Book Review: “Civil and Uncivil Wars” by Nicholas X. Rizopoulos

‘Having taught the world how to live,’ an Athenian newspaper declared, ‘we will now teach it how to die.’

Review By David Mason
Aug. 15, 2014 4:29 p.m. ET

Small, domestic moments, well observed, contain great events, great histories, in microcosm.

The 10th birthday party of Nicholas X. Rizopoulos on May 9, 1946, erupted in a shouting match between his father, a newly elected member of the Greek parliament, and the writer Nikos Kazantzakis (whose wife was a distant relative). These men, who at one time or another espoused nearly every political position possible, had emerged from the German occupation and the first stirring of civil war on opposite sides. Kazantzakis (best remembered for his novel “Zorba the Greek”) then stood firmly with the left, while the boy’s father had moved closer to right-wing and royalist positions. Their dispute about authority, responsibility and blame was to be found everywhere in Greece, and would soon explode in a new phase of bloody civil conflict.

Understanding that argument, in which “My father now turned furiously on Kazantzakis” and the latter “harangued my father about the inequities of the Right,” requires a lot of patient elucidation. The Greek civil war arose from the factionalism within the Greek resistance to the German occupation. Neither the right nor the left were monochromatic entities. It was not a matter of Stalinists versus monarchists or fascists, but of people and parties of several ideological gradations.

What is clear is that the Cold War began in Greece. After the German retreat in the spring of 1944, there were essentially three Greek governments: the collaborationist government in Athens; the government in exile, recognized by the Allies and nominally headed by King George II; and the andártes, the resistance factions at large in the devastated Greek countryside. Stalin had ceded Greece to the Western sphere of influence, but the Greek communists rebelled against his orders. Churchill’s insistence on disarming and disbanding the largest Greek resistance group, the communist-controlled EAM, led to a month of heavy fighting in Athens, starting in December 1944, with British troops as well as the Greek Rimini Brigade and police units firing on resistance fighters.

As a boy, Mr. Rizopoulos witnessed the battle for Athens, and in “Civil and Uncivil Wars: Memories of a Greek Childhood,” he casts a cool eye backward on the ruins of both family and country:

I grew up at a time (the 1940s) and in a place (Greece, first under foreign occupation, then in the throes of a bloody civil war) when even a child’s life was dominated by political developments. At home I was also surrounded by people—notably, my father—who lived, breathed, and talked politics from morning until night.

His father had sympathized with republican causes in the early ’30s, but was increasingly a proponent of strong central government, fearing that the communists, Mr. Rizopoulos writes, “were fanatics committed to extreme measures, intolerant of any view other than their own and harboring a pathological hatred of middle-class people like ourselves.” Those fears gave him strange bedfellows, from British and American anti-communists (the Rizopoulos family members were big fans of Churchill) to the notorious Col. Grivas, leader of the Fascist guerilla army known as “X” (Chi).

Yet Mr. Rizopoulos’s memoir of growing up in these years is less sensational than it might be; it’s Apollonian more than Dionysian. He’s a scholar—a diplomatic historian who has taught at Yale and Adelphi—recalling his childhood with a civilized detachment, and he was so young for most of it, coddled by adoring adults.

Born in 1936, he only dimly comprehended the disastrous Italian invasion of Greece in October 1940, how the Greek dictator Metaxas courageously defied the Italians—supposedly responding with the single word “Ochi!” (“No!”)—and the Greek army successfully defended the northern border. Hitler’s response was unrelenting. He threw everything he could spare at Greece. His Luftwaffe strafed retreating soldiers, hounding them all the way to Crete, where German paratroopers smashed out a victory. Mr. Rizopoulos rode on his father’s shoulders to see the Wehrmacht rolling into Athens following a massive blitzkrieg and the retreat of Greek, British and Australian soldiers in April 1941. He was “impressed by the aura of iron discipline and raw power exuded by the victorious Germans.”

