The Flag on the Acropolis

On Saturday April 30, 2011, three days before the writing of this piece, Lakis Santas died in Athens, at the age of 89. "Lakis" is the diminutive ending of the "given" Christian name "Apostolos" ["apostle" in English; one of Christ's original disciples]. Therefore, Santas' name was "Apostolakis" ["little apostle"]; shortened to "Lakis".

During the Second World War the Nazis entered Athens, as occupiers, in the morning of April 27, 1941. The same morning they raised a huge flag with the swastika on the Acropolis. The message sent to Hitler, a fervent admirer of classical Greece, read:

My Fuehrer,

On the 27th of April 1941, at 8 and 10' a.m. we arrived in Athens … and at 8 and 45' a.m. we raised the German flag on the Acropolis…

Heil my Fuehrer

Lakis Santas was 19 years old at the time and was a student at the School of Law in the University of Athens.  

The Zappas cousins, Evangelis, the older, and Konstantine, the younger, were two Greeks who around 1850 made a huge fortune in … Rumania. Being "patriotic" Greeks, they donated a lot of money to revive the … Olympic Games! So they built in Athens a monumental building, the Zappion Edifice, to be used as the base for the Olympic Committee and as a place for agricultural exhibitions, etc. Later, the area surrounding the building was turned into a park and the section just in front of the building was left as an open space for promenade, etc, after removing a Protestant cemetery that occupied the site.  

[Parenthesis: The Greeks, at the age of a few months, whether they agree or not, are baptized as Orthodox Christians. So, almost 100% of the Greeks are ... Orthodox. I wonder who were the Protestants that died in Athens in the 19th century. Of course, the, inevitable, "occupiers" of the country at the time were the Bavarians. But they were mostly Catholic. Maybe, somewhere there were some British doing the usual patriotic "intelligence" work for the Empire. Anyway, the Orthodox beat the Protestants that time. I wonder if one in a million Athenian Greeks knows the story about that cemetery.]  

Innumerable millions of Americans and Europeans have "paraded" in front of the Zappion, during the last 60 years or so, without being aware of it. Because, they simply visit the impressive Temple of Zeus, just across the street from the Zappion.

A few weeks after the entrance of the Nazis in Athens, Santas and his friend Monolis Glezos, a student at the School of Business, also 19 years old, were at the Zappion promenade, a preferred watering hole for the students of that time. The distance from Zappion to the point on the Acropolis, where the Nazi flag was raised, is about 800 yards. That being 1941, the flag was visible from Zappion, as the buildings, at that time, had at the most three stories.  

At some point, that morning, Glezos tells Santas: "Lakis, look up there, see what is happening up there …" Then, Santas turns, sees the Nazi flag and replies: "Yes, you are right, that's it, that is what we should do to them, if we can …"

The following days they read all they could about the Acropolis, in the excellent "Pyrsos" encyclopedia of the period. They came to the conclusion that the best way to reach the top of the Acropolis and tear down the Nazi flag was from the Northern side of the hill, as they found that there was a big "crack" in the limestone that constitutes the mass of the hill. [Actually a "sinkhole"; an intrinsic characteristic of limestone strata]. This was a shaft of about 112 feet deep that started at street level from the foot of the hill and reached the top of the Acropolis and went to an unknown depth below street level. They learned that, according to the mythology, the Goddess Athena held in that cave Erichthonios, the sacred snake, which was fed by the Acropolis priests once every month with an… apple-pie (sic).

[Note: Hephaestus was the God of fire and of metal working. When, Venus, his wife, left him he attacked Athena, the Goddess of wisdom, and tried to rape her. Athena, resisted and Hephaestus "ejaculated between the legs of the Goddess; she then, made unclean, wiped off the semen with linen and threw it on the ground". Athena, took the child that was borne from the ground and to protect it she placed it in a box and put two snakes as guards, hence the name "Erichthonios". That is why Athena's shield has the form of a snake on it.

