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Two words on the History

The idea to set up concentration camps on the island of Makronissos was incubated during the civil war years (1946-1949) as part of the elimination of all opposition from the Left, and within the extensive operation in the army to purge it from all democratic and leftwing conscripts.

With the British intervention, the royalist ‘Popular Party’ won an |easy victory” at the March 1946 elections, and a hurriedly arranged referendum allowed the comeback of the King in September of the same year. The terror unleashed by the Right was heightened. They decided – among other measures against the Left – to “purify” the army from those conscripts considered “politically suspect”. These were disarmed and sent to various battalions or army units specifically formed for this purpose (in Crete, Liopesi, Dodular, etc). Many of the soldiers were ousted from the army or imprisoned and some were executed. Numerous officers of the Greek Liberation Army (ELAS) who fought in the National Resistance against the Germansm were banished to the islands of Naxos, Folegandros and Ikaria.

In February 1947 the decision was taken to set up the camps: Makronissos for the conscripts, Yaros for members of the Resistance, and Trikeri for the “politically suspect” citizens of the ‘cleaned-up’ areas of the country. In 1949, all the civilians that were detained as political exiles on the islands of Ikaria, Ai-Stratis and Limnos were transferred to Makronissos with the aim to submit them ideologically. Thus the largest concentration camp of the civil war was created numbering about 10,000 detainees. For their stay, concentration camps were gradually organized along the western coast of the island.

Different categories of detainees passed through the Makronissos camps:

  • Conscripts that were considered dangerous to the army
  • Officers of the Greek Liberation Army (ELAS) and reservists who participated in the National Resistance
  • Citizens from various regions who were preventively arrested prior to the “clearing operations” of the army
  • Political prisoners taken from various prisons up and down the country
  • Political exiles
  • Women political exiles (about 1,200) brought to Makronissos from the Trikeri Concentration Camp in January 1950.

The deception by which those in charge had wrapped the “patriotic work” practiced at Makronissos, is perpetrated by ‘reliable’ visitors too, who went there to admire it and to proclaim its value. Singular examples are the visit by Queen Frederica and by the American General Van Fleet himself.

Some of the remarkable events in the island’s tragic history are:

  • The first “Reform Experiment”, which took place at the 3rd Sappers Battalion, involving many abhorrent methods of coercion and torture over a long time, used as a model for torture practices in the other camps;
  • The set up operation of ‘Mutiny’ at the 1st Sappers Battalion, which is one of the most horrific experiences to which the detainees were subjected, witnessing organized mass executions and ill-treatment of their comrades (1948);
  • The “Reform Experiments”, which were extended to the political exiles following the establishment of the “Special Reform School for Civilians” (ESAI), and which coincided with the termination of the civil war in 1949;
  • The parliamentary elections of March 5, 1950 in which, in spite of the climate of terror, the democratic parties won 70% of the votes of the people detained in Makronissos, burying the myth of the “Reform Schools” in the whole world

At Makronissos, a variety of buildings were constructed by the prisoners under coercion: churches, playing fields, open-air theaters, places where the ideological reform of the detainees was practiced. The new Parthenons, St Sophias, arches and bas-reliefs, pebble mosaics, inscriptions with slogans that covered whole hillsides completed the “reform” scene. Administration buildings were erected at prominent sites, villas for the commanders, an Officers’ Club for the “instructors”, even buildings for communal functions, bread ovens, a soft drinks factory, a radio broadcasting station, an infirmary building, kitchens, water cisterns, sanitary areas.

The exiles lived in tents, exposed to the winds, the cold or the unbearable heat, suffering from hunger and thirst. Each camp was surrounded by dense rows of barbed wire and sentry huts. It is estimated that about 60,000 people passed through the island under these conditions. For a while (in 1948) the island’s detainee population reached 20,000. In 1961 the Army abandoned the island and subsequently all installations were looted and stripped from all re-usable materials.

More than four decades have elapsed since the end of the civil war. Slowly, and often painfully, the consequences of the civil war are being eradicated, normal parliamentary life takes hold, and many ex-detainees of Makronissos, within the wider Left, contribute to many artistic, scientific and intellectual fields, gaining wider respect and actively partake in the social and political life of the nation. The “exiles of Makronissos” try to preserve historical memory and all that is left on the island, which has turned into a vast pasture.

In 1989 with a ministerial decision the State has recognized Makronissos as a site of historic interest and its building as worthy of preservation as historical monuments. A proposal has also been put forward to include the island in the listed Mediterranean historic sites.

Excerpt from the brochure «Macronesssos, Historic Site» by the Greek ICOMOS (Athens, 1991) [pdf]