Mr. Rizopoulos calls the Italian defeat “one of the few genuinely heroic chapters in recent Greek history” and tends to underplay the valor of the resistance, with its admittedly disastrous enmity between right and left. But there was plenty of heroism on the part of the Greeks. Knowing Germany would respond ruthlessly to Italy’s humiliation, one Greek newspaper editor published a front-page editorial declaring, “Having taught the world how to live, we will now teach it how to die.” And many thousands of Greeks did just that. Travelers to Greece today will see monuments in many villages and towns naming the citizens shot by the Germans in reprisals. In villages such as Kalavryta in the northern Peloponnese, every male was killed.

As in the current economic crisis, life was generally better in the rural villages, where people could live off the land, than in the cities, so beholden to a money economy. Young Niki was hardly aware that during the German occupation olive oil was being used as hard currency, that bread sold for two million drachmas a loaf. The worst he suffered in those three years, when more than a hundred thousand people starved to death in Athens alone, was that his cat, Markos, disappeared—probably to be skinned and sold as rabbit flesh on the black market.

I was largely spared the grisly sight of the hundreds of frozen corpses that littered the city’s sidewalks, and of the bodies of condemned profiteers hanging from lampposts on the main boulevards. I also knew nothing of the horrendous goings-on at the Gestapo’s headquarters on Merlin Street around the corner from Kolonaki Square, and was only vaguely aware of the round-ups and execution of civilian hostages carried out in retaliation for the killing of German servicemen by Greek resistance groups.

“Civil and Uncivil Wars” is reconstructed from Mr. Rizopoulos’s memory, his interviews with family and secondary research. As a result, most of the story is told rather than felt as it might be in a novel, and we sometimes miss the textured intensity of a child’s point of view. Walking with his nanny to a friend’s home during the street fighting in Athens, he “heard a faint ‘crack’ and felt something go ‘swoosh’ past my left ear.” It was a sniper shooting at an 8-year-old boy whose only crime was to live in the prosperous neighborhood of Kolonaki. One wonders what he actually felt at the time: terror or heroism or excitement at danger? He doesn’t say. Only that his father later showed him where the bullet had lodged in the neighbor’s doorway.

In February 1945, Churchill had made a “brief but triumphant return visit to the Greek capital” after the Yalta Conference. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Rizopoulos and his father took a long walk to see their city:

The extent of the physical destruction I saw burned-out buildings by the dozen, houses totally gutted or riddled with shrapnel, rubble everywhere one looked—reminded me of the German newsreels I had seen, early on during the occupation, of Russian villages and towns obliterated by the advancing Wehrmacht. My father said surprisingly little to me during our walk. A couple of times he just stopped and pointed out places where [resistance] troops had temporarily held the upper hand.

The civil war raged until 1949—ultimately put down thanks to the Truman Doctrine and U.S. aid—and confounded Greek politics for at least two generations. But most of the later fighting took place in the countryside, far from Mr. Rizopoulos’s daily life, and the book’s final chapters recount more ordinary scenes of family life and education. Like most elder sons in Greek families, Niki was brought up with every advantage his parents could find, even in horrendous circumstances. He had the freedom to develop his own tastes, such as an antipathy to athletics and a love of Viennese waltzes. The staff at his school, Athens College, arranged for a scholarship to Hotchkiss in America, and his passage on a cargo ship was provided by a Greek shipping family. That journey would eventually lead to Yale and years of think-tank scholarship, including editing the four-volume “Encyclopedia of U.S. Foreign Relations.”

The most moving passages in the book involve the deaths of family members, recounted with a reserve that leaves them lingering in the memory—remarkable people who clearly loved this boy and wanted the best for him. “Civil and Uncivil Wars” tells the story of a political education, both at the dinner table and in the streets, and humanizes a dark and complex era in Greece. The book’s big cast of characters are, regardless of politics, passionate people who knew how to love.

— Mr. Mason’s books include a Greek memoir, “News from the Village.” He teaches at Colorado College.