Now, compare this humane attitude of the Greeks of yore to that of the Judaic culture of that time. In the Bible (Genesis, 38: 8-10, King James version) we read: "And Judah said unto Onan, Go in into thy brother's wife ... and Onan ... when he went in into his brother's wife, that he spilled it [the semen] on the ground … And the thing he did displeased the LORD: therefore he slew him …" Let us hope that Sarah Palin does not read this ZNet Commentary. Otherwise, there is going to be a lot of "slewing" in the US. End of Note.]   

So, the two 19-year old Greeks started exploring, for a few days, the possible route to the top of the Acropolis and the Nazi flag. They found that some French archaeologists, who had been working in the cave in the past, had left kind of a scaffold with wooden planks that led up to the top. Also, one morning they went to the Acropolis as visitors to observe the situation there, find where the German guard were, etc.

Finally, during the night of May 30 to May 31, 1941, Santas and Glezos climb up the scaffold and reach the top of the Acropolis where they find that, to their luck, the platoon of the German soldiers who were guarding the Acropolis and the flag were celebrating the recent fall of Crete to the Nazis by drinking and singing with some Greek prostitutes, away from the location of the flag.

They creep to the location of the flag, untie it, and start pulling it down. However, the flag stops at some height where the German's had a device which was attached to three wire ropes anchored into the ground, as a resisting force  against the wind force from the huge, 4 by 2 meters (13 by 6.5 feet), flag. It takes them quite a while to solve the problem of the wire ropes, which they manage to do by sheer will. The flag falls on them and covers them completely. They make it into a big bundle cut two small pieces from the cloth, as a token of their act, take care to leave their fingerprints on the pole, so that innocent people should not be punished, take the flag to the sink hole and throw it to the bottom of the shaft, where it lies to this day. They were so glad that they had succeed to tear down the Nazi flag that they were cool enough to make a joke while throwing the flag in the sink hole by saying that now Athena's Erichthonios, the snake, will guard the Nazi flag

Santas and Glezos had agreed that if the Nazis were to discover them, they would not let them catch them. They had decided to jump to their death from the Acropolis.

No one tells the millions that visit the Acropolis each year that as they leave the Propylea and enter the open area, where the Parthenon is, on their left side, as they face the Parthenon, there is a fenced area where access is forbidden. That is where the opening of the sink hole from where Santas and Glezos emerged to pull down the Nazi flag is found. Yet, a few years ago a bronze plate was attached to the base of the flag-pole area to commemorate, the act of the two young Greeks. The message on the plate is in Greek, only.  

The Nazis never found who tore down their flag. Hitler sent even Himmler to Athens to investigate. The father of Santas burned the piece of the flag that his son brought home. The mother of Glezos did the same thing. At a later date, when the Germans searched the house of Santas, if the piece was found the whole family would have been executed. The 20 German soldiers guarding the Acropolis that night were executed as ordered by Hitler.

In my ZNet Commentary of November 16, 2003, "The Flag", I mentioned:

"We are told that the flag is a symbol. A symbol of what? If it is the (practical) symbol of a geographical entity, then it is okay … But when it is a symbol of the culture, religion, patriotism, etc for a country, things become a bit messy …  

So, it seems that the flag, a mere piece of cloth is insignificant, but the flag-waving is very significant as an instrument of terrorizing any given population…"

Santas and Glezos, two 19-year-olds, were courageous enough to carry out a "symbolic" act that was a statement to the rest of the peoples of Europe who were scared to death by Hitler. Its wisdom can be argued by some people, yet it was a moral act. However, let us examine the execution of the 20 Germans. Of the 20, about 1/3, around 6 or 7 soldiers were the usual assholes of any given society who would readily become Nazis (or Republican, or Christian-Democrats , or Conservatives, etc). The rest of the  16 or 17 German soldiers were ordinary normal humans who had a chance to have a good time drinking and singing with their female companions. Actually, they did not give a shit about the perverted military rules, etc, etc. So, the supermen in Berlin executed them for the "insult" brought to a piece of … "symbolic" cloth. Now, think of the parents, the wives, and the children of these ordinary humans. Why were they taken away from those families forever? For the same reason that other ordinary humans were taken away, in Korea, in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and so on. For no reason at all!

