Saturday, December 12, 2015

History on Trial: Heinz Richter


Jeff—Saturday

I was going to do a comedy piece about what people like to read about and what people don’t like to read about. For instance, people don’t like to read about the Greek crisis—they’re tired of it.  People don’t like to read about other people’s grandchildren—because they’re other people’s grandchildren. People do like to read about Donald Trump—because they’re fascinated by impending train wrecks even though no one knows yet who the inevitable victims will be.

But then I read the following article by Lina Giannarou prominently displayed as an "Editor's Pick" in Ekathimerini, Greece’s equivalent of The New York Times.  I emphasize it is a significant Greece-based paper—albeit not the favorite of the current ruling government coalition—because it is a story of a 75-year-old German scholar of Greek history being prosecuted by the Greek government under new “anti-racism legislation” for his differing take on World War II events from the version celebrated by the Greek people. He is on trial at this very moment for taking a position on history that the government does not like.
 

By the way, Professor Richter has received an Honorary Ph.D from the University of Crete, and The Gold Cross of the Order of The Greek Phoenix from the Greek President for “services to Greek history.”


I wonder what they’d do to a fiction writer who writes novels that seem to come true on less than complimentary issues, burn him at the stake?  Hopefully not, sunburn is painful enough. 

By the way, if they’d simply ignored the book I can’t imagine it would have attracted the attention it now has.  But that’s an old story.  Here’s the new story:

“I have been visiting Greece since 1958 and it has become like a second home to me. For 45 years, I have worked as a scholar on Greek history and for over 30 years on Cypriot history. There is no one in Western Europe who has done more for Greece than me. And now this.”

Heinz Richter makes no secret of his bitterness. It’s hard to blame him. He is German but the country which he has dedicated most of his life to is dragging him to court. Some have gone as far as to call him a Nazi.

It all started last year when the University of Crete decided to honor the 75-year-old former professor of Greek and Cypriot modern history at the University of Mannheim by awarding him an honorary doctorate. His critics, offended by his 2011 work “Operation Mercury: The Invasion of Crete,” in which he debunked some charming myths about resistance on the island during WWII, were quick to cry foul.

University of Crete
Protesters, led by former chief of the National Defense General Staff Manousos Paragioudakis, ruined the event (Richter actually received the award a few days later). Furthermore, he was charged by a Rethymno prosecutor with “denial of defamatory nature of the Nazi crimes committed against the Cretan people.” It was the first time that an individual had been charged under anti-racism legislation introduced in Greece the previous year.

One of the charges Richter faces is that he belittled the Cretan resistance, describing it as “dirty.”

“It wasn’t just ancient Greece that was full of myths; modern Greece has its own myths too,” he says. “It is true that at the beginning Cretan irregulars attacked and killed wounded parachutists – after all, early on there was no organized resistance. The Germans reacted by taking reprisals. I wrote that until Operation Mercury, WWII had been a ‘clean’ war in which neither side committed war crimes but respected the international rules of war [Hague Conventions]. But when attacks by noncombatants and reprisals began, the war became ‘dirty,’ i.e. the participants no longer obeyed the rules of war. This is the view of international historiography. Whoever has read my book on the occupation of Greece knows that I sympathize with the resistance movement and I condemn reprisals.”

Debunking the myth

Another popular myth, according to Richter, is that Hitler lost the war because Greeks resisted German forces for six weeks, thus delaying Berlin’s attack on Moscow. In “Greece in World War II” I analyzed and rejected this story. I was even able to trace the myth’s origin: A speech delivered by the British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden in October 1941. International historical research comes to the same conclusion. Neither [Operation] Marita [the invasion of Greece by Germany in April 1941] nor [Operation] Merkur [the seizure of Crete by German paratroopers in May 1941] had any influence on [Operation] Barbarossa [Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941],” he says.

Richter’s interest in Greece began when he visited the country for the first time in 1958. “I walked from Edessa to Ioannina along muletracks. I came in contact with people who spoke about the occupation and the Civil War. I saw ruins of villages destroyed by the Italians, the Germans, the Nationalists and the Communists,” he says.

After completing his studies (history political science and Anglistics) at Heidelberg, he started a PhD on the history of Greece in WWII. “I lived in Athens for one year during the junta (1967/68). Seeing fascism in action again I learned my lesson and since then I have been a convinced active democrat,” he says. Richter became a philhellene but not an “ellinolatris” – someone who loves Greece unquestioningly.

“For me, Greece became a second homeland,’” he says. “As a historian, I am obliged to speak the truth and I have always tried to stick to this principle. Of course I encountered criticism but this is normal and under normal circumstances it leads to scholarly discussions and perhaps to a scientific controversy. But never in my life had I been dragged to court. The historical truth is not a subject of the judicial system. If courts decided what the historical truth was that would be the end of scientific historiography.”

For what it’s worth, he gave his daughter a Greek name, “Danae.”

