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The case of the Makronissos detention camps (1947-1957).

  • Jul 04 2022
  • Anna Papaeti
    is Research Associate Professor at the University of Cyprus and Principal Investigator of the ERC Consolidator Grant Soundscapes of Trauma: Music, Sound, and the Ethics of Witnessing (MUTE). She writes about the nexus of music, sound and trauma, and the inte rections of politics, ethics, and aesthetics. She is also a research-based-art practitioner, working in sound and textual forms.

In the midst of the Greek civil war in February 1949, an anonymous soldier-detainee held at the Makronissos detention camps wrote in the propaganda magazine Skapanefs: “We love music because by listening to someone playing good violin or good piano we feel that something higher fills our existence; it refines and elevates us.”[1] His words convey the understanding of music as an art that ennobles and enlightens the soul, an ideological position adopted by authoritarian regimes in cold-war Greece between the civil war (1946–1949),
the post-civil war and military dictatorship (1967– 1974) periods. The detention camps situated at the barren Greek island of Makronissos provide a compelling example of the way in which music was used to attack subjectivity and terrorize detainees during the authoritarian rule. At the same time, the camps also highlight the ways in which some detainees tried to reclaim music, underlining the entanglement between its positive and negative effects in such contexts. The Makronissos camps were created in 1947 in the context of the civil war, but continued to operate in the post-civil war period up until 1957.[2] Initially intended for Greek communist and leftist soldiers, the camps were also open to civilian political prisoners, including women and children between 1948 and 1950. Detainees were understood to have forfeited their “Greekness” due to their ideological convictions. In this context, Makronissos was intended as a “rehabilitation station” where detainees were exposed to hard discipline, torture, hard labor, nationalist speeches and music. These methods were used to coerce the detainees into signing declarations of repentance, condemning the Greek Communist Party as well as their comrades.

Music was used in multifaceted ways in Makronissos. Like other internment camps of this period internationally, Makronissos had a number of musical ensembles including a band, a choir and a small orchestra consisting of mandolins and accordions which performed on a regular basis not only for detainees, but also for Greek and foreign visitors. The visitors were brought to the island in order to witness the so-called Makronissos experiment that supposedly “rehabilitated” communists and leftists and turned them into “real Greeks”. Successful tools of propaganda, the musical ensembles were described in national and international newspaper articles painting an idyllic picture of Makronissos that erased the brutal torture that prevailed in the camps.[3]

Music was also used as a cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment through the forced singing of nationalist songs that took place on a daily basis in the barracks and during hard labor. The latter consisted of the Sisyphean task of carrying heavy stones from one end of the island to the other and back. In the context of hard labor, fatigue and hunger, singing not only humiliated detainees but also added to their physical strain. During that time, detainees were also forced to listen to music, such as nationalist songs that were blasted from loudspeakers.[4] In 1947, a band, consisting of a lute, a clarinet and a violin, was also placed at the front of the stone-carriers’ procession.[5] Soldiers write that this ordeal was introduced when other methods failed to “break” them, underlining the impact of music.

The most striking example of forced listening was the Makronissos Radio Station of Military Forces, one of the first radio stations to be established in Greece in 1948. Placed across barracks, loudspeakers transmitted the broadcasts of the radio station from early in the morning until late in the evening. In fact, loudspeakers are vividly described by camp survivors as an ‘all-seeingeye’, a sonic panopticon of power. According to my interviewee B.*, this was one of his worst experiences in Makronissos. To escape this music, he joined the rubbish collection service. Even though it was a highly unpleasant job, it allowed him to go away from the barracks and work near the sea, where they threw the trash.

