Manolis Glezos, 1922–2020

Manolis Glezos was just 19 when he sparked Greece’s anti-Nazi resistance by tearing down the swastika from the Acropolis. This was the beginning of a life dedicated to the cause of the oppressed — in which, as he put it, “No struggle for what you believe in is ever futile.”

Manolis Glezos in June 2015. Guido van Nispen / flickr

Manolis Glezos’s long-standing comrade Chronis Missios reflected the melancholia of many on the Left when he entitled his memoir “Lucky You Died Young.” His title referred to the “luck” of those fellow communists who had died early enough to avoid seeing their hopes of a post-capitalist future brutally defeated. Manolis Glezos was not one of those who died young — in his ninety-seven years, he saw the frustration of many dreams, from the crushing of the Greek left in the late 1940s to the capitulation by Syriza in summer 2015. But these defeats never made Glezos give up. He strongly believed that “No struggle for what you believe in is ever futile” — a maxim that guided him till his last days.

Glezos was born in 1922, as battle still raged over Greece’s borders following the end of World War I. A son of the small village of Apiranthos on the island of Naxos, by his teens, his family had moved to Athens. In the Greek capital, his political involvement began during his high school years, through his participation in youth anti-fascist organizations. This was an activism in which he persisted, with growing political consciousness, after the beginning of the Nazi occupation of Greece in April 1941.

Aged just nineteen, on May 30, 1941, Glezos and his comrade Apostolos Santas pulled off the action that put their names in the history books when they tore the swastika flag down from the Acropolis. This action symbolically signaled the beginning of the Greek resistance against the Axis powers — and also inspired people around the continent to take up the struggle against the Nazis. The Free French leader Charles de Gaulle would even characterize Glezos as “Europe’s first partisan.” Yet, as the Greek communist insisted, this was no one-off feat, but just one expression of a struggle that guided his whole existence.

Keeping Memory Alive

Glezos’s life, from this point onward, would follow the trajectory — and the many contradictions — of the Greek and international left. There were, of course, mistakes, wrong strategic calculations, omissions. There was all that a life in struggle entails, confronted with both structural obstacles and the personal limitations that any human being must have. But Glezos continued his active political involvement, come what may — making the struggle for the oppressed a way of life.

Glezos’s political activism was accompanied with his reflective thinking on history — including on his own role as part of a wider Communist movement. As he rhetorically asked late in life:

Why do I go on? Why I am doing this when I am 92 years and two months old? I could, after all, be sitting on a sofa in slippers with my feet up. So why do I do this? You think the man sitting opposite you is Manolis but you are wrong. I am not him. And I am not him because I have not forgotten that every time someone was about to be executed [during World War II], they said: “Don’t forget me. When you say good morning, think of me. When you raise a glass, say my name.” And that is what I am doing talking to you — or doing any of this. The man you see before you is all those people. And all this is about not forgetting them.

In a sense, we could say that Glezos personified Walter Benjamin’s warning about the need to keep alive the memory of those who died in struggle. He did so not only through his historical writing — as the German critic had advised — but also through his disposition toward his own life. This attitude of Glezos’s was deeply personal, not least because one of those who died struggling for a better world was his own brother, also a partisan. Seeking to keep his brother’s memory — and political dreams — alive was another reason for his dogged commitment.

This was explained in an interview that the Greek partisan granted to Jerome Roos. Roos described how, during their encounter, Glezos had

show[n] us a piece of cloth from the inside of his brother’s helmet, on which he hastily scribbled a few last words bidding their mother farewell. Apparently, his brother left an address on the piece of cloth and threw it off the army truck on which he was transported to the execution site. Someone found it and sent it to the Glezos family; Manolis kept it with him his entire life. That’s when I understood that one of the reasons why he kept up his long and tireless struggle well into his nineties was to honor the legacy of his little brother.

Party Engagement

Politically active during the Resistance, after the end of the war, Glezos became active in the ranks of the United Democratic Left (EDA). This party was designed to substitute for the banned Communist Party of Greece (KKE), though, over the years, it adopted a wider platform integrating a variety of political demands. Glezos was elected a member of the Greek parliament for the EDA in 1951, even as he languished in prison following the clampdown against the Left.

This was no exceptional event for Glezos — indeed, jail time would be an integral part of his life, as it was for many in the Greek left between the establishment of Ioannis Metaxas’s regime in 1936 and the restoration of parliamentary democracy in 1974. In total, Glezos spent eleven years in prison and more than four years in exile — as well as being sentenced to death twice. Pursuing decades of both legal and illegal activity under Greece’s illiberal postwar regimes, only in 1971 was he released from jail for the last time.

After the military junta finally collapsed, Glezos was twice elected to parliament for the Socialist PASOK, in 1981 and 1985. This was a period in which PASOK stood to the left of most European social-democratic parties, insisting on the need for wide-scale democratization and the redistribution of wealth. But in 1986, he left the national parliament to head back to Apiranthos, the village where he was born. His political involvement there was itself unusual, as he used his role as president of the local council to launch a far-reaching experiment in direct democracy.

Τhis concern for power from the bottom up was a “revision” of the postulates of Greek left — and indicative of the reconceptualization of communist politics in which Glezos engaged during the 1980s. He maintained that any real communist project must involve the substantial participation of the mass of the people — not just be laid down by decree. If Glezos was a lifelong and committed communist, this episode demonstrated his willingness to learn and lack of doctrinal rigidity. And while such an experiment was limited to the village level, he was lucky enough to see this kind of politics take mass form with the square occupations movement of 2011, to which he also devoted himself.

By the turn of the century, Glezos had become involved in the radical-left party Synaspismos and, through this, the Syriza coalition, on the basis of his own political formation Active Citizens. With Greece hit hard by austerity following the financial crisis, the veteran militant Glezos was again elected a member of the national parliament in 2012, before being elected to the European parliament in 2014 at the ripe old age of ninety-one.

Throughout this work, he sought to use his parliamentary activity to give a voice to anti-austerity movements. For this reason, while he put his hopes in Syriza’s resistance to European diktats, he was sharply disappointed by Alexis Tsipras’s acceptance of a fresh austerity memorandum in July 2015 — and he quit his post in the European parliament that same month.

Glezos never gave up the fight for German reparations to Greece, as compensation for the Nazi atrocities perpetrated during the World War II occupation. This demand was not, however, nationalistic in character. It is in this light that we should read his 2017 action, where he took the German ambassador by the hand in order to lead him to the memorial to those massacred by the Nazis — laying a wreath, despite attempts to block him. Indeed, throughout Glezos’s life, he showed solidarity with all those standing up against national oppression and colonialism, notably the Palestinian and Kurdish struggles for self-determination and dignity.

No Struggle Is Futile

On March 30, Manolis Glezos breathed his last, his near-century-long struggle finally ended by heart failure. He leaves us at a difficult moment not just for the Left but for humanity as a whole — times of distress when we need him more than ever. His life will not be celebrated, as it should and certainly would have been, by a funeral where his comrades and his countless admirers could have come to pay tribute.

Yet Glezos’s life was itself complete. Many of his hopes were failed — and there were many dark times as well as moments of proud resistance. But his struggle was continuous, and uncompromising. As his old comrade Missios put it, a life characterized by freedom, by conviction, in harmony with oneself, does not end just with the death of a man, but with the transmission of this same spirit to thousands of others.

In this sense, we should feel lucky that we are standing on the shoulders of giants like Manolis Glezos. When we raise a glass to him, when we say his name, when we try to follow in his footsteps, the important thing is to fight with determination for what we believe is right. For, as the great man himself put it, no struggle is ever futile.