THE DICTATORSHIP OF THE SHORTIES
My late grandmother, who at the most generous of estimations rose to the lofty heights of just an inch above five feet, used to have a saying that asserted her pre-eminence over those who purported to tower above her: «Ο ψηλός είναι υπηρέτης του κοντού.» This was based upon the sound reasoning that taller people are often, at the behest of their shorter brethren, compelled to reach up into cupboards, shelves and the like that are out of reach of said shorter brethren and to make their contents descend to their level. Conversely, since taller persons manifestly have further to bend when attempting to pick something up from the ground, the advantages of being short in stature are manifold.
Dictators tend to be tall or at least need to be of average height in order to assume power, simply because the populus needs someone lofty to look up to, inasmuch as the female of the species generally prefers a mate taller than her, the phrase “he was too short” often being proffered as an excuse for a romance still born. Mussolini’s unprecedented popularity, especially with women, is a case in point. Because of the cruel social stigma attached to being vertically challenged, in the rare cases where short men ascend the echelons of power, they make up for their shortcomings (pardon the pun) by becoming exceedingly vicious and aggressive. Instead of using their newly acquired absolute powers in order to foster the creation of a tolerant and egalitarian society that welcomes the full participation of short people everywhere on an equal basis, they cravenly mislead people into believing that they are tall and handsome, by ordering their hapless artists to portray them as larger than life and pretty (this is called Socialist Realism) and having said portraits hung in very high places, such as Tiananmen Square or the Kremlin, where they can be looked up to and venerated. Stalin was a particularly vicious short man, as was his rapist and murder henchman, Beria, Ceaucescu of Romania, Franco, the Caudillo of Spain, Napoleon (famously) and Mao. Nest time you see an unhappy short man, give him a hug. This may save your life in years to come, when same short man becomes a genocidal dictator and institutes a series of purges, or, who knows? Your generous display of love may throw him off the course of disaffection that would culminate in dictatorship, altogether.
Ioannis Metaxas was the second dictator of Greece, the first being the towering and inept Theodoros Pangalos. He was however, the first short dictator of Greece and he quickly attempted to arrest that fact by mobilizing his propaganda machine to cause his statue to increase in the consciousness of the Greek people. In his photomontages, the corpulent Metaxas, looking more like a retired civil servant than a date with destiny dictator, is juxtaposed at five to six times his natural height, against a miniscule populace. When photographed against the towering King George II, the result is mildly amusing, in that one would conjecture that had Metaxas lain on his back, he would have been just as tall. As Alki Zei commented in her children’s classic “Wildcat Under Glass” (Το Καπλάνι της Βιτρίνας) the effect of a squat Metaxas with a slightly downturned mouth was most frog in a pond-like.
Though he was replete with shortness, Metaxas was not a naturally vicious person and the 4th August 1936 regime, which swept to power as a result of King George II’s abrogation of the Greek democratic process at a time when fascism was widely seen as a viable governing ideology, has been said, notably by historians Richard Clogg, C M Woodhouse and others, to have been authoritarian with fascist leanings rather than fascist per se. Though the Metaxas press was voluminous in its pre-war praise of Nazi-Germany, enough evidence exists to suggest that this was a tactical ploy in order to extract much needed Reischmarks from the German Reich to bolster the Greek treasury, rather than a true commitment to fascism. As such, Metaxas’ 4th August regime, in contrast to that of Hitler or Mussolini, was relatively non-violent, lacked an expansionist agenda, was not anti-Semitic and lacked a political mass-movement.
According to official ideology, Metaxas imposed his regime primarily to fight the turbulent social situation prevalent in Greece in the 1930s in which political factionalization had disrupted Greek parliamentary democracy. The sinking credibility of the Parliament was accompanied by several coup attempts; in March 1935, a Venizelist putsch failed and the following October elections reinforced the royalist majority, which allowed the exiled King George II to return to Greece. The king re-established the monarchy in the country, but the parliament, split into incompatible factions, was unable to shape a clear political majority so that the government could govern. Meanwhile, the increasing activity of the Communists, whose 15 deputies from the 1936 elections held the balance between 143 Monarchists and 142 Liberals, Agrarians, and Republicans, created a deadlock.
In May that same year widespread agrarian unrest (tobacco farmers) and industrial unrest in the north of the country erupted, which eventually brought the head of the government, General Metaxas, to suspend the parliament on the eve of a major strike, on 4 August 1936. Endorsed by the king, Metaxas declared a state of emergency, decreed martial law, annulled various articles of the Constitution and established a crisis cabinet to put to an end the growing riots and to restore social order. In one of his first speeches, Metaxas announced: “I have decided to hold all the power I need for saving Greece from the catastrophes which threaten her,” using this as a pretext for the creation of his appellation as “Saviour of the Country.”
The roots of Metaxas’ “New State” were sought in Greece's classical history. Metaxas thought Hellenic nationalism would galvanize the heathen values of ancient Greece, specifically those of Sparta, along with the Christian values of Byzantium. In conscious imitation of the Roman fascists, the followers of Metaxas chose the labrys, the axe-symbol of ancient Minoan Crete as their symbol, which, given the commonly held historical opinion that the Minoans were a pre-Greek civilisation, is not without irony.
