All of the Greek protests have a few things in common. All of them take place in Syntagma Square. Most of the demonstrators are peaceful citizens, shocked by austerity and lack of political leadership in one of the worst financial disasters in history.
There’s one other thing all the protests have in common: a fierce old man always shows up, pressing forward, in the centre. He’s not a leader, though. For sure, he is a prominent figure, but in the protests he’s just one of the crowd. Old and fragile, indeed, but as passionate as the others. And he’s always getting into trouble.
In March 2010 a policeman tear-gassed him at the gates of Parliament, and he had to be dragged to safety. This month he got gassed again at the same spot, fainted and had to be carried to the infirmary inside the parliament building. To the police, he’s an agitator. His name is Manolis Glezos and he has been fighting like this for 70 years. He is 89 now.
Four major events stamp the modern history of Greece: the Nazi occupation, the civil war, the military dictatorship and the financial collapse. Glezos has been in all four.
The event that made him famous in Greece occurred at the beginning of his life. On the night of May 30, 1941, when the Nazis had totally occupied the country, he crept to the top of the Acropolis through a cave with Lakis Santas, a friend and comrade. Together they managed to take the Nazi flag down from its pole and slip away without being noticed by the guards.
The symbolic value of his gesture was enormous. That simple act of defiance in one of the darkest days of the war became a beacon of hope for besieged nations around the world.
“Glezos is the symbol for the collective Greek consciousness”
The end of World War II did not bring an end to the suffering in Greece. A civil war between the army of the new republic and Greek communist guerrillas, who had been the most effective in the resistance against the Nazis, raged for four years and left the country even more divided and crushed.
Manolis Glezos was a prominent member of the Communist Party and director of its official newspaper. Those roles very often landed him in prison. Two death sentences were passed on him, and while in jail he was elected to parliament. In total, nearly 16 years of his life have been spent in prison or in exile.
“Glezos is the symbol for the collective Greek consciousness,” says Niles Marantzidis, professor of political science at the University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki. “His revolutionary act during the war was the critical point of his career. But his politics have changed over the years. Glezos in the 1950’s was very different from Glezos in the 1980’s. If there is a constant in his career, though, it is the idea that Greece is a unified nation in constant struggle with foreign enemies.”
As a member of the leftist movement EDA, Glezos participated in three elections in the 1980s as a candidate of PASOK, the socialist party led by Andreas Papandreou that led Greece for most of the 80’s and laid the foundations of the uncontrolled accumulation of debt by a corrupt state.
“The only solution is the general election”
“During the 80’s the country developed a new narrative to explain how it saw itself and came to grips with its past,” says Marantzidis. “Glezos was in a good position to become the focus of this narrative.”
This may be one explanation for the unprecedented longevity of Glezos as a political figure. Few indeed have managed to be present at every crucial moment in the life of modern Greece. And though his ideology has changed along the way, Glezos always kept one thing clearly in mind. For him, it was never a case of fighting different battles. The battle was always the same one. And he wages it relentlessly.
The Greek financial crisis has reached a critical point. The last two years have seen a torrent of austerity measures that have worn down the economy almost as much as they have the patience of the citizens. Inevitably, the people have come out onto the streets. And Manolis Glezos is always there with them, together with his partner in anger, Mikis Theodorakis, the legendary composer who is now 87.
Though Glezos is an old man, nothing indicates he is about to turn 90 in September. We talk about what all the Greeks are talking about: the financial crisis. “Today, the only solution is the general election,” he says. “Our electoral system is a mess. The government is totally distanced from what the people want. We need elections and we need the leftist parties to unite, to leave their differences aside and get the chance to govern.”
“I lost 118 of my comrades”
Glezos has very clear ideas about the future of the country and he is good at explaining them. He believes that Greece should refuse to pay a single euro of the “odious” debt. To reform the economy he has a five-point plan. He knows exactly what must be done to revive heavy industry, and he has proposals for restructuring Greece’s energy infrastructure… And he thinks Greece should demand reparations that Germany has owed it since the war.
Another constant in his career is his unshakeable belief in democracy, in the right of people to self-government. As mayor of his native village of Apiranthos, in Naxos, he developed a brief system of self-government in 1986.
One can dismiss some of his ideas as the delusions of an old man (some do), but no one can deny the power of what he represents, or how he has used (and honestly) his own symbolism for 70 long years.
I ask him what inspires him, what fuels his passion after all these decades of struggle. “One hundred and eighteen friends,” he says. “I lost 118 of my comrades. They were executed during the civil war. At that time, before each battle we would say what we wanted to achieve, our dreams and goals, because we knew that not all of us would survive. We wanted the survivors to make some of those dreams come true.
“I am the last of them.”