Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia H. Kushlis

Children of the Greek Civil War 9780226135991In 1949, a bitter civil war that divided Greece between anti-Communist Greek government forces and the Communists ended when the latter’s military forces and their civilian supporters fled across the borders into Albania and Bulgaria.  Others had already left for Yugoslavia before Tito sealed the  Yugoslav border with Greece and cut off his country's support for the rebellion – a crucial decision in bringing the war to an end. Many of the refugees had come from desperately poor, isolated villages in the Pindus Mountains in Greece’s far north.   Yet prior to the end of the civil war that had raged since 1944 – erupting as the Nazis withdrew – the outcome had been far from certain. 

Loring Danforth and Riki Van Boeschoten’s controversial study of the long term effects of that war on children of both the Greek partisans and government loyalists who had been taken from their families and placed in boarding schools for safety away from the war zones is, unfortunately, far more than a carefully conducted academically rigorous objective survey of participant attitudes and recollections.   

Selective Memory

This book’s problems lie not so much within the confines of the study itself – although I would have liked to have seen the questionnaire and a summary of the data included in a separate appendix. Rather, the basic problems are with the book’s narrow focus and its lack of political objectivity.  The latter, from my perspective, rests primarily on omission.  It also has nothing to do with their disputes with Nicholas Gage, the author of the book Eleni, and others engaged in the argument as to whether the Communists sent children to Eastern Europe against their parents’ will.    

The study itself – based on questionnaires of 114 adults (out of a total of around 43,000 children) decades later – does, however, include one finding well worth keeping:  namely that these children of peasants from extremely poor villages who received urban educations whether through the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union or in Greece through the Greek government – often moved in a single generation – into the urban middle class.

Whether this would have happened regardless of their wartime displacement is a question never broached because no comparisons were made, no interviews were conducted with Greek children who remained in their villages during the same period but whose families soon thereafter moved to the cities as a part of a mass internal migration that occurred in Greece during the 1950s and 60s.  Calliope Moustaka’s book The Internal Migrant: A Comparative Study in Urbanization (1964) is one landmark source on the characteristics of this migration.  There are also far more recent academic papers and journalistic articles on the topic currently available on the Internet.   

What makes this omission significant is that after the Civil War’s end, Greece rapidly moved from a poor, agriculturally based society to a country where much of the population lived in cities – in particular the Greater Athens-Piraeus region. Thessaloniki, the administrative and seaport capital of Greek Macedonia, also became a magnet for internal migrants.  As a consequence, far more village children – regardless of their family’s political affiliation – grew up in cities where they had better educational opportunities. These opportunities propelled at least some into the country’s growing middle and professional classes.

I’ve followed the Macedonian Question since I worked in Thessaloniki in 1965-66. It appeared then as if the issue had long been settled – such was life during the Cold War.  My curiosity was peaked as a result of the region's checkered history rather than foresight or crystal ball gazing about its political future.     

What troubles me most about Children of the Greek Civil War is its lack of historical objectivity and, more significantly, its potential impact on this smoldering dispute that erupted into the open again in 1992 after lying dormant for fifty years while the Republic of Macedonia was a part of Yugoslavia. Sadly this dispute continues to fester. It troubles relations between Greece and Macedonia (or officially the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) today.

It is clear that the authors are well versed in the region’s history.  What is unclear is that although they identify the nub of the problem as the still thorny issue of who controls the piece of Macedonia in Greece, they also fail to explain why the Greek Government refused and still refuses to permit Slavic Macedonian children of non-Greek speaking Communists to return to their homes – or their parents homes – in Greece while Greek-speaking children of Communists and their partisan parents were given amnesty and permitted the right of return decades ago. 

The answer to this question is crucial to understanding the Macedonian problem and its ramifications for today. This is the book’s greatest failing.  The issue is not one of Communist versus non-Communist. It is also not one about “kidnapping or not kidnapping” children more than half a century ago. It is one of still simmering ethnically based irredentism.

Here’s the problem the authors fail to mention

The Communist Party of Greece (KKE) drew significant support from the Slavic speaking minority living in Greek Macedonia prior to and during the Greek Civil War. According to this book a subtantial number of children who were taken north, kept and educated there for years – were Slavic, not Greek speakers.  On the surface, their repatriation should not have been a problem for the Greek government. 

Yet it was and still is because the Communists had promised the families that they would soon return to help build a new country, an independent Slavic speaking Greater Macedonia that encompassed Greek Macedonia, the Republic of Macedonia which was the southern part of Tito’s Yugoslavia and a slice of western Bulgaria – also part of the geographic entity known as Macedonia. This Greater Macedonia which would have followed geographic, not political, linguistic or ethnic lines, would indeed have been lapped by the shores of the Aegean. 

It would have also included Thessaloniki, Greek Macedonia’s largest and the region’s most important city. In essence, this new country would have hived off the part of Macedonia that was awarded to Greece in 1913 after the first Balkan War when the crumbling Ottoman Empire was being forced out of Europe.  

Not surprisingly the Greek government wanted no part of a revival of this irredentist dream.

Neither, for that matter, did Tito – after his break with Stalin and the Soviet controlled Comintern in 1948 – which had supported the promised new country.  After Tito closed the Yugoslav borders with Greece in 1949 thereby eliminating a safe-haven, arms depot and stopped other support for the Greek Communist fighters as they were pushed further into the mountains by Greek government forces, the Greek Civil War ended. 

Danforth, Van Boeschoten and others tell us that the mainly Greek speaking Communist armed forces were safe havened in Tashkent, Uzbekistan from where they eventually returned home.  The Slavic speakers from Greece, however, were not given amnesty:  a number of them stayed in Skopje, the capital of Yugoslav Macedonia. Others migrated to Canada, Australia and a fewer number to the US.

Had, I think, the dream of an independent Greater Slavic speaking Macedonia been squashed by the leaders of the newly independent Republic of Macedonia (FRYOM) which was internationally recognized in 1992 and the new government not adopted ancient and modern Greek symbols as its own, my guess is that the issue of the right of return for those Slavic speakers exiled from Greece could have be different. So too could the current relationship between the two countries.

But printing Thessaloniki’s White Tower on Macedonia’s currency, displaying Alexander the Great’s sun symbol on the new country's flag, erecting a statue of the latter in Skopje’s central square, describing the new country’s attributes as having shores lapped by the Mediterranean in its tourist brochures, and supporting or at least seeming to support the property claims of Slavic speaking Macedonians in Greece (many of which, in reality, are located in remote and often abandoned mountain villages), and then expect the two countries to be good neighbors makes no sense.     

This then is the untold story behind The Children of the Greek Civil War.  It’s not pretty but it should have been included in this book’s narrative.  It was not. And yes, it is still important when sorting through the continuing quagmire known as Macedonia.   It’s unfortunate that the authors of this book – and their editor at the University of Chicago Press did not do so.    

Loring M. Danforth and Riki Van Boeschoten, Children of the Greek Civil War: Refugees and the Politics of Memory (University of Chicago Press, 2012, pp. 329).