THE OBSERVER’S CENSORSHIP

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Βρετανοί αλεξιπτωτιστές στην Ακρόπολη. (Από το λεύκωμα Dmitri Kessel, Ελλάδα 1944, Άμμος, Αθήνα 1997).

Βρετανοί αλεξιπτωτιστές στην Ακρόπολη. (Από το λεύκωμα Dmitri Kessel, Ελλάδα 1944, Άμμος, Αθήνα 1997)

1. An extraordinary and demonstrably false claim

by RICHARD CLOGG

On 5 December last year the Trustees of the British Museum expressed their ‘delight’ in announcing the decision to lend the Russian State Hermitage Museum, on the 250th anniversary of its foundation, the sculpture of the river god Ilissos from the West pediment of the Parthenon. This was the first time one of the Parthenon marbles had been loaned since their acquisition by the Museum from the 7th Earl of Elgin in 1816. Whatever view is taken of the appropriate site to display the Parthenon marbles, whether in London or in Athens, it was surely tactless of Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, not to have notified, let alone consulted, the Greek government about a loan which, unsurprisingly, prompted a fiercely hostile reaction in Greece.

Moreover, the announcement by the Museum trustees coincided to the day with the seventieth anniversary of the beginning one of the darkest episodes in the modern history of Greece, namely the fighting in Athens between British forces, in support of the Greek government, and their one time allies in ELAS, the military wing of the National Liberation Front (EAM). This tragic confrontation was probably the only occasion during the Second World War when former allies ended up fighting each other. The seventieth anniversary of the Dekemvriana, as the hostilities are known in Greece, is likely prove the last major occasion on which a few of those involved in the events are still living. The importance of this turning point in the country’s recent history is demonstrated by the fact that there were no fewer than three academic conferences devoted to the subject in Greece.

The timing of the Trustees’ announcement, thoughtless though it was, should not necessarily be seen as a deliberate attempt to add insult to injury.  If the British prime minister, David Cameron, can labour under the delusion that the United States was fighting alongside the United Kingdom against Nazism during the Luftwaffe blitz in late 1940 and early 1941 (at a time when Britain’s only active European ally in the anti-Axis struggle was Greece) then how could Neil MacGregor and his Trustees be expected to know anything about events in wartime Greece?

The level of ignorance about the Dekemvriana in the United Kingdom was strikingly illustrated in the article, ‘Athens ’44: Britain’s dirty secret’ that appeared in the Observer magazine (30 November 2014). This was predicated on the extraordinary, and demonstrably false, assertion that it was the British army and not the Greek police that fired on left-wing demonstrators on 3 December 1944, killing some fifteen (the precise figure is disputed) and wounding many more.

The errors in his article are legion and I shall not rehearse them here. That has effectively been done by the seven Greek historians in their démarche of 12December last to the Observer. [This can be accessed at http://athensreviewofbooks.com/?p=1480 ] I very largely agree with the points they raise in their rebuttal. My only reservation is that I think it unlikely that as many as 150 members of ELAS descended into the sewers of Athens in an abortive attempt to blow up the Grande Bretagne Hotel, the British headquarters. Such an undertaking, if it were to have any chance of succeeding, would have had to be carried out in the utmost secrecy, and the involvement of 150 andartes in the operation would necessarily have made this difficult. Some of the assertions made in the Observer article lie in the realm of fantasy and as such are difficult to rebut. One such is the claim that the emergence in Greece of the thuggish, ultra-right-wing Khrysi Avgi as a political force in recent years ultimately derives from British policy in 1944.

The authors of the offending article would have done well to have borne in mind the saying, sometimes attributed to Confucius, ‘the faintest ink is more reliable than the most powerful memory’. The recollections of participants in the events of those fateful December days seem to have become confused with the passing of time. But in looking at what occurred on 3 December historians are fortunate in having the contemporary written accounts of an unusually large number of competent eye-witness observers of what happened when the very large demonstration of EAM supporters converged on Syntagma Square. While their accounts differ in points of detail, the reports of these observers, whether their sympathies lay with the left-wing demonstrators or with the Greek government, are agreed that it was the Greek police and not the British army that fired on the demonstrators. Almost forty years ago the Danish historian, Lars Baerentzen, analyzed in careful and minute detail the numerous sources (official documents, journalistic despatches and books) in an article (Scandinavian Studies in Modern Greek No. 2 1978) of which the authors of the Observer article were clearly unaware. Moreover, Dr Baerentzen, writing when he did, had the great advantage of being able to consult a number of the journalists and other eye-witnesses to the events.

There was never any prospect of the Observer printing the démarche of the seven Greek historians because of its length, but on the 28 December, a month after the original article was published, the paper did publish what it claimed was a correction. This purported correction, however, served only further to confuse the story. It stated that ‘British troops opened fire on the Greek demonstrators from the Grande Bretagne hotel in Athens on 3 December 1944. The hotel was British military headquarters, but the fire from it could also [my emphasis] have come from the Greek police.’ The firing did not and could not have come from the Grande Bretagne, from which vantage point a number of the non-Greek observers witnessed the shooting.

