Sunday, 23 September 2012

Recovering from Occupation

Book: The Magus by John Fowles
Context: The Axis Invasion of Greece in World War Two

The Magus by John Fowles is, I suppose, best categorised as ‘magical realism’. Fantasy and reality interplay throughout the book, although the fantasy is not strictly magical but created by actors. The novel tells the story of Nicholas Urfe, a naive, arrogant, unlikeable young teacher who goes to a fictional Greek island called Phraxos to teach at a school there, but really he is trying to escape from a love affair. In Phraxos, he meets the rich and enigmatic Conchis who is first introduced as having been a Nazi collaborator, but later suggestions have Conchis facing a German firing squad for refusing to reveal the whereabouts of a resistance fighter who killed German soldiers.
Of course, this is sort of the point of The Magus: that you never really know what is truth and what is illusion. What role Conchis played in the Second World War – indeed, if he was even there. Throughout The Magus, neither Nicholas nor the reader has much of a clue of what is going on or what is real. The story of Conchis in World War Two is not the only life story introduced to Nicholas and, in fact, it is revealed later that the real subject of these tales is Nicholas himself, not Conchis. But I thought that this wartime episode raised some interesting points relating to the history of the country which provides the dramatic setting. Even though Phraxos and Conchis are creations of John Fowles, the experiences of real Greek people during the German invasion must have inspired at least part of the book. What actually happened to Greece during the Second World War and how were its people affected?

Greece, being located in the Mediterranean, was to start with more concerned with Mussolini’s Italy rather than Hitler’s Germany for fairly obviously geographical reasons. Not until 1941 did Germany show any interest in invading Greece at all. Possibly, this was because Greece was itself being ruled by an authoritarian nationalistic government, uner Prime Minister Mataxas, which was similar to Nazism in some obvious ways. Mataxas’ regime censored dissenting media, banned other political parties, established a political police force, and extolled the ancient Hellenic values of strength, honour and family. It even had a youth organisation eerily similar to the Hitler Youth. So why didn’t this quasi-fascist Greece join the Axis powers in World War 2? Perhaps because there were fundamental differences between Greek fascism and German fascism – their stance on Judaism for instance. (By the way, I’m using the word ‘fascism’ here for matters of convenience; in fact, Mataxas’ regime wasn’t really true fascism in the strict sense.) Moreover, Mataxas wanted Greece to remain neutral, taking neither side against the other. Unfortunately for the Greek people, this was not to be. 

Early on in the war, Mussolini tried desperately to conquer and hold the Mediterranean areas, including Greece, Yugoslavia etc. The Italian troops, however, proved fairly hapless against Greek resistance. For many months, Italy tried to invade Greece only to be pushed back again and again. The Greek people, led by Mataxas, were successfully defending their country against outside forces trying to force them into the larger conflict. Although Greece was still technically neutral, Britain evidently saw her as being on their side, seeing as she was fighting against an Axis power. So the British entered the fray, much to the concern of Greece, who worried that this intervention would only serve to encourage the Germans to get involved. Apparently, Hitler was very angry with Mussolini for his failure in the Mediterranean and vowed to sort it all out. On the 29th January, Mataxas, the dictator turned defender of Greece, died. Almost immediately afterwards, the assault on Greece by Germany began.

The British and Greek soldiers were sadly unprepared by the German techniques of blitzkrieg; the British soon pulled out of the country, the new Greek Prime Minister committed suicide, and by May the invasion was complete. As Winston Churchill said: ‘It is a most strange and grim battle that is being fought.’ Once Germany was in control of the country, the usual story of an occupied country can be seen – the suppression of native people, collaboration and resistance. In direct contrast to Mataxas’ earlier regime, the Germans began to implement a strongly anti-semitic rule. These policies are well-known – from arrests of Jewish leaders, confiscation of property, executions, forced labour, compulsory wearing of Stars of David – everything we are so tragically used to hearing about. By 1943, Jewish people were being sent to Auschwitz, although it was said that some managed to escape for Palestine. For other Greek citizens, again, the Greek story is so very similar to other Nazi-occupied nations. Greece was forced to pay a loan to Germany which would never be paid back, destroying the local economy and starving many people. As was to be expected, pockets of resistance began to spring up – but what is unexpected was the Greek reaction to this.

There was a real event that happened in 1943 which is eerily similar to the episode described in The Magus. In a place called Drakeia, some local resistance members killed two German soldiers. In retaliation, the SS executed a huge number of local men. Almost exactly as described by John Fowles, there was a rule – the lives of fifty civilians for one German soldier. But instead of the resistance fighters (also known as partisans) becoming national heroes, as they would have been in France, Italy or the Netherlands, their contribution was largely forgotten. In fact, it would seem that the resistance was actually blamed for the deaths of the local civilians. The fallout of the massacre in Drakeia, and many other similar massacres, resulted in a sort-of collective forgetting of Nazi atrocities in Greece. This could be partly attributed to the post-war fighting between the newly installed government and left-wing partisans. To ordinary people, this new civil war would have been tied into the suffering they experienced during the occupation; the common denominator was the partisans who then seem to have been seen as the scapegoats for all the terrible things which happened in Greece since 1941. An Oral History study has shown that the Germans were seen more as a natural part of life, not as something to rebel against. If they were left alone, they would leave the Greek people alone – the partisans and resistance activity only antagonised the situation, and made worse the lives of ordinary people. Putting The Magus back into this context, Conchis, in refusing to give up the whereabouts of the partisans, was taking the side of resistance against law-abiding Greeks. The subsequent killing of innocent civilians by the Nazis would have been seen as unfair suffering when the real ‘culprits’ were the partisans. To us, that seems to be all backwards, which incidentally fits in quite well with the illusionary theme of The Magus. But it does show Nicholas’ naiveté, and perhaps the reader’s, when he learns about this episode in Conchis’ life and thinks it a wholly positive and well-reflecting incident.

Postscript: It’s only relatively recently that Greek people have been able to appreciate what the Nazis actually did to them during the Second World War. During the current financial crisis this has become particularly relevant. As I type, Greece is seeking potentially billions of pounds from Germany in reparations for their un-repaid loan. This amount of money could solve Greece’s money problems. Watch this space.


‘Chronicle of the Second World War’ published by Longman

‘Broken Bonds and Divide Memories: Wartime Massacres Reconsidered in a Comparative Perspective’ by Riki Van Boeschoten, published in Oral History (Spring, 2007)

‘Mr Churchill’s Statements on the Fighting in Crete’, published in Bulletin on International News (May 31, 1941)

'Greece demands billions for German war crimes: Relations between EU partners plunge to a new low' by James Chapman, published in Daily Mail (11th September 2012)

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