A clash over history and/as representation
21 March 2022
Konstantinos Kalantzis University of Thessaly
What is it that can make a “historical film” such as Kalavryta 1943 (dir. N. Dimitropoulos, 2021) so offensive that survivors of the Kalavryta slaughter perpetrated in 1943 by German Wehrmacht troops describe it as another execution? Drawing on ethnographic research in Kalavryta, I would like in this short blogpost to think about the controversy surrounding this film and attempt to understand its cultural and ethical stakes.
I had the chance to first encounter heated discussions about the film when a crew came to the highland town of Kalavryta in the northwestern Peloponnese in 2018 looking for extras. At the time, I was conducting ethnographic fieldwork in the region, focusing on historical imagination and visual culture (Kalantzis forthcoming a). The ethnography was also a way for me to revisit and rework my own memories and (kin) ties to the region, which I came to know about through my own grandfather’s narrations.
The occasion of a film crew seeking extras among a population that survived a brutal massacre in the 1940s contains the kind of historical irony that philosophers such as Jean Baudrillard (1981) would recognize as a proof that representation displaces historically-grounded reality. But the claim of the film to represent the past --met with resistance by locals-- also prompts crucial questions about the nexus of representation, imagination and power; which concerns the work of anthropologists par excellence.
The film is about a historical event, but as the contestation around it indicates, there is no singular account of the event that enjoys total acceptance: the very question of what and how it happened is heavily disputed. In the simplest version, the event is the execution of the civilian male population of Kalavryta and the destruction of the town by the regular German army (the Wehrmacht). Men over the age of approximately thirteen were executed while women and children were locked up inside the local school building and the town was set on fire.
Like other towns in Greece that suffered civilians’ massacres, Kalavryta was defined by the event in the national hierarchy of value. We can understand this process by thinking through the work of professional photographers who were hired to represent these areas. If the island of Crete, as depicted by photographer Voula Papaioannou (and before her, Nelly) emerges as the home of male tradition and warriorhood (see Kalantzis 2019), Kalavryta and Distomo by Papaioannou and others are visualized as the site of bereaved widows and orphans. The visit to the region by contemporary tourists follows the rationale of pilgrimage to this (gendered) national geography. People tend to visit the execution site/memorial as well as the local museum (both in Kalavryta and Distomo, museums play multiple roles as archives, spaces of quasi-domestic display, and places of historical research).
At the core of reactions to the Kalavryta 1943 film was a scene included in a trailer that circulated online. The scene showed a German soldier opening the door of the school and releasing the women and children who had been held captive. To elucidate the scene’s controversial character, it is instructive here to briefly review the reactions of the head of the Kalavryta Holocaust Victims’ Association H. Ermeidis in interviews and on social media. First, Ermeidis claims that the film crew inserted the scene even though they had assured him in their visit that they wouldn’t. Second, he charges that the film exploited the area for its own benefit. Lastly, he addresses an argument heard by supporters of the film, that even if the scene is not historically accurate, a small deviation from the truth is acceptable for the purposes of dramatization. By tacitly setting up an opposition between fiction as the domain of falsity and historical research as the space of truth, Ermeidis argues that the slaughter is ultimately incompatible with a work of fiction, such as this film, and that it thus serves as a “distortion” of truth.
But why is that scene of the “good (German) soldier” so undesirable? At the core of this aversion lies the aspiration of many Kalavrytans to highlight the brutality of the slaughter and the responsibility of the perpetrators without any dilution or “gentrification.” It is in this light that we have to understand a constituency of commentators, such as a representative from the National Council for Claiming German War Reparations (A. Syngelakis) who saw the film’s emphasis on individual kindness (“the good soldier”) as exonerating the perpetrators by representing the massacre through the scope of individual psychology rather than as a matter of (German) state function. On the other hand, supporters of the film claimed that it rightly employed “fiction” as a means of drawing the viewers’ attention to Greece and to an ill-known event from World War II. Key to the latter argument, as expressed by the film’s spokespersons but also by users on social media, is the somewhat simplifying idea that fascism is going to be eradicated once proper awareness is raised. There’s also an underlying sensibility here that conjures a complaint regarding contemporary Greece’s marginality in global representations (the slaughter is globally unknown, as commentators stressed) which they hope the film might remedy.