Presumably because as a short schoolboy, Metaxas was never chosen for sporting teams or was simply put in goal, the regime's propaganda presented Metaxas as “the First Peasant”, “the First Worker" and as “the National Father” of the Greeks. Photographs showing the corpulent First Peasant pulling a plough while dressed in his suit, desperate to be accepted as one of the people, are reasonably mirth inspiring. Revenging himself on all tall people once and for all, Metaxas adopted the title of Αρχηγός and set about re-organising the country so that Greece would once more achieve the heights of greatness.
This was achieved by banning the Communist Party and exiling its leaders. Though exile was commonly used as a punishment against dissenters during the regime, it is notable that the regime is not known to have committed political murders and did not instate the death penalty. Dissidents were, rather, usually banished to tiny islands in the Aegean and this, before they were developed as the fleshpots of Western European tourism. One feels that the crusty but ultimately insecure Metaxas, whose original efforts to make a success of the team-sport known as Parliamentary democracy through his founding of the Freethinker’s Party met with abject failure, would have forgiven his exiles everything and permitted them to return to their homes, if only they would promise to play with him. This promise not being forthcoming by hardened Venizelists such as Georgios Papandreou, content to sit in limbo on Andros, Metaxas had no choice but to play by himself.
Nonetheless, Metaxas remained painfully cognizant of the fact that despite his propaganda machine working to bursting point, neither he nor his regime enjoyed the adulation that was reported in the press as being afforded to him. In a moment of extreme truth, he conceded in his diary that “the displays of spontaneous affection we have stage-managed are false.” Indeed, it is fascinating to note that though the regime press saturated the populace with sycophantic and gushing panegyrics to the Leader verging on the idolatrous, whereby the Leader was the all-seeing, all-knowing great Greek, his people refused to buy this, most probably because short people could definitely not be all seeing, without a boost by a tall aide. So much for the product testimonials. He was constantly fearful that King George II would withdraw his mandate to rule, and unlke the Colonels of 1967 who deposed the King when he proved a hindrance to their regime, Metaxas did all he could to placate him. Wishing to be loved also by the Greek people at large, he strove to gain popularity through an elaborate program to socialize the Greek economy, including the introduction of a minimum wage, unemployment insurance, maternity leave, a 40 hour work week, holiday leave and stricter work safety standards, elements that have been attacked and eroded around the world by more ‘liberal’ regimes in late years.
Metaxas' regime also founded the National Social Service (IKA) and initially stabilized the drachma, which had been suffering from high inflation. Exploiting the newfound solidity of the currency, Metaxas' government embarked on large public works programs, including land drainage, construction of railways, road improvements, and modernization of the telecommunications infrastructure.. Metaxas' economic program met with initial success, with a marked rise in per capita income and temporary decline in unemployment in Greece between 1936 and 1938. However, unemployment skyrocketed after 1938). Capitalizing on this success, the government instituted debt relief for farmers and instituted price floors on some agricultural goods to redistribute wealth to the countryside, like so many chips offerd by the playground nerd, in order to purchase his classmate’s affection.
Despite persecution of Slavophone Greeks in Macedonia, Metaxas’ regime was generally tolerant of minorities within the borders of Greece, especially of the Sephardic Jews of Thessaloniki, despite their pro-Venizelist tendencies. However, beatings of those who spoke Slavonic were recorded and the heavy press censorship did not permit for any other conception than of a completely homogenized Greek state. The bizarre burning and banning of books ranging from Plato to Zola ordered by Metaxas in imitation of the book bournings of Germany are a savage indictment upon his misguided attempts to be the pilot at the helm of the ship of State.
Metaxas finally achieved his dream to be considered as the father of his nation when, after years of championing fascist regimes, he fell victim to the Mussolini’s lust for territorial aggrandisement. Despite his courting of ‘sister’ regimes, Metaxas refused to permit Greece to be rendered little more than a client state to Fascist Rome and hence, the national myth of ‘OXI’ was born. Metaxas was fortunate enough to die before the 1941 German defeat of the Greek armies and it is this try-hard fascist’s anti-fascist stance that has signalled his delivery from character assassination and total maligning in revisionist post-Junta Greece.
Here endeth the story of a little boy who just wanted to be friends and ended up spending his adult life trying to convince an entire nation that he was worthy of its love. It is not without coincidence that a lasting legacy of his regime is that Greek politics has ever since been dominated by politicians and colonels, all tall in stature, though the song, «Είναι γάτα, είναι γάτα, ο κοντός με τη γραβάτα» proves that there is room in Greek society for short people yet. We leave you this week with a thought:
"Height is relative. In a room the height of people is noticeable. Next to a very tall building, the height of people does not make much of a difference. Looking from an airplane or from the moon, the height of people on the ground is insignificant.” Regardless, it’s the tall guys who still invariably get the girls. Next thing you know, they will be telling us that bigger isn’t better.