The next morning the Athenians noticed that the Nazi flag on the Acropolis was missing. Then, a rumor spread that the Nazis were leaving as they were afraid that the British were going to bomb them, etc. Of course, the Nazi occupation lasted for four years at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.

Having survived the Nazi flag "adventure" Santas and Glezos decided to fight he Nazis by going to Haifa and joining the Greek force that was there. They managed to smuggle themselves into a Swedish ship, the "Randmaso", but to their bad luck the British bombed the port of Pireus that night and the ship could not leave. They stayed hidden for three days without food or water in the February cold (of 1942) and finally asked a stevedore, a Greek, to get them a little water. The Greek instead of water brought the Nazi guards. They were arrested and condemned to 2 years in prison. The Nazis searched their houses but found nothing. However, the German officer that searched the Santas place found some technical literature on agriculture in German that belonged to Santa's father, an agriculturalist, from a course he had taken in Germany many years ago. That was enough for the German to fix it so that Santas would serve only one year of his sentence.

After he was set free, he joined the anti-Nazi Greek Resistance and took part in the most important battles during the years that followed. He was wounded in his chest and the bullet was removed without anesthetic by Emanuel Aruch, a Jewish doctor; a comrade in the Resistance. This lasted up to February 1945 when the British occupied Greece, after the Nazis left, in October 1944.  

In July 1947 he was arrested by the Greek government, the proxy of the British and by now, also, of the American occupiers, and sent to exile on the Island of Ikaria, close to Mykonos, where he stayed for a year.

In 1948 he is arrested again and is imprisoned on Psittalia, a tiny island close to Athens, in a prison for criminals. I consider the following description of the events in that prison of paramount importance:  

When Santas entered the ward of the criminal prisoners he was approached by a tall tough prisoner who said: "What are you in for my feller?" Santas: "I wish I knew. I was arrested, they found that I was not drafted, and they sent me here." The tough: "Oh, I understand feller, you are a 'mamouthi'." Santas: "What is a mamouthi?" The tough: "For them you are a commie… you are going to have special treatment from them. From us there is no problem, do not worry."

The word "mamouthi", in Greek, is the diminutive for the word "mammoth" ("any of … extinct … mammals of the elephant family…", according to Merriam-Webster's). At that time, when a political prisoner was first arrested he was told: "Here that you were brought you have to forget that you are human, you are a 'mamouthi'.' That is, not only you are an animal, but you do not exist.

The prison was a Navy prison. So, the master sergeant, or whatever they call a Navy noncommissioned officer, put Santas into an abandoned-by-the-Nazis concrete munitions store-room by himself. For 5 days he could not sleep as at night he was attacked by rats "as big as a cat", which he was trying to crush with his boots. The criminal prisoners heard Santas' desperate shouts and the tall tough managed to reach him and tells him: "Listen feller, I am out today, my sentence is over. Let one day go by and then tell that faggot of a sergeant that you asked me to tell your people to waste his entire family … he is a coward and he will be frightened." The sergeant not only moved Santas away from the rats, but found the best bed for him and was extremely eager to make him comfortable.

No comment is necessary on the above description. Only, that Santas was grateful to the tall tough up to his old age.

In 1949 Santas was moved to the island of Makronesos, the notorious Nazi-type concentration camp for leftists. He stayed there for 2 years.

In 1956, to avoid further persecution Santas and his family, by now married with two daughters, ask for political asylum in Canada which is approved. They stay in Canada for 6 years and they are back to Greece in 1963, thinking that things are better.  

During the 1967-1974 military dictatorship, he was arrested once more and imprisoned for a period.  

To complete this "portrait" of Santas as a human being we shall present some of his thoughts, as expressed by him and also some of his experiences in the Resistance, as written by him.  