In the context of detention on a barren island, imposed music and sound furthered the feeling of isolation and created a sense of sonic enclosure from the outside world and the detainees’ own surroundings. For C., a writer and former political prisoner for three decades in various detention spaces in Greece, Makronissos appears to have had a lasting impact. In an interview conducted in 2012, C. characteristically told me about his detention during the dictatorship period: “Had they put a clarinet player inside the isolation cell [...] I would have said everything. They would not have to torture me. I would surrender myself entirely, that’s how much I can’t stand it”. The fact that C. was known both by his torturers and comrades for his high tolerance of pain in the context of torture makes his admission all the more telling. When I asked C. about the music repertory at Makronissos, where he was stationed in 1953, he said that the loudspeakers played marches but mostly tsamiko – a folk dance that features the clarinet. Indeed, tsamiko was used by authoritarian regimes of that period as the patriotic dance par excellence, often citing its connection with the 1821 Greek Revolution against the Ottomans.[6] For C., this genre and the clarinet became synonymous with oppression and non-freedom. In exploring music in detention, our scope should not only be limited to the way in which music is used as a means of terror. To understand the complexities of the musical and auditory experience in such contexts, we cannot ignore the entanglement of positive and negative effects of music in survivor testimony. A telling example is a testimony shared by female political prisoners in Makronissos. According to historian Tasoula Vervenioti, the women recalled cutting thorny weeds with their bare bleeding hands while singing together in order to withstand the loudspeakers of the Makronissos Radio Station that made them dizzy. Their song was also intended for the male detainees of the First Battalion, who refused to sign declarations of repentance. “Unrepentant” soldiers were brutally tortured and kept outdoors
in the so-called gorge where they were exposed to brutal weather conditions.[7] In the women’s testimony, the sound imposed from above by the loudspeakers was countered by their collective singing rising from below, turning their voices into an acoustic shield. Not only did the women reclaim agency through singing; their song also became a kind of acoustic witnessing and a response with regard to the men’s ordeal, introducing the Other (i.e. the women) as a witness, interpolating the men – as listeners/subjects and thus undermining the structure of objectifying detainees through torture. This entanglement between negative and positive uses of music on Makronissos underlines the complexity of the musical, sonic and auditory experience in places of detention. Keeping sight of such nuanced moments is crucial if we are to listen attentively and understand better the cultural, political and social meanings of music and sound in detention.

Interviewees are presented here with pseudonyms in line with the ethics protocols of the research projects Marie Skłodowska Curie Individual Fellowship MUSDEWAR 706016 (Horizon 2020) & MUSTERMAN 275542 (FP7), in the context of which the research was conducte d.


Banner: Tony Cokes
Still from Some Munich Moments, 1937–1972 (2022)
Commissioned by Haus der Kunst and Kunstverein München.Courtesy the artist, Greene Naftali, New York,
Hannah Hoffman, Los Angeles, FELIX GAUDLITZ, Vienna, and Electronic Arts Intermix, New York.

This Contribution was released with the support of Rudolf Augstein Stiftung, Bundesverband Soziokultur, Neustarthilfe, Beauftragte der Bundesregierung für Kultur und Medien.

    [1] Α. Ev. “Μουσική και πολιτισμός”, Σκαπανεύς Μακρονήσου, τεύχος 14, 02/1949, 12.
    [2] See Polymeris Voglis, Becoming a Subject: Political Prisoners During the Greek Civil War (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2002), 100–108.
    [3] Dorothy Thomson, «Mακρόνησος: Σταθμός Ανάρρωσης’ Ελλήνων Κομμουνιστών», Τα Νέα, 26-05-1949, 1; R. Runciman, “A Greek Concentration Camp: ‘The Makronesos Experiment’”, The Manchester Guardian, 17-08-1949.
    [4] Polymeris Voglis, 102.
    [5] Nikos Margaris, Ιστορία της Μακρονήσου v. 1 (Athens: 1982), 118, 123.
    [6] See Anna Papaeti, “Folk Music and the Cultural Politics of the Mili tary Junta in Greece (1967–1974)”, Mousikos Logos, v. 2 (2015), 51–60.
    [7] Tasoula Vernenioti, «Μακρονήσι: μαρτυρία και μαρτυρίες γυναικών», στο: Στρατής Μπουρνάζος και Τάσσος Σακελλαρόπουλος (eds), Ιστορικό τοπίο και ιστορική μνήμη: το παράδειγμα της Μακρονήσου (Athens, 2000), 109.



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