ATHENS — As protests swirled in Athens during the Greek financial crisis, a silver-haired octogenarian could be seen on the front lines, raising a fist at the riot police as they shot tear gas into his face.
Other times, even on the same day, the same man might be standing in front of Parliament, insisting that lawmakers repudiate an austerity package demanded by the country’s creditors, which he said would only throw Greece into greater hardship.
It was not the first time that the man, Manolis Glezos, at 92 a celebrated Greek freedom fighter, had taken to the ramparts to fight for his beliefs. For more than 70 years, he has taken an activist’s role in the most critical moments of Greece’s modern history.
For his trouble, Mr. Glezos has gotten three death sentences; 12 years in prison, where he was tortured; and four years in exile.
Today, he is an iconic figure in Greece, a leftist who transcends ideology and a national symbol of resistance — beginning in 1941, when he and a friend, Apostolos Santas, ripped down the Nazi flag from the Acropolis, risking death as Hitler’s forces conquered Athens.
That brazen act was telegraphed the world over and inspired millions during one of Europe’s darkest hours. A snowy mane has replaced the brown locks of Mr. Glezos’ youth, and his powerful frame is now stooped. But his steel-gray eyes still burn with conviction, especially when he recalls his foray to the Acropolis.
“We had absolute consciousness that it was a historic moment,” Mr. Glezos said one recent weekend at his home in an Athens suburb, where he greeted a reporter with a viselike handshake. “No struggle for what you believe in is ever futile.”
He has turned up the volume on that message with his latest fight against German-led austerity in Greece, which has gotten him pepper-sprayed, hospitalized and arrested. His platform won him a landslide election victory in May representing Greece’s leftist party Syriza in the European Parliament, where he began work this month as its oldest lawmaker.
“Across Europe, I keep hearing the same theme,” Mr. Glezos said. “People are saying, ‘I don’t want others deciding my future for me.’ ”
AFTER the strife of the last century, he said, Europe has made great strides in securing peace. Nonetheless, he argued that European democracy had been tempered by the power of an elite few, and that the resurgence of far-right groups, including the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party in Greece, posed new threats.
“What I want is to make sure that people can decide their own fate,” Mr. Glezos said.
It was a point he planned to press in Brussels, along with what he called an “anti-government, anti-system and anti-troika” message, referring to the three international lenders that gave Greece two multibillion-dollar bailouts in exchange for tough austerity measures. Mr. Glezos claims those terms benefited banks while crushing living conditions for average Greeks.
Occasionally, Mr. Glezos can sound extreme, even within the Syriza party, which once threatened to take Greece out of the eurozone. He rails about Germany’s “colonization” of Europe and has demanded that Berlin pay Greece war reparations of up to a trillion euros, much more than the entire cost of Greece’s bailout.
Yet if Mr. Glezos is strident, it is because he believes that “forces of oppression” should not prevail, a conviction that gripped him the moment he and Mr. Santas sneaked into the Acropolis.
That night the two men, then 18, crept into a cave beneath the Acropolis, armed with only a lantern and a knife, and silently made their way to the flagpole while unsuspecting German officers drank toasts near the Parthenon to celebrate Hitler’s takeover of Crete. After bringing down the Nazi flag, they cut it into pieces and buried it in a hole. When Mr. Glezos returned home, his mother grabbed him and demanded to know where he had been.
“I opened up my shirt and pulled out a piece of the swastika,” Mr. Glezos recalled. “I showed it to her and said, ‘That’s where I was.’ Without saying a word, she hugged me and left.”
The next day, Mr. Glezos’ stepfather asked his mother what her son had been doing. “Look at the Acropolis, and you will know,” his mother replied. A few hours later, the Nazis announced the death penalty for the perpetrators.
“That was my first act of resistance, and I knew there would be others,” recalled Mr. Glezos, who was captured by the Germans in 1942 and thrown in prison.
His death sentence was commuted, but he was jailed the next year by Italian occupation forces and again two years later by Greek Nazi collaborators. When he tried to escape, he received a life-threatening beating.
AFTER World War II, Greece descended into a four-year civil war pitting the new government against the Communist fighters who had resisted the Nazi occupation. Mr. Glezos sided with the Communists, a role that earned him two more death sentences in 1948, which were reduced to life imprisonment amid an international outcry.
While in jail, Mr. Glezos was elected to Parliament. But in 1958, he was arrested again on charges of spying for the Soviet Union, which retaliated symbolically against Greece by putting Mr. Glezos’ face on a postage stamp.
He went into exile in 1967 after a military government came to power in Greece. After democracy was restored in 1974, Mr. Glezos joined leftist movements and eventually ran on the Panhellenic Socialist Movement ticket in elections in the 1980s.
“I never set out to become a hero,” he said. “I have always followed my convictions.”
He paused as he reflected on what had driven him to continue in the face of death, imprisonment, torture and exile.
“Before every act of resistance that my friends and I ever took for freedom, we said, ‘If one of us dies tomorrow, never forget me,’ ” he recalled.
“Instilled in that phrase,” Mr. Glezos continued, “was the idea that, if someone didn’t make it, whenever I walked in the woods and heard the wind in the leaves, I would also hear it for them. If I was on the beach and heard the waves crashing on the sand, I listened for them. When I drank wine, I savored it on their behalf.”
He picked up a sheaf of crayon sketches of him and Mr. Santas holding the Greek flag drawn by children at schools across Greece, where the story of how the two men took down the Nazi flag is still taught in every class.
“What you see standing before you is not just one person, but all of my comrades who are no longer with us,” Mr. Glezos said.
“This is what keeps me going. I have to keep living and fighting and struggling for them.”
Dimitris Bounias contributed reporting.
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