Truman: The Most Hated Statue in Greece

Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Greek Civil War in October 1949. The conflict between monarchists and communists erupted soon after the end of the country’s occupation during World War II left a power vacuum at the heart of the birthplace of democracy. Although Stalin chose not to support the insurgents, the conflict is considered to be the first proxy war of the Cold War, with the monarchists backed by Britain and the United States, while the communists were mainly supported by Tito’s Yugoslavia.

The Truman Doctrine, named after US President Harry Truman, was instrumental in releasing billions in US government funds to support the monarchists and to provide equal economic and military support to Turkey, which was also at risk of entering the Soviet sphere. The strategy proved effective and a subsequent victory for the Kingdom of Greece suppressed the spread of communism in Southern Europe.

Yet the disagreement that gave rise to the conflict has continued to fester, exacerbated by the Greek military coup d’état in 1967 which heralded seven years of rule by a far-right junta who imprisoned or exiled thousands of suspects communists and political opponents. US support for the junta, deeply unpopular among the Greeks but an expedient anti-communist ally for the West, led to growing anti-Americanism during the dictatorship. This only increased when the US failed to support Greece in halting the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. In the Greek capital, anger against US ‘imperialism’ has repeatedly found a target in one unfortunate work of art.

Earlier this year, Greek communists were arrested for an attack on a 12-foot bronze statue of Truman, erected near the US Embassy in 1963 by the conservative US-based American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA). Set up without the consent of the Athens city authorities, the statue has been controversial from the start. In 2018, activists protesting US-led airstrikes in Syria used a metal grinder to cut off its feet and ropes in an attempt to topple it to the ground, before they were repelled by riot police with tear gas.

 But this is just the latest attack the statue has withstood. Over the last 55 years, it has being bombed four times – on one occasion causing the death of a nearby policeman, attacked with a chainsaw and successfully toppled on at least five occasions. In more imaginative protests, the statue has been doused in pink and red paint (perhaps a nod to David Černý’s Pink Tank in Prague) and wrapped up in packaging paper marking it for return delivery to the United States. When a bomb in 1986 tore the statue apart, an exasperated Mayor of Athens suggested replacing Truman with a statue of Abraham Lincoln, perhaps hoping that the American Civil War hero would prove less aggravating. But the AHEPA insisted on bringing Truman back from the dead.

Recounting the misfortunes that have befallen the statue, in a country famous for its sculpture, some commentators have asked if it has become ‘the most hated’ in Athens. Even those Greeks who are ambivalent to the statue have wondered why it is there, when some of the country’s greatest politicians, leaders and intellectuals have not received similar recognition, and there is not even a Truman statue on display in the president’s own hometown. But with the sculpture once again patched up and receiving a vocal defense from the US Ambassador to Greece, it doesn’t look like Truman will be leaving his podium any time soon.

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Greek Art After the Civil War

For many historians, the international response to the Greek Civil War is considered to mark the starting point of the Cold War. The conflict between the Greek government (backed by Western powers) and the Greek Communist Party (supported by regimes in Eastern Europe) arose out of the power vacuum that followed the end of the wartime occupation of Greece and lasted for three and a half years. It came to an end on 16 October 1949, with communism defeated.

That year also saw the launch of a number of artistic groups, formed with the aim of bringing Greeks together after the crisis. Among them were the Armos and Stathmi groups, which both received their first exhibitions in 1950 in Athens. Combining their training in Greek mythology and folk art with the teachings of the European avant-garde, the work on display ranged from the male nudes of Yannis Tsarouchis and the mythological surrealism of Nikos Engonopoulos to the cubist imaginings of Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas and the expressionist landscapes of Spyros Vassiliou. Together these artists would help shape a modern, post-war Greek identity through the soothing power of painting.

Nikos Engonopoulos, Apparition of Rigas Feraios in Evia, 1950. Oil on canvas. Private collection, Athens; Spyros Vassiliou, Galaxidi, 1950. Oil on wood © A. G. Leventis Gallery.