A Political Suicide and the Return of the Greek Left

The results of yesterday’s Greek elections, which the radical left coalition, SYRIZA, won in an historic landslide, reminded me of a humble pharmacist named Dimitris Christoulas. What follows is an excerpt from an essay I wrote in his honor back in 2012.

I hope his spirit rests a little better today.

A sign posted on the tree where Dimitris Christoulas shot himself in 2012. "In memory of the thousands who lost their lives in an undeclared economic war."
A sign posted on the tree where Dimitris Christoulas shot himself in 2012. “In memory of the thousands who lost their lives in an undeclared economic war.”

It was a Wednesday when I read about the suicide. At 8:45 am on the morning of April 4 2012, 77-year-old Dimitris Christoulas killed himself amidst a rush of morning commuters near a metro station in front of the Greek Parliament. I choked on tears when I finished the article.

I was probably surfing the Internet, perendinating as usual. I’d just returned from a research trip to Bulgaria, and had been unceremoniously rocket launched into the second half of my spring semester. On top of writing lectures, teaching, grading, and supervising my students, I had four composition books full of hand-written fieldnotes that needed to be transcribed. But I was restless and feeling depressed about the world of academic knowledge production.

Probably my existential mood made the news of the suicide afflict me so deeply. Mr. Christoulas had leaned his head against a cypress tree. It meant he considered the logistics before he pulled the trigger. He knew that his head might jerk away from the force of the bullet. The cypress tree provided the answer. I imagined him with one temple pressed against the bark and the other temple pressed beneath the barrel of the handgun. I could see his body crumpling to the ground in Syntagma Square, the blood from his head soaking into the spring grass still wet with the fresh morning dew. It would be Orthodox Easter soon. Despite the divine reference in his surname, there would be no resurrection for Mr. Christoulas.

Hearing the gunshot, stunned onlookers rushed to his body. A suicide note in his pocket read:

The Tsolakoglou government has annihilated all traces for my survival, which was based on a very dignified pension that I alone paid for 35 years with no help from the state. And since my advanced age does not allow me a way of dynamically reacting (although if a fellow Greek were to grab a Kalashnikov, I would be right behind him), I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life, so I don’t find myself fishing through garbage cans for my sustenance. I believe that young people with no future, will one day take up arms and hang the traitors of this country at Syntagma square, just like the Italians did to Mussolini in 1945.

Mr. Christoulas was a patriot, and he coded his suicide note with the patriotic references he knew his countrymen would understand. The Tsolakoglou government referred to Georgios Tsolakoglou, the Greek prime minister who collaborated with the Nazis during WWII. The Tsolakoglou government worked the Germans after they occupied Greece and cooperated with the eventual deportation of the Greek Jews to death camps in Poland. To modern Greeks, this comparison of the wartime collaborationist government with the then current Greek government headed by Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, made a clear political statement. Prime Minister Papademos was once again collaborating with the Germans to destroy Greece and her people.

The suicide sparked a renewed groundswell of unrest in Athens. Within hours of his death, Greek citizens began placing flowers near the tree where he shot himself. They also left notes of condolence and of protest. “This is not suicide,” one note read, “This is murder by the state.” Another note read, “Austerity kills.” The tree quickly became a shrine. Thousands of Greek citizens came to visit the death site of the Eurozone crisis’s first self-acknowledged martyr.

In the summer of 2013, the tree where Christoulas shot himself was still spray painted red.
In the summer of 2013, the tree where Christoulas shot himself was still spray painted red.

Mr. Christoulas had been a pharmacist. He sold his pharmacy in 1994 when he retired. His neighbors said he was a cheerful man and he was an upstanding member of the local community. In recent months he’d grown increasingly angry. The Greek economic crisis had already been going on for two years, and he participated in the protests against the Greek government as they acquiesced to austerity measures imposed on them by the Germans and the EU, against the will of the Greek people.

The Eurozone teetered on the brink of collapse. To save it, the Greeks swallowed huge cuts in government salaries, pensions and health benefits while enduring higher taxes to balance their budget, a classic IMF cocktail for human suffering. This medicine was being forced down the Greeks’ throat so German and other creditors could justify the massive transfer of bailout funds to keep Greece from defaulting on its sovereign debt. Europe’s economic elites wanted to prevent a Greek default at all costs, believing that the world economy would collapse if Greece repudiated its debts and left the Eurozone. The suffering of pensioners like Mr. Christoulas was the cost of saving the global economy.

By April of 2012, observers were raising questions about how the Greek debt had been incurred. Growing international pressure called for an external audit committee to examine exactly where the money had gone. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal Europe found evidence that while the German government imposed austerity on the Greek people to cut government spending, German and French companies pressured Greek officials to authorize the purchase of billions of dollars worth of military hardware. German arms manufacturers lobbied their government to ensure that forced cuts in military spending were not included in the austerity cocktail. Even as payments to Greek pensioners like Mr. Christoulas were slashed by 25 percent, Greece signed a contract for two German submarines costing 1.8 billion euros.

Mr. Christoulas had done everything right. All he was asking for was the pension that he’d paid into for 35 years. He had medical problems, and the retired pharmacist could no longer afford his medication. His fear that he would end up dumpster diving for food was not hyperbole. I knew it was the reality of many retired people in nearby Bulgaria. Whenever I saw those dignified pensioners, in their clean pressed clothes, searching around with sticks in the trash, I became sick with anger. These people worked all of their lives. They’d paid into a system that they were told would take care of them in old age. History betrayed them.

The newspaper stories about Mr. Christoulas’s suicide continued for several days. I read them like an addict. The funeral service was held on Saturday, April 7, 2012. Hundreds of mourners came to pay tribute to Christoulas whose singular, desperate act might mobilize a nation. Greeks chanted the word “hero” as the memorial service proceeded. Christoulas’s 43-year-old daughter spoke to the crowd with a tinge of anger mixed in with her grief:

Father, you couldn’t put up with them killing freedom, democracy, dignity. You paid with your sacrifice. Now it’s our turn. Father … We are so many here today because – as the note of a young man said – ‘We are 11 million and our name is Resistance.”

This was a metaphorical call to arms, but I wondered what would happen. What would come of this very public suicide, so well planned as the last political act of a man at his wit’s end? Would his death mean something? Or was he just another forgotten victim of a global economic system that perennially values bankers’ profits over human lives?

Mr. Dimitris Christoulas wasn’t buried on Saturday, April 7, 2012. He wanted to be cremated. The Greek Orthodox Christian tradition doesn’t allow for cremation. Even worse, the Greek Orthodox priests who officiate at burials would have refused to bury Mr. Christoulas because he was a suicide. The Church condemns those that take their own lives. Instead, his coffin was bourn away at the end of the ceremony, and sent north to Bulgaria, the country with the highest suicide rate in Europe.

The Bulgarians would cremate him. Perhaps a Bulgarian Orthodox priest would even bless his soul despite the suicide. God would have to see that this one was different. Surely, He could make an exception. Somewhere in Bulgaria, I imagined the smoke from Christoulas’s pyre seeping out into the early spring air. Perhaps a few of his ashes would fall like dandelion seeds into the fertile soils of popular discontent in the Balkans. Perhaps Dimitris Christoulas would have a kind of resurrection after all.