It should be noted that the notion of the “good soldier” is much older than the Kalavryta 1943 film. One finds versions of it in other regions that suffered from German violence in the 1940s and it is even featured in Greek post-war fiction films (see Andritsos 2020). Historians’ research in German state archives shows that the notion was in fact promoted by the German government, presumably as a means of tailoring its post-war image (see Droumpouki 2014). This instrumentalization notwithstanding, it is important to ponder how and why it becomes believable by different Greek commentators. I argue it speaks to a certain sensibility regarding the incorporation of Others in Greece by differentiating them from a general category (Herzfeld (1987) described aspects of that sensibility via Evans-Pritchard as segmentation). In that sense, a certain German man/woman can become “our own German” (dhikos mas) even if he/she was originally seen as a representative of “Germany” (the entity which is Other/hostile, etc.). Take for instance the stories of a German woman who had been married to a Greek man in western Crete. She told me that occasionally her Cretan mother-in-law would bitterly describe Germans’ atrocities during the Occupation. Such narrations would be followed by glances between the two women with the mother-in-law exclaiming “but you are different!” (esi ise allo!).
The key element that tacitly shapes the discussion around the Kalavryta 1943 film concerns the fact that the event of slaughter is segmented into different versions. On a first (national) level, the slaughter is presented as a German Nazi atrocity. Yet, once one starts researching the event’s local representation, it breaks down into numerous leftist and rightist versions. Key points of contention include the leftist guerrillas’ potential responsibility (the slaughter is in many accounts presented as retaliation for the murder of some 70 Nazi soldiers who were held hostage by the guerrillas), the question of Greek collaborators assisting the Nazis and the validity of the notion of retaliation itself (both regarding its historical accuracy and its moral legitimacy).
At the same time, in towns that suffered extreme violence during the Occupation, I have consistently encountered widespread anxiety about the possibility that the violence of the slaughters will be forgotten and will be replaced by softer versions that serve the efforts of the German government to beautify its own image. According to a heavily politicized version of this position, there is a sustained effort today to present German occupiers and Greek communist guerrillas as equally responsible for the massacres. This effort, leftist interlocutors stress, revives anti-communist policies of the post-war years and absolves Germany of its moral and financial obligation to pay reparations and compensations to its victims (individuals and nation-states). Key to this fear that the savagery of the massacre will be forgotten is the importance granted, in towns such as Kalavryta, to the figure of the witness as the only person who should speak about the past, for he/she looked at horror with their own eyes (witnessing is etymologically connected to martyrdom in Greek, see Pagden 1993). My interlocutors often pointed to the passing of the few surviving witnesses so as to explain their worry about the demise of the memory of the slaughter. Most Kalavrytan interlocutors expressed thus a desire to capture a raw single reality of the past (safeguarded by the witnesses), without the kinds of mediations Marianne Hirsch (2013) called postmemory.
There’s another factor that will help us grasp how the past becomes relevant today. Anthropologists of Greece have long described the ways in which the present is reworked by people through invocations of the past (e.g., Sutton 1998; Stewart 2012). This social dynamic is complicated by the 2010 bailout deal between Greece and its European creditors which unravelled painful economic measures and a sense of constant monitoring, while it effected the repoliticization of Greek-German relations. Following 2010, Greece’s austerity measures and structural adjustment were frequently represented in the public sphere through the invocation of the 1940s German occupation (see also Knight 2015; Kalantzis 2015; 2016). During the same period, a series of German institutions became palpable locally through gestures in which the German government claimed the role of a benefactor (in gestures that might remind anthropologists of the tensions around charity and volunteering; see Bakalaki 2013; Rozakou 2019). In towns that suffered German atrocities, these institutions were often experienced as silencing the capacity to claim one’s victimhood, given that representations of the past would now pass into the hands of “Germany” (in genealogical terms, the perpetrator) which would now stage commemorations even of its own crimes while still refusing to pay reparations. And this is not merely a local idea. German activists argue that such institutions serve as instruments of avoiding to pay war reparations and compensations in the guise of assistance. This takes us back to another theme that anthropologists have explored, which is the field of soft diplomacy as a domain of tension, power and contestation (see Papagaroufali 2013; Deltsou 2014). The idea, in fact, that such soft diplomacy conceals Realpolitik intentions of domination played a role in the reception of the art show Documenta 14 in Athens in 2017 (see Papataxiarchis 2019; Rikou, Yalouri and Lampropoulos 2021; Kalantzis forthcoming b).
