    I am in no way justifying the Greeks, nor am i saying that the government has not been corrupt, the people have not lived a good life based on credits which the banking system more than happily provided...but lets just not forget that the Germany was biggest debt transgressor of 20th Century.
    Greeks are now really suffering. People that have been paying their taxes, an have been law abiding citizents too..
    And as history states, during the past century alone,Germany has become insolvent at least three times. After the first default during the 1930s, the US gave Germany a "haircut" in 1953, reducing its debt problem to practically nothing. Germany has been in a very good position ever since, even as other Europeans were forced to endure the burdens of World War II and the consequences of the German occupation. Germany even had a period of non-payment in 1990.

    Measured in each case against the economic performance of the USA, the German debt default in the 1930s alone was as significant as the costs of the 2008 financial crisis. Compared to that default, today's Greek payment problems are actually insignificant.

    You can read the rest on http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,769703,00.html

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    Comment number 16.

    The Greek economy in a generalised systematic way behaves no differently from any other. The simple fact is that the international backing system built on debt will/ and is collapsing. Somebody had to be first.

    If not Greece then someone else.

    There is no point blaming the Greek population for a fiscal crime everyone else is already committing but just has not caught up with them yet. This allows other EU populations to live a fantasy that their economies are not structured on unaffordable debt that demands an ever growing return in interest. While commentators can point out various details of the Greek story these details do not so much explain why Greece is in this mess as much as why Greece is in this mess FIRST.

  • Comment number 17.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 18.

    Always fascinated by this blog. I've read my way through allsorts of POMO but in the end resigned myself to the "hardness of the logical must ". This is not to say that I don't believe in possibility of moral alternatives to any particular brand of capitalism, far from it. Put simply I don't believe there is any secret hidden way of writing the moral back story in any logic - Marcuse included.

    P.S enjoyed the film " The Bank Job" and it's angle on Michael X, the establishment, and all things Money.

    Thanks

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    Comment number 19.

    I cannot accept this talk about the political and economic unification of Europe being a socialist or a capitalist dream. My view is that Greece should default as Iceland did to preserve its sovereignty. For much of its history since it gained independence in 1829, Greece has been buffeted by the larger Western European powers such as Germany and Britain. Originally the newly independent Greece was to have been a republic with a Russian diplomat of Greek ancestry (Ioannis Kapodistrias) as the country's first president; but he was later assassinated and the republican form of government was replaced by a monarchy. The country's first king was German and the second king was Danish. That suggests that from the get-go, Greece was expected to be a sort of listening or staging post for the European imperial powers to monitor activities within a weakening Ottoman Empire.

    Circumstances have changed greatly but from the recent flurry of political activity with George Papandreou having to step down after being "summoned" to an audience with Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy - and don't you just love the fact that he was "summoned" as though Greece were a servant of France and Germany? - and replaced by a unity government, days after the heads of the military forces were sacked to ward off a potential coup d'etat, we must assume that Greece's "independence" has effectively come to an end and the country is now the economic colony of France and Germany.

    Those military expenditures I mentioned in my earlier post are sure to continue with Greece's head being pushed lower into the trough while the people have to endure a deteriorating standard of living.

    Call this socialist or capitalist? I call it feudalistic. I don't see how a United States of Europe can possibly benefit Europeans. If such an entity is what you want to have, you are welcome to it and any advantages a large state might offer: increased opportunities for travel without the fuss of a visa or a passport, buying things online without having to pay tiresome import or export taxes. But you must also accept the diseconomies of scale that come with such an entity: the distance between citizen and State increases with a necessary and proportionate increase in bureaucracy, the expense involved in administering to a large and diverse population that speaks several languages and which does not share a common cultural or religious background.

    We cannot even say that Russia, India, China, Brazil and the United States as they are, represent the kind of state we should aspire to. All these countries may have signific

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    Comment number 20.

    Ah, the last paragraph was cut off. It should read:

    We cannot even say that Russia, India, China, Brazil and the United States as they are, represent the kind of state we should aspire to. All these countries may have significant problems in administration and managing their economies simply because of their immense geographic size and populations. In all these countries, there are wealthier, more developed regions that probably have to subsidise the less developed parts of the country. Corruption may be rife in these countries. There is the issue of providing and maintaining infrastructure in areas remote from population centres and subject to extremes of climate and environment. Russia, India and China in particular have numerous ethnic groups that feel aggrieved about their treatment by the central or federal government and which want self-rule of some kind or another.

    I think that eventually even people in the US will realise their political, economic and cultural interests may be better served by being in a very loose federation which may or may not imply the political break-up of the United States as we know it.

    I could say more but I think I've said enough already.

 

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