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Holocaust Memorial Day How Salonika became disfigured by anti-semitism

KEVIN OVENDEN charts how the birthplace of the Greek working-class and socialist movement has come to be riven by the far right and rabid nationalist forces

THERE is a dreadful symmetry in the desecration of the Holocaust memorial in Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki. 

It took place last Sunday, in the week that ends with today’s commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz. 

Its perpetrators were the neonazi Golden Dawn, who, according to its leader, are “the seeds of the defeated army of 1945” — of Hitler’s Third Reich.

The nazi destruction of the Jews of Salonika/Thessaloniki was exceeded only by that visited upon the Jewish population of Poland, where 90 per cent of them were deported in 1943 to perish in Auschwitz. 

The vandalism of the memorial in Salonika’s Freedom Square took place during a right-wing nationalist rally of tens of thousands of people last Sunday — the police say 90,000 — with 500 coaches busing in supporters from around Greece.

The great majority of them were not fascist or neonazi supporters. Many were mobilised by reactionary forces of the Orthodox church.

The leading elements were a ragbag of militarists, nostalgics for the junta, nationalists, assorted far-right elements and obscurantists. 

The aim was to exploit the dispute between Greece and its neighbour over whether the word “Macedonia” may be used in the official title of the former Yugoslav republic that bears that name.

The “Macedonia question” has returned through a growing Nato drive to bring the state into the military alliance as it expands into the Western Balkans. That requires lifting the Greek veto on its membership. The result is a carnival of reaction. 

Today’s great power rivalries in the Balkans are a reminder of how the region has been disfigured and brought to repeated disaster for more than a century by such imperialist conflicts.

Wars have been one consequence, the fuelling of reaction, ranging from chauvinist and racist delirium to the unique danger of fascism, another.

Parallels between the period since the crash of 2008 and the Great Depression of the 1930s have become something of a cliche. Perhaps a more illuminating comparison is with the years before the coming to power of fascism in Germany and all it led to.

The port city of Salonika, a “jewel of the Mediterranean” as described in Mark Mazower’s magnificent history, City of Ghosts, illustrates that comparison.

It had a unique culture, formed largely by the Jews who fled there from southern Spain when the Christian reconquista led to the expulsion of Muslim and Jew alike in 1492.

The Jewish refugees who settled in Salonika brought with them a literature, music and culture that over the next half-millennium cross-fertilised with the myriad of peoples in that part of what was then the Ottoman empire. 

For most of those four centuries, Salonika was a majority Jewish city. It inspired those in the 19th century who responded to rising anti-semitism by seeking some form of Jewish national expression or perhaps a state structure, but the idea of emigrating to establish a physical Jewish state found little reception in Salonika.

Most prized what was, with rare and sporadic exceptions, a genuinely cosmopolitan city with little inter-communal tension.

The atmosphere in the thriving major port of the Balkans contributed to great intellectual and theological innovation among its Jewish inhabitants and others. 

And political innovation. Salonika was a birthplace of the Greek working-class and socialist movement after it was absorbed into the expanding Greek state before the first world war. 

Central to the growth of trade unionism and the left were radical Jewish labour figures. It was Avraam Benaroya, a Bulgarian Jew, who forged with others the Socialist Workers Federation over a century ago. 

It published its paper in four languages, seeking to unite the communal labour organisations into a federated force. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, almost the entire leadership went over to Bolshevism and formed what became the Communist Party of Greece.

The year 1917 also brought a disaster to Salonika. A great fire ravaged the old Jewish centre, leaving 52,000 homeless. 

The decision by the city fathers to use the rebuilding to displace the troublesome, left-leaning Jewish working class and replace their homes with shiny neoclassical buildings of the Greek state and bourgeoisie betrayed a deeper menace. 

Greek fascists the Golden Dawn
Greek fascists the Golden Dawn

While the nazis would go on to concentrate anti-semitism into a genocidal poison, modern anti-Jewish racism was far from the preserve of German fascism. 

It was in the first third of the 20th century a lingua franca of national conservative elites on both sides of the Atlantic.

It served as a foil for the rabid nationalism fanned by the great power competition that erupted in war in 1914. 

Uniting the nation against its enemies meant exclusion of those who were in the nation state but “not of it” — supposedly loyal to something else and beyond.

It also served as a twofold weapon against the rising workers’ movement and left.

First, to claim that “honest workers” were being duped by “Jewish-Marxists.” Second, a false “anti-capitalism” holding that all the misfortunes of the popular classes were the result not of giant corporations but of a hidden hand of “Jewish finance.” 

The term “Jew-Bolshevik” deployed by reactionary elites in Poland had its Greek counterpart in Salonika, where the city’s business class sought to divert the social discontent among Greek refugees from the newly formed Turkish state onto Salonika’s Jewish citizens.

The liberal wing of the Greek ruling class was less overt but throughout the period made one concession after another to their monarchist and chauvinist rivals who sought in this way to build their political support. And both wings shared the ambition of military-state expansion and thus the concomitant xenophobia.

It required the devastation of total war and nazi occupation for anti-Jewish racism as an instrument for divide and rule to be transformed into mass murder. 

When that happened, the Salonika bourgeoisie, acclimatised by its embrace of politically deployed racism, provided ready collaborators.

They profited directly too — not least from the destruction of the vast Jewish cemetery of perhaps half a million graves. 

The headstones were ripped up and used for construction. Upon the site now stands the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.
Of those hundreds who escaped the round-ups and deportations of 1943, many fled to the mountains and joined the communist-led resistance.

The daughter of one, a friend of mine, explains why her father, a small businessman with no socialist leanings, did so. “It was a matter of fighting for survival. That meant joining the communist partisans,” who went on to liberate the country in 1944. 

There are Holocaust memorial events in Greece this weekend.

Among much else, we shall remember the Greek Jews, probably led by an army officer from Ioannina — Iosif Barouch, who in an incredible act of final resistance rose up in October 1944 and destroyed Crematorium IV in Auschwitz-Birkenau just months before the liberation. 

But the words that will be offered from so much of official Greece will demonstrate the aphorism that remembering so often involves selective amnesia. 

While most of the city turned its back on the rabidly nationalist fiesta last Sunday, the dominance of the politics of Salonika and the Greek region of Macedonia by the hardened right for decades hails directly from the crushing of the interwar left and its Jewish component, cemented in the civil war against the left in 1946-49.

Among the participants at the rally were MPs of the centre-right opposition party New Democracy, led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who claims the mantle of young moderniser of the liberal capitalist centre.

He did not endorse the mobilisation, fearing it would only enhance those who have been trying to build a new far-right formation — not neonazi like Golden Dawn —– but more like the new radical right formations on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Yet Mitsotakis made a dramatic lurch to the right days afterwards, proclaiming that he is opposed to any negotiated agreement with the neighbouring state on the Macedonia-naming issue.

He is moving to endorse a second rally scheduled for Athens a week tomorrow, despite the fascist violence on the fringes of the last one. 

That Golden Dawn has not been able to capitalise and that attempts to create a nationalist hysteria have created tensions on the right is thanks to the anti-fascist movement in Greece, which is fighting also in the trial of the neonazis to have them declared a criminal organisation. 

If the need for such a united anti-fascist effort is one lesson to promote this weekend, another is this. 

Fascism is a unique threat, but it grows out of elements that are far from unique — racist divide-and-rule, chauvinism and xenophobia fuelled by imperial conflict and militarism and the repeated capitulation of ostensibly civilised leaders to barbarity if the choice is between that and advance by the radical left. 

In remembering the Holocaust, let us remember the roots out of which it could grow. And dig them out totally.



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