Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Zorba the Greek on the extermination of the Macedonians

Greece’s politics since World War II have involved a series of catastrophes that collectively resemble a train-wreck: the murderous persecution of leftists that provoked the Greek Civil War; the fascist Regime of the Colonels of 1967-74; the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, provoked by the Colonels’ policies; support for Milosevic’s Serbia in the Wars of Yugoslav Succession; and the continued persecution of the Republic of Macedonia. All these disasters originate from the fact that right-wing nationalists took power in Greece after the Nazis vacated the country in late 1944. These nationalists had themselves either collaborated with the Nazis, or at best had played a negligible role in the resistance compared to that of the left-wing National Liberation Front, but were able to take and hold power thanks to the support of first Britain and then the US. The Greek leftists, who had led one of the greatest anti-Nazi resistance movements in occupied Europe, were murderously crushed.

When contemplating the magnitude of the horrors that have resulted from this exceptionally shameful case of British and American geopolitics, it is worth recalling the proud tradition of the Greek left, whose members have often provided the most eloquent voices of protest at the crimes of Greek reaction and Greek nationalism. And none has been more eloquent than that of Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957), arguably Greece’s greatest modern writer.

Kazantzakis’s most famous fictional character is Alexis Zorba, the eponymous hero of his 1946 novel ‘Zorba the Greek’. A swashbuckling, philosophising Casanova, Zorba remains beloved by Greeks today, and Greek restaurants all over the world are named after him. Given current Greek policy toward Macedonia, it is illuminating to read the words that Kazantzakis placed in the mouth of this most popular of Greek fictional heroes when the latter described his role in the Greek struggle to colonise Macedonia, that got going properly in the late nineteenth century and that culminated in the Greek conquest of Aegean Macedonia in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. In this struggle, Greece’s principal opponents were Bulgaria and the Macedonian and Bulgarian nationalists based among the Macedonian-speaking population. The Bulgarian nationalists considered all Macedonian-speakers to be ‘Bulgarian’, while the Macedonian rebels themselves were divided over their relationship to Bulgaria. Zorba refers to his victims simply as ‘Bulgars’, though the terrain on which he operated would have been populated by ethnic Macedonians rather than actual Bulgarians.

Zorba recalls:

I used to wander about the mountains of Macedonia with Pavlos Melas – I was a strapping fellow then, taller than this hut, with my kilt, red fez, silver charms, amulets, yataghan, cartridgecases and pistols. I was covered with steel, silver and studs. When I marched there was a clatter and clank as if a regiment were passing down the street !

Zorba describes his ambush of a rival guerrilla, a Bulgarian priest:

So I went into this priest’s stable and waited. Toward nightfall the priest came into the stable to feed the animals. I threw myself on him and cut his throat like a sheep. I lopped off his ears and stuck them in my pocket. I was making a collection of Bulgar ears, you see; so I took the priest’s ears and made off.

A few days leter, Zorba repented of this action and renounced his country, after meeting the five orphaned children of the priest he had killed, who had been reduced to beggary. But this was only after having already carried out a whole series of atrocities:

I’ve done things for my country that would make your hair stand on end, boss. I’ve cut people’s throats, burned villages, robbed and raped women, wiped out entire families. Why ? Because they were Bulgars, or Turks.

Zorba then describes his assault on a ‘Bulgarian’ village:

Once I went into another Bulgarian village. And one old brute who’d spotted me – he was a village elder – told the others and they surrounded the house I was lodging in. I slipped out onto the balcony and crept from one roof to the next; the moon was up and I jumped from balcony to balcony like a cat. But they saw my shadow, climbed up onto the roofs and started shooting. So what do I do ? I dropped down into the yard, and there I found a Bulgarian woman in bed. She stood up in her nightdress, saw me and opened her mouth to shout, but I held out my arms and whispered ‘Mercy ! Mercy ! Don’t shout !’ and seized her breasts. She went pale and half swooned.

‘Come inside’, she said in a low voice. ‘Come in so that we can’t be seen…’

I went inside, she gripped my hand: ‘Are you a Greek ?’ she said. ‘Yes, Greek. Don’t betray me.’ I took her by the waist. She said not a word. I went to bed with her, and my heart trembled with pleasure. ‘There, Zorba, you dog’, I said to myself, ‘there’s a woman for you; that’s what humanity means ! What is she ? Bulgar ? Greek ? Papuan ? That’s the last thing that matters ! She’s human, and a human being with a mouth, and breasts, and she can love. Aren’t you ashamed of killing ? Bah ! Swine !’

That’s the way I thought while I was with her, sharing her warmth. But did that mad bitch, my country, leave me in peace for that, do you think ? I disappeared next morning in the clothes the Bulgar woman gave me. She was a widow. She took her late husband’s clothes out of a chest, gave them to me, and she hugged my knees and begged me to come back to her.

Yes, yes, I did go back… the following night. I was a patriot then, of course – a wild beast; I went back with a can of paraffin and set fire to the village. She must have been burnt along with the others, poor wretch. Her name was Ludmilla.

(Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek, Faber and Faber, London, 2000, pp. 240-245)

This, then, is the heritage of the Greek struggle for Macedonia, currently manifested in the campaign to force the Republic of Macedonia to change its name, in order finally to wipe the Macedonian nation off the map of Europe. As expressed by the pen of Greece’s greatest novelist, through the mouth of Greece’s favourite fictional character.

Kazantzakis must be spinning in his grave.

Friday, 23 May 2008 - Posted by | Balkans, Former Yugoslavia, Greece, Macedonia

1 Comment

  1. […] Surbiton quotes from Nikos Kazantzakis‘ “Zorba the Greek”: “Given current Greek policy toward Macedonia, it is […]

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