“The roots of the nation lie in the fields […], for the present generation of Greeks […] it is necessary […] to thicken the nation’s rural roots […] and to intensify to the utmost limit the exploitation of agricultural resources”. Thus spoke the Minister of Agriculture of the Metaxas government in January 1937. The development of the countryside, the prosperity of the rural population, and the increase of agricultural production would save the country from the threat of the neighboring peoples, so it became (theoretically) a basic pillar of Metaxas’ policy.
The dictator’s anxiety
From the very first moment, Ioannis Metaxas was anxious to win the love and respect of Greek farmers. He came from a purely bourgeois family, but the propaganda mechanism of the state tried to transform him into a supporter of farmers all over the country. The brutal and merciless exploitation of the rural world by traditional politicians had to stop. Metaxas appeared as an “aristocrat with the soul of a peasant or a farmer, a man of the earth who was fully aware of the great national strength hiding in the Greek soil.
The First Peasant
To express his support for the peasants, Metaxas went on frequent journeys and trips to the countryside. He used his visits to the provinces to express his faith in the holy mission of Greek farmers. The future of the homeland was in their hands because they constituted the only class that extracted wealth out of nothing. Among the measures taken by his government were the reduction of agrarian debts, the abolition of the tax on olive oil and the granting of full property titles to the land allotted to small farmers and refugees from Asia Minor. On July 1, 1937, the people of Argos used a celebration to present Metaxas with a silver cup full of grain, as they proclaimed him the First Peasant.
Eleusis had benefited for millennia from the fertility of the Thriasian Plain. The Ottomans had barely left when the inhabitants of the surrounding mountains sowed wheat in the lowlands. In 1850 the scholar Iakovos Rizos Ragavis described Eleusis as a dirty village in an arid and inhospitable site, but he couldn’t fail to notice how the surrounding countryside maintained its traditional fecundity that resulted in plentiful crops of wheat, barley, olive oil, and some wine.
This age-old tradition was one of the reasons that on Sunday, June 6, 1937, the Federation of Tourist Associations of Greece organized a symbolic celebration of the harvest at the site “Kalo Pigadi” outside Eleusis. Teachers, poets, and doctors expanded on the importance of cultivating the land in a series of events in the surrounding villages. At 6 pm the Metropolitan of Attica and Megaris blessed the crops and proceeded to the symbolic harvesting of a field in the presence of the Minister of Agriculture. There were speeches from the attending officials and Ms. Poupa Kokkinaki recited two poems by Kostas Krystallis. The music professor at the Fifth Male High School of Athens, Theodoros Papaspyropoulos, sang various traditional songs in the accompaniment of folk music instruments (“Who ever saw such a miracle”, “Karagouna” and “Chryso and her mother”), while the municipal philharmonic of Eleusis entertained the crowd during the numerous breaks. At 8 pm, girls with local costumes danced on the beach, before thousands of spectators who spent the whole night enjoying themselves at seaside resorts.
The Eleusis harvest festival was a typical event of the Metaxas era. Photographers recorded the event with countless photographs that could be used by the press or in special official editions. The clergy and the ministers are surrounded by a reverential crowd watching the proceedings. The Deputy Minister of Press and Tourism, Theologos Nikoloudis, stands smiling among two women from Eleusis dressed in their traditional apparel and holding two bundles of harvested cereal stems.
Urban residents and workers participate in the celebration in recognition of the decisive contribution of agriculture to the common national prosperity. What is not seen (though it was an integral part of the regime’s philosophy and practice behind these “spontaneous” celebrations) is the significant financial contribution that the community itself had to pay for organizing the celebration. The decorations, the banquet for the officials, as well as the compensation for the destruction of the field and the remuneration of the reapers, cost 25000 drachmas, an exorbitant amount at the time.
…and the stick.
While Nikoloudis celebrated the fertility of the land, the Metaxas government destroyed the rural traditions of the Thriasian Plain. The establishment of an airport in 1937 led to a dramatic decline in production since large areas of arable land were confiscated without compensation from their owners for the needs of the military base. Within a year Eleusis lost 70% of its agricultural production capacity. The First Farmer‘s choices expelled most of the Eleusinian farmers from their land and forced them to become factory workers, despite the emotional upheaval and the curses of the people who lost their livelihood. It was a sad and abrupt end of a tradition dating back to the years when the gods walked on earth and conversed with the mortals.