It is fair to say that Melbourne poet, journalist and social activist Bert Birtles harboured an enduring fascination for Greece. He named the poetry journal that he founded in 1935 Thyrsus, after the fennel rod tipped with a pine cone that was held in processions by ancient followers of Dionysus. Along with his wife Dora, for whose sake he was expelled from Sydney University for penning an explicit poem describing their tryst on the roof of the university quadrangle, in 1935 he travelled to Greece just as that country was embroiled in one of its most significant political crises: the return of the monarchy and the collapse of Greek democracy.
Birtles and his wife travelled throughout the country, meeting with key players in the intellectual and political spheres, assiduously recording prevailing social conditions. Most significantly, Birtles, a communist sympathiser, was, despite the dictatorships of Kondylis and Metaxas, able to visit and record the conditions of leftists exiled to the islands of Anaphi and Gavdos. As a result, in 1938, there appeared the first full-length book by an Australian on modern Greece, Bert Birtles’ “Exiles in the Aegean.” Bearing the sub-title, “A Personal Narrative of Greek Politics and Travel,” the contents of the book are clearly outlined in its dedication: “For Dora, who made the Journey with me, and for the Brave Greek Victims of Fascist Terror in Prison and in Exile.”
It was travel that awakened Birtles’ social conscience and gave rise to a remarkable Australian record of a pivotal moment in Geek history. “Having come to Greece with no set purpose but to enjoy ourselves,” Birtles writes, “we did not mean to stay more than two or three months; but as we became interested in the problems that the Greek people were up against, and as our interest in politics grew, we kept prolonging our visit… What might have been a very pleasant holiday, became an intellectual adventure.”
Greece in 1935 was a country bitterly divided between royalists and Venizelists. The political culture was one of violence. People falling foul of the regime, or possessing even the slightest left of centre views, were imprisoned or sent into exile. During this time of foment, former Venizelist General George Kondylis staged a coup and held a referendum for the return of King George II. Travelling through Ithaca at the time of the announcement, Birtles writes of the juxtaposition between the serenity of the rural landscape and current events: “We were climbing donkey-back up through fields that terraced into the hillside, rocky fields for grapes, corn and olives. The only sounds wee the tinkle of goat-bells and occasional shouts of the goat-herds, but we were suddenly reminded of world affairs at a bend in the mountain road. On a huge boulder was a large hammer and sickle, painted red. Underneath it was a slogan, also painted in red, each letter about a foot high. Our friends translated: “Down with Imperialism, War and Fascism!”
Also while in Ithaca, Birtles met some Greeks who had returned after emigrating to Australia. Asking them what they believed former Prime Minister Tsaldaris felt about the upcoming referendum, one responded: “He says it is going to be fair dinkum.” When asked by Birtles whether that was the adjective he used, the ex-Austalian responded, in broad Strine: “No, but that is what he means.”
Birtles’ experience of Athens was, unlike many from the Anglosphere, decidedly uncoloured by the romanticism of classical antiquity: “Unless you are determined to be romantic at any cost- falsely romantic,” he observed, “your first impressions of Athens must have been, like ours, of endless haggling over prices and arguments over politics.” Although like so many others he was enamoured of the Parthenon and visited it often, he refused to wax lyrical over it: “We did not value very much this abstract way of thinking about the Parthenon, as if it were something remote from the country’s history and the life of the people.” Referring to its shelling by the Venetians in 1687, he added: “This is what happens to the abstractly beautiful when rival imperialisms clash.”
While in Athens, Birtles met poet George Seferis. He was decidedly unimpressed with the career diplomat’s evasiveness, noting: “he was still in his thirties… the life of diplomatic ease had already left its subtle marks upon him. About him was an air of self preservation and… a studied tendency to intellectual evasion.”
For Birtles, leftist poet Kostas Varnalis cut a more impressive figure and he spends a few pages discussing his work: “The Light Which Burns.” He also quotes the poet as predicting: “When the social revolution comes to Greece it will be bourgeois and republican, not proletarian.” Attending a public meeting where Varnalis presciently warned against the dangers of ever encroaching Fascism, Birtles interviewed attendees to discover the reason for Varnalis’ extraordinary popularity. One explained: “It is because he is a poet and he tells the truth, and is not afraid to side with the people and suffer for it.”
