BOOK REVIEW / Murky tale of handcuffs and blindfolds: The Rape of Greece - Peter Murtagh: Simon & Schuster, pounds 17.50

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SOME TIME in the late Sixties, while the minions of the proud rulers of Greece were busily attaching electrodes to their victims' genitals, a US general remarked that the Greeks enjoyed 'the best damn government since Pericles'. The Rape of Greece tells again the gruelling story of 21 April 1967 and the seven-year military dictatorship which followed, and it still beggars belief, even in these tarnished times.

Murtagh begins by sketching in the background: the slaughter of 8 per cent of the Greek population in the Second World War, the almost inconceivable horrors of the civil war, the shabby betrayal by the British. Once Papadopoulos and his cronies have been sworn in (within the first few hours they officially banned miniskirts and long hair) Murtagh rolls up his sleeves and plunges into the ugly machinations of the CIA and the attitudes of a succession of bureau chiefs and US ambassadors. The story of the frequently inconsistent positions adopted by the agency and the embassy, and the way the CIA steamrollered on regardless, is miserably familiar, replicated before and after in many countries, but it still makes you set the open book down on the table and stomp round the room, full of rage. By the time of the Cyprus fiasco, when the demonic Brigadier Ioannides had ousted Papadopoulos, the US had made such a cock-up of their involvement in Greece that the head of the Cyprus desk at the State Department criticised it thus: 'It would be hard to imagine judgements more divorced from reality than these.'

Once King Constantine's feeble countercoup was stillborn, he flew into exile, and Murtagh neatly compares his activities with the bravery of ordinary people who regularly risked their lives to keep the spirit of resistance alive. He wonders, similarly, what Karamanlis, granddaddy of contemporary Greek politics, was actually doing in Paris during those dark years. That other fixture on the political landscape, Andreas Papandreou, the indestructible current Prime Minister, hardly emerges with credit either, effectively ensuring that vital opposition to the regime abroad remained fragmented.

This murky story has been told before (notably by C M Woodhouse). But Murtagh does bring some new material to bear, notably concerning the Democratic Defence resistance group; but to a certain extent the account overbalances with the weight of detail about this relatively minor aspect of the drama. He focuses almost obsessively, for example, on the activities of Martin Packard, an Englishman who led a Democratic Defence cell from his house in Oxford, driving explosives across Europe welded into car door panels.

Murtagh is a distinguished journalist and a reliable, lively chronicler. This book is a thorough, readable piece of reportage (it opens with the standard army car hurtling through mud streets, breaking the night silence, an innocent prisoner handcuffed and blindfolded in the boot), though it occasionally collapses into journalese, for example when he refers to the dictatorship as a 'sorry episode', or comments on Constantine's exile: 'The king had been watching events in Greece with more than a passing interest.' No kidding]

The publishers would have us believe that the book helps us understand the current crisis in the Balkans. This is probably an exaggerated claim, especially as Murtagh winds the story up in 1989, but The Rape of Greece does shine light on the psychic landscape of the Greeks, a nation as ill-at-ease with itself as ever, and for that it is worth reading.