- On July 22. 1943, during the Nazi occupation of Athens, there was a huge demonstration against the Nazis. Santas was participating. In front of the Ophthalmologic Clinic, by the National Academy and the two statues of Socrates and Plato, seated in a contemplating pose, a student was hit by a Nazi bullet. A girl, Panagiota Stathopoulou, a student, as a tank moved to run over the wounded student, ran and stood in front of the tank, believing that the tank will stop. The Nazi handling the machine-gun of the tank shoots her and as she falls the tank runs over her. Another girl, Koula Lili, a 19-year-old student of the French Academy, rushed against the tank took off her shoe and attempted to hit the Nazi that was handling the machine-gun. The Nazi killed her on the spot.

[Note: Tienanmen Square was turned into a propaganda symbol. How many people have ever heard of what Santas describes?]  

- The Nazis had turned the high school building of Old Faliro, by the sea in Athens, into a hospital for the Nazis wounded at the eastern (Russian) front. In that hospital there was a Nazi doctor, a handsome, small man with glasses, very polite, all "danke schoen" and "bitte schoen", who used to ride his bicycle and go to the market and buy fruits, greens, etc. One morning, a few days before October 12, 1945, the day that the Nazis left Greece, a group of Greek children were writing slogans against the war. Among them is Evi a Greek girl about 14 or 15 years old. When the doctor spotted them, he climbed on his bike, went to the hospital, got his automatic rifle, returned to where the kids were and killed Evi. A street in the neighborhood today bears the name of Evi Athanasiadou.

Santas writes: "Maybe, as a human society we should examine how 'humans' reach such a point."

-  At the port town of Galaxidi, not far from the famous Delphi, in April 1944, Santas and other Resistance fighters were told to go and capture a Nazi wooden vessel that had engine trouble and was anchored there. They captured all the Nazis in a tavern, who surrendered immediately. Then they went to the vessel and the Nazi guarding it surrendered without any resistance and was disarmed. Santas and the rest left to go and report about the operation, leaving a fighter as guard on the vessel. The disarmed Nazi pulled a gun, a Luger pistol, which he had hidden on him and killed the Greek fighter. The Nazi had nowhere to go as the town was full of Resistance fighters. He was killed.

Santas writes: "When I examined his papers in his wallet I discovered to my great surprise that this fanatic man was not a German. He was a Hungarian Nazi, a fanatic fascist … At night I started thinking about these 'humans' and their ilk … What kind of a creep was he? Now, he came to die … far away from his country, alone and abandoned, full of hate and fanaticism …"  

-  About the British and their role in Greece Santas writes: "The worst thing of all was that our leaders chose to fight the [British] Intelligence Service … which for 300 years ruled and robbed the entire earth … Who were they that chose to fight them? Ordinary people … who had no experience of secret services …

The English are the founders of the concentration camps … It was from them that the Germans were taught to build concentration camps …"  

Let this be a legacy from Lakis Santas to the young people of the original Tahrir Square and to the coming Tahrir Squares: Have nothing to do with the elites of the West, their governments and their secret services. Approach only the ordinary people in all countries in solidarity and participatory cooperation.

My estimate is that Lakis Santas was a person of outstanding honesty, integrity, rationality, and courage. Elias Petropoulos, a Greek who "exiled" himself to Paris, an anarchist, befriended Santas. A friendship that was unfathomable for communist fellow-prisoners.  

The daughters of Lakis Santas, Alexandra and Georgia, say about their father: "He was tired of theories and of big words. He was a socially aware man, who should have lived in a society of solidarity, justice, and sincerity." Georgia remembers his words to other people: "You should have your own view. You should never say yes to authority, to any authority." [Greek daily "Eleftherotypia", May 2, '11, p.3].   


Most of the data in this article were based on the following books:

1. Lakis Santas, "One Night on the Acropolis …", Vivliorama, 2010, 157 pages [in Greek].

2. Karolos Ep. Moraitis, "Apostolos Santas: This is How we Pulled Down the Swastika From the Acropolis", lexitypon, 2010, 115 pages [in Greek].   

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