Finally, the reactions to the Kalavryta 1943 film touch on asymmetry in the relationship between a periphery and those who have the power to represent it (photographers, filmmakers, journalists and of course, anthropologists). That same asymmetry is negotiated in different ways depending on local dynamics and histories. For instance, in highland western Crete, where I have been conducting intermittent ethnography since 2006, the flux of people who demand performances of locality (tourists, postcard makers, journalists for tourist media, etc.) trigger humorous, affectionate, often critical responses, as well as various negotiations in the field of hospitality (a domain that Herzfeld famously theorized as effecting reversals of power between hosts and guests; 1987). It is instructive to compare the Kalavrytan context to a film shoot that I participated in as an extra back in 2007 in highland Crete. Like the Kalavrytans of 2018, Cretan participants had been asked to play a cinematic version of themselves (this time with an emphasis on comical ruggedness and rurality as it became apparent during the shoot). Yet the participants, who were staunch traditionalists, drew on those same features (e.g., “traditional singing” and wine-drinking) and re-claimed them as their own to the point that they destabilized the film shoot and achieved temporary mastery over its rules (Kalantzis 2019: chapter 5). Despite the obvious differences, the Cretan occasion presents us with a set of common issues. Both cases are about consent and the control of representation as a process: they tease out the question of who represents whom and in whose terms. With the crowd of visiting students, journalists, scholars and others in Kalavryta, the questions of invasion, capitalization and broadly the ethics of representation become tangible for people. Local interlocutors highlight some of these issues in stories that emphasize exploitation (say by journalists who try to resell footage they originally recorded locally). And in many ways, the request put forward by those who represent locals is the same: it demands that locals fit into the semantic framework of those holding the camera or the pen and notebook. In that laden social landscape, residents rightly intervene, often with the request that their inclusion in the script would not disrupt their own self-image. And this is particularly crucial to them in light of the fact that the event narrated by the Kalavryta 1943 film is heavily contested and becomes a field of opposing political claims in the present.
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1 This is a modified version of an essay that was first published in the Sunday issue the Greek newspaper Kathimerini (November 28, 2021). I am thankful to Dimitris Papanikolaou, Kristina Gedgaudaite and Maria Boletsi for the invitation to contribute to the Greek Studies Now and their comments.
2 https://www.in.gr/2021/11/04/greece/kalavryta-1943-nosiri-fantasia-o-kalos-nazi-mas-skotonoun-gia-deyteri-fora-sygklonizei-epizon-tou-olokaytomatos, https://www.kalavrytapress.gr/ti-anoisies-einai-aytes-peri-kaloy-nazi/
Konstantinos Kalantzis is an assistant professor of anthropology, department of Culture, Creative Media and Industries, University of Thessaly and author of Tradition in the Frame: Photography, Power and Imagination in Sfakia, Crete (IUP 2019). His research on Kalavryta took place in the context of the ERC-funded research program PhotoDemos: Citizens of Photography: The Camera and the political imagination (Advanced Grant no. 695283) based at the department of anthropology at UCL. His research on Kalavryta will appear in the forthcoming volume Citizens of Photography: The Camera and the Political Imagination (Duke University Press). www.konstantinoskalantzis.com
A tour given by staff member Savvas Kazanis at the Municipal Museum of the Kalavryta Holocaust. Photo by K. Kalantzis 2018
The gate of the school (currently, a museum) allegedly used upon their escape by women and children held captive during the Kalavryta slaughter perpetratred by German troops in 1943. photo by Κ Kalantzis, 2018
The Kalavryta memorial, a common stopping place for visitors, which is adjacent to where men where executed by German troops in 1943. Photo by K. Kalantzis 2018
The photo wall featuring portraits of the victims of the 1943 Kalavryta slaughter at the Municipal Museum of the Kalavryta Holocaust. Photo by K. Kalantzis, 2018
Visitors at the Kalavryta memorial. A recording of a narration of the slaughter is played through the loudspeakers that are shown in the image. Photo by K. Kalantzis, 2018
Visitors at the Kalavryta memorial. Note the statue of the pained mother (by A. Vafeia) to the left as well as the wall featuriung victims' names in the background. Photo by K. Kalantzis, 2018