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The Greek WWII Hero and EU Parliamentarian Who Nearly Blew Up Winston Churchill 70 Christmases Ago

A Greek campaigner, politician, and nationally-revered war hero, Manolis Glezos was elected to the European Parliament earlier this year.

by Sally Hayden
Dec 25 2014, 6:10pm

Photo by Petros Giannakouris/AP

Manolis Glezos, 92, is Europe's oldest member of European Parliament (MEP), and this Christmas marks the 70th anniversary of the day that he almost blew up Winston Churchill.

A Greek campaigner, politician, and nationally-revered war hero, Glezos was elected to the European Parliament earlier this year as a member of the Syriza Party (Coalition of the Radical Left).

In his new position Glezos is regularly put in chambers and debates with members of Europe's new far-right parties. These are the elected faces of a movement that — in various manifestations — is experiencing increased support across the continent. Glezos — who was imprisoned multiple times by the Nazis — told VICE News that reasons for this rise are obvious.

"This phenomenon of the far-right rising into power is always observed once austerity measures are enforced; once poverty, hunger, unemployment, misfortune, and despair befall the people," he said.

France's National Front, Britain's UKIP, the Freedom Party of Austria, Germany's National Democratic Party, Holland's Party for Freedom, and Hungary's Jobbik are all far-right groups that are increasingly garnering attention. While some of these parties wear their fascism a bit more discretely, Greece's Golden Dawn party's main spokesperson allegedly has a visible Swastika tattoo

Glezos said that Golden Dawn's appeal was nonexistent for 99 out of 100 Greeks before the economy's collapse, but now people are beginning to identify with the issues they raise.

"Those in the European Union responsible for the situation must take this seriously into account," he warned, "unless they want to witness the far-right taking over Europe and the consequences that will follow."

In Photos: Years of Greece's Great Depression. Read more here.

Greeks are coming to the end of their fifth year living under austerity measures, and the effects have been devastating. One in four are out of work. Less available healthcare has led to soaring suicide rates, HIV infection, and child mortality. A UNICEF study of 23 Western countries found that Greece has had the biggest rise in child poverty since 2008, as it has risen from 23 percent to 40.5 percent.

At 89, Glezos was tear-gassed by riot policemen at an anti-austerity protest outside the Greek parliament. His party, the radical-left Syriza, is unreservedly against austerity, and they look likely to win the next general election. The most recent polls have them leading by a reasonable majority. If Syriza do come to power, they hope to renegotiate the bailout.

Glezos told VICE News that his party operates on the idea that money does not create value, only work does. Therefore, bailouts cannot solve their problems.

"When (Syriza) come into power they are capable to face and overcome all hardship and can create goods and culture for everyone," he said.

Glezos also said that he believes those who credit the European Union with stabilizing the continent and averting a third world war have been deceived.

"Unfortunately, the European Union still depends heavily upon the United States and NATO and acts under the absolute political and economic control of Germany and Merkel," he said.

Greece was occupied by the Nazis between April 1941 and October 1944. This period was incredibly difficult for Greek citizens, and an estimated 40,000 Athenians died of starvation. After the Nazis overran the city, they raised a huge swastika over the Acropolis — itself a symbol of the greatness of ancient Greece.

On May 30, 1941, Glezos and a friend — Apostolos Santas — heard that, in a speech from Berlin's Reichstag, Hitler had proclaimed his intention to liberate Europe "from the enemies of Germany."

The reaction of the two teenagers was instantaneous. Glezos told VICE News: "We decided to liberate the Acropolis, the temple of civilization, from the swastika, the symbol of the completion of the German occupation of Greece. Furthermore, we chose that very day in order to express a first reaction to Hitler's gloating. We fully realized the possible consequences and the meaning of our action."

Taking full responsibility for any consequences this rash act might cause, Glezos said that they informed only one friend of their plan "in case we got ourselves killed." In the dead of night, the two proceeded, armed only with a torch and a pocket knife. It took them three hours to scale the 50-foot flagpole. Glezos also said that they consciously and deliberately left fingerprints all over the flagpole.

"We did not wish someone else to be arrested and punished for our action," he said.

This act of defiance inspired others, and was given huge media coverage by local papers which, with Nazi approval, visibly and enthusiastically "condemned" the action. Glezos also avoided execution, though his younger brother was not as lucky.

However, Glezos's notable ability to take a stand would get him in trouble again.

After the German withdrawal, the Allies feared that the Communist group EAM/ELAS would take power. A small British force was sent to Greece to help maintain order, but ended up involved in the shooting of at least 15 unarmed protesters. With the prospect of a prolonged civil war looming, Churchill flew into Athens on Christmas eve, 1944, accompanied by his foreign secretary Anthony Eden.

That same night happened to be the date that Glezos and about 30 compadres had decided to blow up the British headquarters.

Glezos told the Guardian that he spent hours crawling through the sewerage system, fuse wire wrapped all around him, in an effort to plant the dynamite.

"We crawled through all the shit and water and laid the dynamite right under the hotel," he said.

However, when they discovered that Churchill was in the building, the order to detonate the dynamite was withdrawn. Glezos only recently admitted to his part in the plot, and VICE News asked him to explain his reasoning further — why was he happy to blow up the headquarters, but not Churchill?

"The British headquarters had to be brought to ruin, because this was the place from where the war against the Hellenic People (Greek) was being controlled," Glezos replied.

"Let us not forget that in a time of war the ultimate goal is always to destroy the enemy's headquarters. This, however, is different to killing Winston Churchill, one of the leaders of the Allied forces still battling against Hitler at that time," he said. "It was a time when no one would think to forgive us should we be responsible for Churchill's death."

Glezos himself has come close to death, surviving nine assassination attempts, one time that allegedly involved an explosive chocolate bar, Incidentally, Churchill was also targeted by exploding chocolate.

Glezos attributes his survival to a little help from his friends and the influence of his birth village.

"Of the nine assassination attempts against me, seven were avoided thanks to the immediate response of my friends, whilst the other two I managed to survive thanks to the natural survival instinct of any man from Aperathou," he said.

White-haired, but still a forceful speaker, Glezos is now actively campaigning for Germany to pay Greece about 162 billion euros in reparations for WWII. He also claims that Greece is the only injured country that hasn't been compensated for their suffering 70 years ago. He said that it is "inexplicable" that this money hasn't been handed over.

"The payment of the German obligations owed to Greece is a moral need," he said, adding that until these payments are made, there can be no peace treaty between the two countries, leaving them in the "rigged status quo of not at war."

"It is high time for this whole story to come to an end."

Greece's Young Anarchists. Watch the VICE News documentary here.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @SallyHayd

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