The trial is ongoing.

I wonder how the prosecutor will react to the ending I’m working on for the next Andreas Kaldis book.  Perhaps I should send him an ARC?  Nah, I’ve seen enough courtrooms for a lifetime.


—Jeff

19 comments:

  1. Somehow these days I feel like I am living in 1984 (Orwell's version of it) no matter what country I might be in.

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  2. As I've said before J&J, the stories in the Greek press and the US press seem far too often interchangeable when it comes to the behavior of their officials.

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  3. In the same context, President Zuma just fired the careful and respected finance minister here and replaced him by a party hack with no experience beyond mayor of a town (not a big a deal here).
    Markets plunged, the Rand collapsed 10%.
    A friend said we have joined "the banana republics". I responded that actually we have joined Greece...

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    1. The Republicans here seem poised to do a similar thing. Who knows where the general electorate will take us.

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  4. PS. I LOVE your first paragraph. Brilliantly sums it all up.

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    1. Why thank you, kind sir. Now if only I'd intended that. :)

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  5. Great piece, Jeff. History is usually written by the winning side. Interesting that nobody likes to hear the 'other' story ...

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    1. Thank God American history is unbiased. :)

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  6. “....There is no one in Western Europe who has done more for Greece than me...." Oh, Heinz! You may be right about history not being a judicial game. But it is not a scientific one either. It's about opinions. And yours of yourself seems to me to show you might have a tendency to overstatement. I do hope you don't go to jail. I don't think you should be tried ex post facto for your opinions on the invasion of Crete. But I do wonder if you might be a bit too filled up with yourself.

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    1. I had the identical reaction to that line. Then I thought, here's a 75-year-old on trial for racism by the country to which he's dedicated much of his adult scholarly life. Maybe he's entitled to a bit of hyperbole. Besides, who knows, assuming the quote is accurately reported he might have lifted it from the words of the President of Greece in awarding him that medal. After all, who better to fling such wild praise than politicians at award ceremonies.

      At least he had the good sense not to include the US in his parameters. :)

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    2. Richter is an apologist for the third reich. Nazis invading Crete is not even the issue. They were the Daesh of that time. Pure evil invaders. For Herr Richter to miss that point puts him in the same category as the Nazis.

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  7. Very nice column, Jeff. [Yes, it truly IS me... see, I can be nice to you once in a blue moon.] Unfortunately, the world seems to be deep in that part of the cycle where hatred and anger are operating at full-throttle, and tolerance, free speech, and reason are being throttled.

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    1. Excuse me for not responding sooner, EvKa, but upon reading your comment I kept waiting to wake up from what I thought must be a dream. Thank you.

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  8. Read a little despair here.If this happens in the"sat of democracy<" what have we got in the U.S.? Life is strange these days.

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  9. I'm sorry to hear about this persecution of opinion. throughout Europe, a lot of people in German occupied countries and Germany have inaccurately claimed to have resistance members among elder relatives. The past is so painful, but the truth must out.

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  10. The moral of this story is what Richter says: " ...The historical truth is not a subject of the judicial system. If courts decided what the historical truth was that would be the end of scientific historiography.” I agree 100 with that.

    However, I am also 100% against what Richter says about the "dirty" and "uncivilized" way the "non-combatant" people in Crete fought the german paratroopers. Actually, it is rather silly for a scholar of this caliber, to the point of being ridiculously absurd (yes I exaggerate on purpose) to claim that the locals should have basically stayed home accepting their fate (i.e. their homeland being invaded by a foreign army). This by itself reveals Richter's very poor understanding of the Cretan (and Greek in general) peoples mentality.

    I am not from Crete, but had I lived back then, I would have done EXACTLY the same, combatant or not. If you come into my house holding a gun and put my family's lives in danger, I would have resisted ferociously and given the opportunity with hesitating in the most brutal way possible and that includes the wounded as well.

    Richter may be an esteemed scholar but trying to equate the nazi invaders with "noble knights" and the locals defending their ancestral lands as "medieval savages", I'm sorry but that makes him an idiot. And the word "idiot" as you should probably know is a Greek word and in MY language is not used as a pejorative.

    Still, the Greek "democracy" and judicial system prove one more time how ineffective they are, nobody should have to stand trial because of their personal beliefs no matter how unacceptable or ...stupid they are.

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    1. Dear "Without Name" -- though you should acquire one because you have a lot of interesting things to say:)--you and I do not disagree. What stuck me about the story, and let me to highlight it, was that it was written by a Greek and published as an Editors Pick in Athens' Kathimerini. That, surprised me.

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    2. The German Daesh of that day used the same terms - dirty...uncivilized etc - when they rounded up villagers in Belorusia and Russia and everywhere they infested...and burned them alive.

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  11. Why can't Richter admit that he's a supremacist and a bigot? Why not take responsibility for his views? Is he a coward?

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