A biography of Nikos Belogiannis, communist militant executed in 1952 by the Athens court-marshall, whose trials caused mass protest marches across the world.
Nikos Belogiannis was born in Amaliada in 1915 and was expelled from school for his anti-establishment activities. In 1934 he joined the Communist Party of Greece (KKE). During the fascist dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas (1936-1941), he was tortured and imprisoned for his Communist conviction in Akronafplia under the “idionimo” law (a law ruling the internal exile into camps for communists and anarchists – the law was introduced by the liberal government of Eleftherios Venizelos). As with all the imprisoned communists of Akronafplia, he was turned over to the Nazi occupying forces in 1941. In 1943 Nikos Belogiannis escaped from prison and went underground within the ranks of ELAS, the People’s Liberation Army of EAM. He acted in the armed units of ELAS in Peloponnisos under the orders of the legendary Captain Aris Velouhiotis. With the decision of the EAM leadership to lay down weapons after the failure of the December 1944 Revolt in Athens, Belogiannis followed the Party line in isolating Captain Aris and all other guerrilla leaders who believed that a decomissioning without a general amnesty would lead to an anti-communist massacre, as it in fact did.
During the Civil War (1946-1949) he acted as a political commissar of the 10th Platoon of the Democratic Army of Greece (DSE). During the Civil War he will fight hard but also write a series of critical articles regarding the organisation of the guerrilla, such as “Guerilla warfare in the Pelloponese” (June 1948; http://athens.indymedia.org/front.php3?lang=el&article_id=1149203). He escaped to Yugoslavia along with the rest 300,000 DSE guerrillas during the mass retreat from Mt Grammos at the end of August 1949.
In June 1950, while the KKE had declared a policy of “arms loaded and ready” for the never to be realised “third round”, Nikos Belogiannis entered Greece in secret, with the goal of restructuring the underground organisations of KKE in self-defense to the mass purges, executions and exiles to island torture camps. On December 20 1950, he was arrested under yet unclear conditions and accused under the notorious anti-communist law N.509/1947 which rephrased the “idionimo” in the post-war era (the law was to last until the end of 1974 and the collapse of the colonels’ junta).
The first trial of Belogiannis began in Athens on October 19 1951. Nikos Belogiannis was tried alongside 94 more communists by the Emergency Court Marshall of Athens, which included, amongst other Nazi-collaborators and monarchists, the future dictator of the April 21 1967, Giorgios Papadopoulos. In a weird twist of history the future dictator was the only of the judges to rule against the death penalty for Belogiannis. The trial immediately caused world-wide attention and uproar with mass protest marches demanding that Belogiannis be allowed to live across the globe. In the midst of the international controversy, the greek PM, Mr Plastiras, declared the death penalty decision not to be applied. A new trial was thus set for Belogiannis and several of the other people accused with a new charge against them aimed to cancel the amnesty given to them by Plastiras: espionage. In November 14 1951 wireless apparatuses were discovered in the Athens neighborhoods of Faliro and Kallithea, providing the military judges with an opportunity to use the espionage law against the accused. The second trial began on February 15 1952, under the authority of the Permanent Court Marshall of Athens. During the trial, Belogiannis denied all charges against him and accused the judges and the government as Nazi-collaborators and sold out quislings. The trial caused an even greater uproar in the rest of Europe, with Pablo Picasso painting a famous drawing of the emblimatic photo of Belogiannis in trial holding a red carnation (a symbol of communism carried daily in his trial by Belogiannis). Despite the international disdain, the Court Marshall ruled the death penalty for Belogiannis and three of his comrades.
A fifth accused was Elli Pappa, Belogiannis’ partner and sister of Dido Sotiriou, one of the country’s leading novelists whose book “The Order” decribes the trials and tribulations of Elli and Nikos. Elli Pappa had been arrested together with Belogiannis and kept in solitary confinement ever since her arrest, giving birth to their son in prison. Despite her demand to be executed along with the others, her sentence was reduced to life imprisonment by the PM because she was a mother of a young boy. Elli Pappa will spend the next 12 years in prison and in camps. She was released with the general amnesty of 1964 and worked as a journalist for the semi-legal left press until her new arrest by the colonels’ junta in 1967 and her exile in the torture camp of Giaros island. She was released in 1968 due to serious illness and international pressure but refused to flee to the USSR having adopted a fierce anti-Stalinist stance. She was a symbol of the communist and anti-Stalinist struggle in the years to come. Her translation of Das Kapital will never be allowed to be published by the KKE, while her writings on the Paris Commune, on Stalinist populism and on the Presocratics continue to be published after her death in 2009.
Before the execution of 37 year old Belogiannis and his comrades (Batsis, Kaloumenos and Argiriadis), the leader of the KKE underground organisation in Greece, Nikos Ploubidis, offered himself to the authorities via a letter in exchange for Belogiannis’s life. However the KKE denounced the letter as a police ploy, spreading a rumour in the grassroots that Ploubidis was a “snitch”. The letter had no effect as the government declared it will not conduct dialogue with communists, indicating a hardline policy by the Palace and the military, the true double-power in the country.
On March 30 1952 before dawn the Royal Commissar Col. Athanasoulas announces to the four convicted communists that their pardon appeal has been denied. The four will be shot at 4.10 a.m in the military base of Goudi in Athens, the day (Sunday) and time of the execution being an anomaly even by monarcho-fascist standards, as all executions were performed with the first light of dawn allowing the possibility of a pardon. Upon hearing the news of the execution, imprisoned in the exile camp of Ai Stratis island, Yannis Ritsos, the great communist poet wrote a poem that would be translated across the world, “The man with the carnation”:
Today the camp falls silent.
Today the sun trembles, hooked in silence
like the vest of the executed trembles on barbed wire.
Today the world grieves.
They took down a great bell and placed it on the ground.
In its copper beats the heart of peace. Silence.
Listen to this bell. Silence.
The people lift on their shoulders the great coffin of Belogiannis.
As for Nikos Ploubidis, he will be arrested later on, defending KKE’s positions in court despite the fact of the KKE openly and officially denouncing him as a police agent. Ploubidis will be executed, refusing to denounce his communist beliefs, while the KKE will claim he was given a comfortable living in the USA.
Nikos Belogiannis became one of the greatest martyrs of the greek left. Days after his execution a village built by 1,500 greek communist exiles in Hungary was named after him and is still in place. During the 1970s a rather melodramatic film about his trial (the man with the carnation) will become an instant blockbuster. Nikos Belogiannis remains a symbol of communist integrity and the anniversary of his execution is widely covered by reviews even in bourgeois media of the country. Recently two books of his written in prison, one on the history of modern greek literature and the other on the influence of foreign capital in modern greek politics, were published in Athens.