The ‘correction’ also referred to ELAS/EAM (normally referred to as EAM/ELAS) as ‘the Greek anti-Nazi resistance’. This formulation might simply be a case of clumsy wording, but it might also be construed as maintaining that EAM/ELAS was not merely the largest resistance organisation but the only one. But there were, of course, other anti-Nazi resistance organisations, among them EDES and EKKA.

In alerting the seven historians that the Observer was planning to publish this inadequate correction, the paper’s Readers’ Editor, Stephen Pritchard, stated that their démarche had been shown to an ‘independent historian’ who had found ‘many inconsistencies’ in their claims. But surely, each of the seven could be described as an ‘independent historian’. They might be employed by universities, but that does not imply that their conclusions on historical matters are not arrived at independently. And why was the ‘independent historian’ able to unearth ‘many inconsistencies’ but, seemingly, not errors? Could not some, or indeed all, of these ‘many inconsistences’ be revealed and hence debated? There is no need to identify the historian involved. I made this suggestion to the Readers’ Editor on 31 December. He replied on 3 January that he would reply to me in due course. When I had heard nothing by 20 January I sent him a reminder.

I did eventually receive an email from Mr Pritchard on 6 February, five weeks after he said that he would get back to me. In this he conceded that the ‘correction’ published by the Observer on 28 December had, indeed, been ‘wholly inadequate’ and suggested that I send a letter to the paper making this and other points. On reflection I declined. It seemed to me that the issue of whether or not it was the British who had fired on the demonstrators in Syntagma Square was not a matter of opinion but of fact and it was The Observer itself that should make this clear to its readers. Moreover, the seven Greek historians had two months earlier pointed out this and other errors. Mr Pritchard ignored my request for an indication of the ‘many inconsistencies’ that the ‘independent historian’ claimed to have found in the offending article.

The record of colonial empires throughout history demonstrates that all of them harbour grim secrets. This is certainly true of the British Empire. Some twenty-five years before the events of 3 December 1944, British troops in April 1919 opened fire on unarmed demonstrators in the Punjab, resulting in hundreds of dead and wounded. Interestingly, Winston Churchill, the villain of the Observer article, condemned the massacre as a ‘monstrous event’.

The British forces can be criticised for not intervening to control the Greek police, although they were manifestly caught unawares by shooting that lasted barely half an hour. But they certainly did not open fire on the demonstrators in Syntagma Square on 3 December 1944. That the Observer, the oldest Sunday newspaper in the world, refuses to acknowledge this fact is inexplicable. A cursory reading of many of the comments that the article attracted on the Observer’s website indicates the damage it has done to understanding in the UK and indeed worldwide of the tortured history of Greece during the Second World War. The Observer has had plenty of opportunities to correct the record. Why, after three months, has it not taken them?

***

Στο μπαρ της «Μεγάλης Βρετανίας»

Στο μπαρ της «Μεγάλης Βρετανίας»

2. W.H. McNeill: The eye witness of the events of December ’44

by LARS BAERENTZEN

Mr. Stephen Pritchard,

Readers’ Editor, The Observer

Dear Mr. Pritchard,

The Observer published, on November 30 last year, an article on the British role in Greece during and just after the German occupation in the Second World War.

The article (written by Ed Vulliamy and Helena Smith) prominently and emphatically stated that British troops in Athens fired on the demonstrators in Syntagma Square on December 3, 1944. I was sorry to see this statement which is untrue. I know this because in 1978 I published an article on the events that day in Athens:

Lars Bærentzen: The Demonstration in Syntagma Square on Sunday the 3rd of December, 1944. In: Scandinavian Studies in Modern Greek, no. 2, 1978, pp. 3-52

I shall mail a photocopy of my article to you.  It was published in a Danish scholarly journal which today is no doubt hard to obtain.

My paper is based on a great number of written sources, published as well as unpublished, and on interviews with eye-witnesses. I also made use of the photos taken by Dmitri Kessel, then of LIFE. After the article had been published, I studied the original negatives of these photos (thus establishing their sequence) and I had several interviews with Mr. Kessel himself. His recollection in no way contradicted anything printed in my article.

Obviously, some of the events during the demonstration in Athens that day are open to doubt or may admit various interpretations. But no eye-witness or first-hand source has ever claimed that British troops fired on the demonstrators. Nor has any historical account, to my knowledge, made such a claim. The shooting came from Greek policemen whose action is well documented.

The American historian W.H. McNeill stated in his book “The Greek Dilemma. War and Aftermath (London 1947) that “a man dressed in military uniform, but not in the grey of the police” began to fire and perhaps even initiated the firing of the police. The identity of this man has not been established, but it was certainly not a British soldier. When I later asked Professor McNeill for his source for this detail, he replied: “I saw him myself.”

It seems to me sad that The Observer has seen fit to print a statement that British soldiers joined in shooting on the Greek demonstrators on December 3rd, 1944. For the reasons given, it is in my view untrue and may risk to distort the historical record of an event which was important both in Greek and in British history.

January 18, 2015

Yours sincerely,

Lars Baerentzen