The one-time resistance hero still fighting for Greece at 93 explains why the struggle for Greek autonomy is not over
By Hannah Roberts
There is nothing so formal as street names in the mountaintop village of Apeiranthos, on the Cycladic island of Naxos. “Just ask for my house,” second world war resistance fighter Manolis Glezos instructs me.
Sure enough, everyone knows the home of Apeiranthos’ most famous son, next to the bakery. I follow my nose past a church hewn into the rock, up winding white-paved passages and tumbling bougainvillea, arriving at the source of a waft of traditional crusty psomi bread.
Glezos — a hero in Greece since he humiliated the Nazi occupiers by climbing up the Acropolis and tearing down the swastika flag in 1941 — is scribbling notes for his next book already on his vine-covered stone terrace. The act of defiance, for which he received a death sentence in absentia, came to inspire resistance movements across Europe.
Now 93, with long white hair, a moustache and fisherman’s cap, the life-long activist and freedom fighter, who served 12 years in prison for his opposition to fascism and the military regimes that followed, is a revolutionary straight from central casting.
Glezos resigned as the oldest member of the European Parliament last summer — where he represented the far-left ruling party Syriza — in a parliament also populated by nationalists and neo-Nazis. In January he apologised for having trusted prime minister Alexis Tsipras after the government negotiated a painful third bailout.
“I’m not disappointed, I’m furious,” he says. Glezos maintains that Greece should not have to repay its debts on the — disputed — basis that Germany owes Athens €1tn in wartime reparations.
Sitting in a director’s chair, with a makeshift lectern across his knees, he waves his hands as if conducting an orchestra. “It is Germany that owes us,” he says. “What would I have done? What I have always done: never give in to a foreign power.” Glezos’ solution would be to ask for a standstill, with no give or take of funds until equilibrium is restored to the Greek economy.
Glezos lives with his wife Georgia in a modest one-bedroom cottage. He has two children: Nikos, a nuclear physicist and Maria, a teacher. He insists on telling his story in his own time. “Wait,” he answers often yet with the measured pace of someone who has witnessed almost a century unfold.
He was born in this village where, out of a population of 1,000, there are six Glezos families — “ours is the largest”. The stone-floored property, which he has owned for 20 years, is rather austere. A Peruvian blanket is pinned to the wall of the bedroom, where an iron bedstead is covered with a folksy cover.
Above a huge fireplace is an iron pestle and mortar, a coffee pot and a traditional coffee grinder. Black-and-white photographic portraits, including his grandfather in a traditional fesi hat, decorate one wall.
Glezos’ grandfather was a goatherd and a skilled practitioner of folk medicine. His method for putting a dislocated hip back in place was unconventional to say the least: tie the patient’s legs round a horse that had been deprived of water for three days and fed corn with salt. “The horse went crazy. But its belly swelled and the hip returned to the correct position.”
Because of this “medical” tradition, the family intended Glezos to be a doctor. He went to Athens aged 13, working after school at a pharmaceutical company. Even so, the family could not afford the medical school fees, so he read economics.
His formation as a political radical was accidental. A boy arrived in his class from the Dodecanese islands, annexed by Mussolini who had imposed a policy of Italianisation. “Five of us boys signed an oath in blood to liberate the Dodecanese from the fascists.” Soon afterwards, they saw a teacher burning communist books, and, curious, decided to find copies. “We found we agreed with their ideas. So our group took on patriotic and anti-fascist ideas without anyone to explain them to us.” Too young to fight when the war began, they became a small independent resistance cell. “We didn’t know how to make bombs but we improvised with petrol and chemicals from the pharmaceutical lab.”
When the Nazis occupied Athens in April 1941, they hoisted a huge swastika over the Acropolis. Glezos and his friend, Apostolos Santas, determined to remove the flag as it “offended all human ideals”.
In a library book, they read about a cave leading to the top of the Acropolis, a secret passage used in ancient times. On the night it took several hours to shinny up the 50ft flagpole and tear down the flag. Glezos remembers his fearful mother waiting up. “‘Where were you?’ she wanted to know. I gave her a piece of the flag. She said nothing but hugged and kissed me. She knew.”
Over the course of four decades, Glezos has been imprisoned numerous times by the Germans, the Italians and then by Greek rightwing and military governments. He was tortured and put in solitary confinement. “They say to survive in prison you should love yourself, eat and read. Well I never loved myself, I didn’t care about food but I constantly read.”
Hardback books on ancient Greek and more modern philosophers are stacked on a wooden bench and a tidy desk beside a foot-long mobile phone from the 1980s. One of the many books that Glezos has published tells the story of his younger brother Nikos, who was executed by the Nazis in 1944 as a resistance fighter. This tragedy confirmed Glezos’ destiny. He would keep fighting for freedom all his life, in the name of his fallen comrades. After the Germans retreated from Greece in 1943, Britain, fearing a communist takeover, turned against its partisan allies, a move that almost led to Churchill’s assassination. Glezos’ comrades plotted an explosion at British HQ, Glezos himself carrying the fuse wire through the sewers beneath. But just before detonation, Churchill unexpectedly arrived. In his low-key way, Glezos remembers: “I didn’t think it would be a good idea to murder one of the ‘Big Three’.”
Wooden shutters block out the strong sun indoors, but the plant-filled terrace doubles as a sitting room, and friends repeatedly drop in for strong coffee during my visit. Glezos apologises for snacking on breadsticks: he is diabetic. Despite his age, he has remained true to his vocation to fight for Greek autonomy. At the age of 89 he was tear-gassed in 2011 at an anti-austerity protest. In 2014 he entered the EU parliament, personally gaining 430,000 votes, more than almost any other candidate. Glezos initially supported the EU he says, “but not this politics — autocracy, dictatorship. If the EU flag were flying in this village, I would tear it down today.” Why did he join an institution he calls undemocratic? Glezos says he managed to affect change from the inside. In his valedictory speech to the Parliament he recited a verse from Euripides, in Ancient Greek, in which Theseus declares Athens a free city, free of tyranny and ruled by the many.
He has no plans to slow down. Next year he will publish four books, including one on social mobilisation and a history of acronyms. He plans to publish an astonishing 37 more. “I hope I live long enough,” he says. “Life owes him 12 years because of his time in prison,” says Georgia. Glezos has been mayor of Apeiranthos twice, in 1997-98 and 1998-99, when he tried to make every decision by ancient-Athenian style direct democracy. A map of the ancient world is among several hanging in his bedroom, including a map of Paros, his motherland. A Soviet poster hangs alongside it. As he walks me out of the village, past the Manolis Glezos Cafe, a woman leans out of the window and exclaims: “I bless you a thousand times. May the Holy Mother protect you.” The Virgin’s protection will need to suffice: he is, he maintains, the only Greek political figure without police protection.