Red Rocks of the Aegean: Greece’s Prison Islands

Article by Stephen Woodward. Edited by Paul Miller.

Throughout the twentieth century Greece regularly experienced political turmoil. Coups, civil war, occupation, military dictatorships, all peppered Greece throughout the century. All of these events also created large numbers of political prisoners. I have dealt previously with what happened to the children of those on the wrong side of authority in a previous issue of New Histories: http://newhistories.group.shef.ac.uk/wordpress/wordpress/?p=2734
However an equally traumatising fate awaited older Greeks considered politically undesirable who were incarcerated.

A now deserted prison block on the now equally deserted island of Gyaros.


The large numbers of political prisoners created by firstly the Monarchist vs. Communist Civil War of 1946-49 and secondly the right wing ruling Colonel’s Junta of 1967-74 meant that conventional prisons could not cope. The government therefore looked for alternatives to house such a large number of undesirables, settling on creating prison colonies on barren rocks in the Aegean. Greece as a country with over 3000 islands, yet only 224 of those are inhabited. Some of those originally uninhabited and invariably uninhabited today were chosen as points of exile for Greek political prisoners.

The islands of the Aegean have long been used as a place of exile.  The small barren rocky island of Gyaros had been used to this effect due to its stark isolation, which Tacitus and Juvenal had remarked upon. Gyaros was seen as the harshest of sentences; when the corrupt Roman proconsul Silanus was sent into exile, the Emperor Tiberius permitted him to be sent to nearby Kythnos instead as Gyaros was ‘harsh and devoid of human culture’. In the latter half of the twentieth century 22,000 men and women were sent into exile and imprisonment on Gyaros as once again these little barren islets of the Aegean became harsh points of exile.

In the twentieth century, many of those imprisoned for their left wing views had fought bravely in the resistance against the Germans when Greece was occupied during the Second World War. In some cases communist sympathisers had already spent long stints imprisoned. Antonis Flountzis had originally been detained by the right wing Metaxas dictatorship in 1937. When the axis powers toppled Greece in 1941, he was transferred first to Italian and then German custody, before eventually being released in 1944, shortly before the liberation of Athens. His freedom however was short-lived as in 1948 he was once again arrested by the government on the charge of being a communist, despite still never having had a criminal record. All in all Flountzis spent a harrowing 24 years in prison.

Prisoners and their tents on the island of Makronisos

One of the prisons Flountzis was interned in was on Makronissos. Makronissos, nothing much more than a 13km arid rock is now uninhabited. But from the time of the Greek Civil War in 1946 up until the fall of the Colonel’s junta in 1974 the island was used as a prison for an estimated 50,000 left wing political undesirables. The conditions on Makronissos can only be described as hellish. Reports of rape, assault and torture are widespread. Former army officers were forced to live in tents, which afforded little shade or solace from the heat, in a sun-baked gully for weeks at a time with scarce access to food and water. Elsewhere prisoners were forced into cages made from barbed wire designed to prevent inmates from even so much as standing up.

Many other islands were put to the same use. Ikaria was used as a less marshalled form of exile. Ikaria has had a long tradition with the radical left. In 1912 the islanders ousted the Ottoman garrison and declared itself a leftist free state. This lasted for 5 months, with Ikaria having its own stamps, armed forces and flag. It eventually became absorbed into Greece in November 1912. The government after the Second World War sent some 13,000 communists to Ikaria. To this day it retains a strong leftist streak, the KKE (the Greek communist party) regularly wins 35-45% of the vote.  In recent times the Greek Marxist terrorist organisation Revolutionary Organization 17 November (responsible since 1975 for the assassination of 23 American British and Greek political and military figures), had many members who hailed from the island. It is due to this strong current of communist tradition that Ikaria has come to be nicknamed ‘the red rock’.

Actress & politician Melina Mercouri

The use of Aegean islands for exile and imprisonment is often a forgotten aspect of Greece’s modern history. Few realise, as they bathe on the golden sands of islands surrounded by Homer’s wine dark sea, that this beautiful area of the world bore witness to such horrendous events. Many of these islands were left to dereliction, somewhat deliberately by the government. It was not until 1989 that former prison installations on Greece’s islands were protected by preservation orders, largely down to socialist minister and former actress Melina Mercouri who herself had fled the country during the 1967-74 junta. Greece’s concentration camps, like those of Nazi Germany must never be forgotten. They act as a warning to the dangers of oppression in the name of freedom and democracy. The rhetoric often employed against communists by various governments the world over has been that communists represent an assault on people’s freedom. Yet the suppression of followers of this political philosophy have arguably suffered some of the worst assaults on liberty in the past one hundred years.

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