Greek Letter: Rewriting history has become a national pastime

Civil war and occupation have led authorities to value power of forgetting over memory

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras: Continual change of direction is almost de rigueur in Greece, where adherence to the past can be fatal. Photograph: Eric Vidal/Reuters

For decades it has been agreed by politicians and educationalists that the Greek school and university system needs to be reformed. But, as with so many other aspects of public policy, no one can agree on how to do it.

One of the controversial areas is the writing – and revision – of the history books. There are so many lesions on the Greek mind caused by history, which complicate the lessons to be learned: the Anatolian Catastrophe of 1922 when Greece lost forever its irredentist dream of regaining Constantinople; the Nazi occupation in the second World War and the loss of the Jewish community; the ensuing civil war; the military junta of 1967-74; and the continuing Cyprus dispute with the old enemy, Turkey.

Of these, the civil war remains the most divisive, so much so that there are people who, like the Holocaust-deniers, try to erase it from the national memory.

In the bay of Corfu, where I live, there's a small island called Lazareto which, for centuries, was a quarantine facility for arrivals. During the civil war (officially, 1946-49) it was a place of execution.


Approximately 300 graves, each marked by a marble cross, are the evidence of these executions. Plus a wall pockmarked with bullet holes. In its own way, its silence is as eloquent as that of Auschwitz.

Derelict memorial

Yet when I first came here I was told “There was no civil war on Corfu”. An EU-funded project, inaugurated in 2000 with a budget of €314,000 (€1,000 for each grave, you might say) was pledged to build an interpretative centre, but was abandoned around 2006 and lies in near dereliction. Visiting the island is a near impossibility as it has no landing-place.

According to the official notice on Lazareto, the interpretative centre was to have three functions: to provide a history of the island as a quarantine centre; to commemorate the resistance to wartime occupation; and to honour those who died there during the civil war.

The centre is a new-build three-storey construction with a lecture-room and museum space. A rusting generator stands nearby. But where there might be a regular throng of visitors – especially schoolchildren and tourists – there is only the silence of the graves.

It’s as if the authorities wanted to cancel the idea of commemoration, to value the power of forgetting over that of memory.

One of the few writers to mention the civil war in Corfu, and its aftermath, is Maria Strani-Potts, in her stories The Cat of Portovecchio. When she writes "Two sides of the same coin can never face one another, yet they are as close as can be" she identifies the twin issues of commemoration and denial which beset any attempt to honour the dead of Lazareto – most of them young communists.

Communist legacy

Communism in Greece – at least in Corfu – is not entirely a matter of ideology. One of my neighbours is an unrepentant capitalist, yet he is “communist” in politics because his father (a “real” communist) was tortured by the junta.

Many others of the left, like the poet Yannis Ritsos or the composer Mikis Theodorakis, were sent to prison islands from which they were lucky to return alive. Their experience fuelled the characteristic Greek sense of resistance to forces such as today's Golden Dawn, the avowed admirers of Hitler and the third largest party in the state.

The role of the Greek left, during all these crises, is a continual rebuke to the image of Greece as a conservative, sedate polity, yet it is difficult to celebrate, because while it has always been at the centre of history, it has been on the margin of politics.

It is ironic that the culture of resistance is exemplified in Lazareto, and yet it is virtually ignored by all except the local communist party who organise an annual pilgrimage to the island.

This irony is reflected in today's politics. There have been more U-turns on policy issues by Alexis Tsipras and the Syriza government than you'll find on the Monaco Grand Prix. But a continual change of direction is almost de rigueur in Greece, where adherence to the past can be fatal.

In the face of such U-turns, the trenchant Athens journalist Alexis Papachelas has written frequently of Greece's need for "a new narrative" – a storyboard that will make the future not only possible but also credible.

But that would mean another revision of history. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire said that "one cannot carry forever the cadaver of one's father". Clearly he hadn't been to Greece. The dead boys on Lazareto were mostly too young to be fathers, yet their memory weighs constantly and heavily on the shoulders of all.