Birtles also met the centre of political controversy, King George II, at a reception for journalists and described him as amiable and well-intentioned: “He looked shrewd, but not an intellectual and certainly not an exquisite.” As events unfold in the narrative, with the King’s sacking of Kondylis and Metaxas’ ascent to power, he eventually expresses the opinion that the King, was in fact the real dictator. Birtles reflects on his own conflicted emotion in meeting the monarch as follows: “As we went out, I was thinking how very Democratic a Democrat can be when he has shaken hands with a King.”
Observing a general election, Birtles noted that one major campaign issue was an amnesty for political detainees. He therefore resolved to investigate detainee conditions on the islands of their exile. Thus, using his Communist connections, he arranged to be transported to the penal island of Anaphi, where he stayed for eight days. Birtles records that the exiles lived in parlous conditions with the bare minimum of food and scant medical care. They organised themselves into communes and their rooms bore crayon portraits of Engels, Marx, Lenin, Zetkin and Rosa Luxembourg. They held political discussions and trained each other to withstand cross-examination in the manner of Georgi Dimitrov. In conversing with the exiles, Birtles learns that most of them did not hold communist views prior to their incarceration. It was during their imprisonment and exile, mostly on the most ridiculous of pretexts, such as the village schoolteacher who was imprisoned as a Communist because he taught against the Biblical creation teaching, that they became radicalised. In Anaphi and in remote and extremely hard to get to Gavdos, notorious for the harshness of its conditions, the preponderance of fleas and the prevalence of syphilis, Birtles witnesses and describes the formation of political and resistance networks that would persist and endure during the later Civil War.
While interviewing leftist political activists and politicians such as Communist Party deputy Sklavanas, and Dimitrios Glinos, Birtles advances the view that the bourgeois Greek political parties and especially the leader of the Venizelists, Themistocles Sofoulis, are ultimately to blame for the advent of fascism, as in their endeavours to marginalize the communists, they failed to create a united front to head off the forces of fascism that in Metaxas, ultimately prevailed.
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It says much for Birtles’ chutzpah that he attempted to gain an interview with Ioannis Metaxas, the dictator asking him to submit his questions in advance and then after three weeks, declining to respond to them. In the meantime, Birtles had been present at the funeral of Eleutherios Venizelos in Crete, stating that the Cretans had: “an air of independence… a slouch akin to the Australian bushman’s…. There is a kind of dignity which comes from openly resisting tyranny, of whatever kind, and these men had it.” While Dora Birtles kissed Venizelos’ corpse, as was customary for Greeks, Birtles declined to do so, stating: “Once a thing bemuse official it loses its impressiveness, being no longer personal or spontaneous.”
Even when he is describing rapacious landlords or corrupt police officers, Birtles’ narrative is steeped in affection for the Greek people. This allows him to make interesting comments about their social practices and conventions, as is the case when he discusses the Greek male’s use of worry beads: “These kombologia have nothing to do with religion, there merely provide Greek men with something to keep their hands occupied with while sitting and talking. They would appear to be a masculine masturbation substitute.”
Birtles ends his book in December 1937 with a detailed description of Metaxas’ suppression of trade unions, the right to strike and the plight of the re-settled Asia Minor refugees who are living in parlous conditions. The tone is one of foreboding as he predicts a major crisis on the horizon, one that would eventually engulf the entire continent and ravage Greece. The fault lines he so accurately identified in his extensive interviews of peasants, poets, politicians, professionals, housewives, journalists and traders would eventually cause the Greek Civil War, the after-effects of which can still be felt today and whose precedents can be found in Birtles’ writing.
As a left-wing critique of right-wing authoritarianism in Greece, Bert Birtles’ “Exiles in the Aegean” was extremely influential for its time. Returning to Australia, Birtles joined the left-wing League for Democracy in Greece, after the war and continued his political activism, eventually being called to appear before the Petrov Commission on Espionage. Both he and his wife, who published the short story “Three Days in Averoff,” on the subject of Greek female prisoners bargaining for cigarettes remained life-long friends of Greece. Today, eighty two years after his book was published, Bert Birtles’ words emerge from the page, as relevant and as accurate with regards to the needs and the problems associated with Greek democracy, as when they were first written. They deserve further consideration, and appreciation by the Greek communities of Australia.