Greece Empowered: Marshall Plan Photography and the Construction of Post-War Greek Identity

Was “Greece Empowered” by the Marshall Plan (1948-1952)? This a relevant and daunting question, which a blog post will not do much justice to. Debate is still ongoing on the impact of the Marshall Plan (MP) on Europe as a whole, never mind the specific case of Greece. Yet, surveying the photographs produced by the Economic Cooperation Administration (ECA), the organisation administering the Marshall Plan, we are indeed left with the impression that Greece was empowered by the economic aid the MP offered. It is, however, not my intention to answer the question about the impact of the Marshall Plan on Greece. Rather, I use this question as a springboard to discuss the photography produced by the Marshall Plan in Greece and the ways in which photography can help us think about the past and the construction of Greek post-war identity.  

The images created by the ECA during the ERP (European Reconstruction Programme, the official name of the MP) are undeniably propagandistic. They aim to show how much progress Greece was making in reconstructing its economy and society, with a little help from across the Atlantic. Nevertheless, the photographs offer valuable insights into the narratives and strategies used by the US and the Greek state to form acceptable behaviours and identities.  

The main argument of my research is that the Greek Marshall Plan photography contributed to the formation of Greek national identity in the post-WWII era [*]. It does so outside of the traditional avenues of collective identity such as language, religion, history and folk tradition. These elements are rarely to be found in the Marshall Plan images, which is instead engaged in the present and in the future. Before I go on to discuss the identity construction at work in the images, let me briefly establish a context for this photography.  

The photography is matter-of-fact, documentary. Rarely does it veer off into excessive self-promotion. President Harry Truman’s ‘campaign of truth’ coupled with the US corporate marketing acumen employed by the ECA steered the imagery and the messaging into fact--based approaches. What was depicted ̶ or not depicted ̶ in the Marshall Plan imagery is therefore as interesting as how things were depicted.  

The images are structured as photographic essays, keeping to clear, linear narratives. The format can be summarized as follows: The ERP provided this equipment/funds and the Greek farmer/worker/refugee managed to use his/her own energies to accomplish X. Focus is almost exclusively on the labour and efforts of the Greeks.  

Most images have a caption and/or a press release that guides the viewer/reader through the visual narrative. The captions and press releases were often written in both English and Greek, allowing us to track the various slippages in meaning that occur between the texts. Although the texts stick to the same basic facts, certain translations and choice of words reveal underlying political and ideological positions. A reoccurring example is the language used to describe the close to 800 000 people displaced and forcibly relocated during the Greek Civil War. In English they are referred to as ‘refugees’ while in Greek they are referred to as ‘bandit stricken’ (symmoriopliktoi). The word choice in Greek reflects the tensions of the post-Civil War era and the anti-Communist policies employed by the Greek state at the time, undergirded by the US. In the English however, ‘refugee’ conveys some form of neutrality.  

This interplay of text and image allows for intertextual readings that can help us break through the propagandistic veneer of the photography. Behind this veneer lay the various processes, contradictions and power relations that suffused the US-Greek relations during the Marshall Plan. It is under this veneer where the site of national identity construction can be found and fruitfully analysed.  

The ERP as an ostensibly economic aid program produced photography that dealt with the economy. Industry, agriculture and infrastructure are common themes. The imagery is therefore future-facing and strives to show the modernisation of Greece and the construction of a productive society. Within this framework though, two important themes, history and the military, are missing.  

In my research of the Marshall Plan imagery, I focus on two key elements around which Greek collective identity construction can be detected in the Marshall Plan photography: self-help and technical progress.  

The self-help imagery focuses on human actors, on the refugees returning home after the end of the Civil War. This is a deliberate choice as it makes the identification with the narratives, the people and the goals of the Marshall Plan easier. In the many photographic essays devoted to this theme, we see Greeks rebuilding their homes and their lives, looking towards the future. The melioristic outlook is also expressed in the visual language, where the refugees and their better future are foregrounded while the past and its attendant destruction is confined to the background of the photographs. The spectre of anti-communism and the Internal Other in never far in the imagery of self-helping Greeks. Although these are refugees rebuilding their lives, they are above suspicion since they have been at the receiving end of the ‘communist bandits’. They are therefore not dangerous citizens. A gendered dimension is also at play in this nexus of self-help and anti-Communism. Women are more likely to be identified as victims of the ‘bandits’ while men are likely to be shown as soldiers in the fight against the internal Enemy. These are a few examples of the discursive boundaries of national identity and good citizenry that were constructed through photography by the US and Greek state.  

Amongst the Marshall Plan imagery showing technical progress, the electrification project that commenced in 1950 is notable. In this imagery, the visual language of the self-help images has been flipped. The future, symbolized by the thermoelectrical plant of Aliveri on Evia or the hydroelectrical plants in the Peloponnese and Epirus, are often placed in the background, hinting at the bright future towards which Greece is heading. In these same images we also see the creation of a new type of landscape, one associated with technical progress and modernity. The bucolic nature that often surrounds the electrical plants is being tamed and harnessed for the betterment of Greek society.  

In this short blog post, I have tried to briefly sketch out a few ways in which photography was used to influence the formation of national identity in post-war Greece. Although they are images of propaganda, the Marshall Plan photography enables an analysis of the ways through which Greek national identity developed and formed in the post-war period. Drawing on Siegfried Kracauer (1995), photography “help[s] us think through things”, helping us engage with the material conditions, ideological positions and destabilising contradictions that historical distance brings out in these images.  

 

[*]The images my research is based on are from the Hellenic Literary and Historical Archive in Athens. The collection of ca 500 images is not a complete collection of the Greek Marshall Plan photography.

 

References

Kracauer, Siegfried, and Kristeller, Paul Oskar. History : The Last Things before the Last. 1st American Pbk. ed. Princeton: M. Wiener, 1995.

 

Carl Mauzy is a PhD researcher in Modern Greek Studies at King’s College London. His research focuses on the intersection of Greek photography, Greek photographic archives and Greek national identity. 

 

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Two Greek workmen, carrying crude tools of their trade, inspect the fine alloy-steel blade on one of the new earth-boring trucks provided by the Marshall Plan. Credit: National Archives and Records Administration